WASHINGTON -- The Bosnian Serb leader's endorsement of a peace plan yesterday moves the United States a big step closer to deploying ground forces in the Balkans with, up to now, no clear public explanation from the Clinton administration of how dangerous their mission will be.
The United States committed itself in February to helping enforce any peace agreement accepted by Bosnia's warring Serbs, Croats and Muslims.
If the hard-line Bosnian Serb parliament approves the peace plan, it will test U.S. resolve in backing that enforcement promise.
The military options now being set forth by the United States -- bombing Serbian artillery and supply lines and lifting the arms embargo on outgunned Bosnian Muslims -- may prove far less dangerous than the peacemaking mission U.S. forces would join if the Serbs go along with the peace plan.
The question of how to implement the peace plan "obviously is going to have to be considered again very urgently" in consultations with Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher this week, a West European diplomat here said yesterday. "This will concentrate minds."
The plan, drafted by Lord Owen, the European Community negotiator, and former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, the United Nations envoy, calls for the Bosnian Serbs to trade the 70 percent of Bosnian territory they currently control for 43 percent.
If the plan moves ahead, President Clinton will have to confront several questions. Among them:
* How much military pressure is he prepared to exert to make sure the Serbs surrender territory?
Mr. Christopher on Saturday, in demanding that Serbs follow up the signing of the Vance-Owen pact with action on the ground that proved their seriousness, omitted any requirement that they give up land.
His statement implied that the Serbs could avoid U.S. bombs simply by stopping the shelling of cities, honor a cease-fire and permit humanitarian aid to move forward.
* Will a U.N. peacekeeping force be equipped and empowered to make the Serbs abandon towns and villages they refuse to leave voluntarily? And if not, will the United States acquiesce in letting the Serbs keep this territory, effectively shredding the punitive provisions of the Vance-Owen plan?
* What will be the U.S. component in a peacekeeping force? U.S. officials have refused to state on the record that ground troops would be deployed, dismissing such questions as hypothetical.
But Vice President Al Gore acknowledged yesterday that this is "within the range of possibilities," and Pentagon officials and NATO planners have gone much further, preparing for a force that includes a full U.S. division, with tens of thousands more troops on rotation in a commitment lasting for years.
* If fighting resumes and the peace plan collapses, will the United States withdraw its peacekeepers? Lord Owen said in a U.S. television interview yesterday that as part of a U.N. "blue-beret" force, the United States could in fact withdraw with out compromising its "virility."
The overriding question that the United States and its allies will face, a European diplomat said, is one of "is there a peace there to keep, or one there to enforce." The greater the difficulty in enforcement, the more that "we will back where we are at the moment," he said.
A senior administration official, interviewed by The Sun yesterday, deferred to the U.N. Security Council when he was asked about the next specific steps in implementing the peace plan.
If the Serbian Parliament approves the Vance-Owen plan, the two mediators are likely late this week to seek a Security Council resolution that would implement it.
This would include a process, worked out by NATO, "whereby the international community monitors compliance with lines on the [Vance-Owen] map."
Reference to the "international community" obscures the increasing leadership role the United States has been forced to assume by European inaction.
Mr. Clinton has yet to specify publicly the limited military steps he plans to pressure the Serbs into accepting the peace plan if they balk after Wednesday. He has publicly distanced himself even further from the longer-term implications of his commitment in February.
Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who is likely to have been briefed as thoroughly as anyone outside the executive branch, said yesterday that the implementation of the Vance-Owen plan "raises really great questions."