Bosnian Serb defiance Peace process at risk: Rome summit of Balkan leaders fails to ease tensions.

February 20, 1996

IT TOOK LESS than a day for a summit aimed at energizing the Bosnia peace accords to founder on the fears and intransigence of the Bosnian Serbs. The presidents of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia had dutifully attended the Rome meeting, where they agreed, among other things, that a Bosnian Serb general would report renew contacts with NATO forces aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier. Instead, Gen. Zdravko Tolimir did a no-show.

A weak link all along in the Dayton accords has been the potential non-compliance of the Bosnian Serbs. They have been officially represented not by their own leaders but by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who has thrown in his lot with an international community that has branded Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic as war criminals.

"I can assure you that his political masters wanted him here," snapped U.S. Adm. Leighton Smith, head of the Bosnia military operation, after he was stood up by General Tolimir. But one has to wonder if Bosnian Serb leaders any longer regard Mr. Milosevic as their master. In a further act of defiance, they are urging their people to flee Sarajevo suburbs now passing into the control of the Muslim-led Bosnian government. Partition remains triumphant.

These dismaying developments should not come as a surprise. At the same time U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke was trying to get the peace process back on track, his fellow assistant secretary of state, John Shattuck, was proclaiming: "[Karadzic and Mladic] must be detained and arrested and brought to justice. Full Stop."

While there is little doubt these two Bosnian Serb butchers fully deserve punishment for unspeakable atrocities, the United States should take care not to let the pursuit of war criminals bring the peace process to a full stop. While the State Department adheres to the Shattuck line, the Pentagon is wary of "mission creep" that could lead to a Somalia-style disaster.

President Clinton would probably be content to have the 60,000 international troops now deployed in the Balkans keep the lid on until their scheduled withdrawal after the November elections. But having committed U.S. prestige to this struggle, he cannot be so indulged. Coherent policy from the top is required.

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