Tensions over Bosnia Peace accord stymied: Serbs cut contacts to protest arrest of military personnel.

February 11, 1996

MUSLIMS ARREST two Serb officers facing war crimes indictments.

NATO condemns the arrests.

The International War Crimes Tribunal welcomes them.

The White House waffles.

Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic cuts off all contacts with NATO, bars Serb civilians from crossing into Muslim or Croat territory.

Russia sides with its Serb cousins.

European negotiators wring their hands.

With the peace process on hold, the U.S. sends trouble-shooter Richard Holbrooke back to the Balkans, arriving today.

What's going on? The devils and the details of the Dayton peace accord are rising up to plague the U.S.-led military intervention in Bosnia. There is little doubt the multi-national Implementation Force, 60,000 strong and heavily armed, can crush any hell-raising by the ethnic armies of the former Yugoslavia and keep them apart. But whether outside powers can force civilian authorities to cooperate or Serbs, Croats and Muslims to stop hating one another is something else. Centuries of enmity do not yield easily to reason or diplomacy.

The Dayton accords were designed to maintain communications among all factions and outside powers on the scene. They were to assure unfettered movement of people. With the Mladic edict, both objectives are stymied. It will be Ambassador Holbrooke's task to bully all sides into compliance -- if he can.

As an intervening nation, the United States is bound to put on a show of even-handedness in Bosnia. But its tilt in favor of the Muslim-led government in Sarajevo is as evident as the Russian support of the Serbian cause. Big power cooperation in Bosnia is product of the overall American-Russian relationship, not of any commonality of interests in the area.

Other contradictions in the Dayton accord are evident. While the proclaimed objective is a unified multi-ethnic Bosnia, the practical effect is ethnic partition. While the international community seeks to set a precedent for effective peace enforcement, the scheduled departure of American troops within year puts this prospect in doubt. While Serb compliance is essential, the threat of war crimes trials for its highest officials is a disincentive.

Meanwhile, Bosnia haunts the U.S. election scene. President Clinton is obviously hoping that U.S. troops will keep reasonable order until the election. But none of his would-be Republican opponents has given the Bosnian intervention support and most have condemned it. This is reason enough to expect the U.S. clampdown on belligerency in Bosnia will be enforced, regardless of present complications.

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