Belgrade. -- Anyone wondering why Western diplomats seem to be settling for so little in the latest proposals for peace in Bosnia ought to think of the mission as a shopping trip from hell.
All the bargains are long gone, snatched away while everybody argued over who'd pick up the tab. The only things still worth buying are way too expensive, leaving only the flimsy stuff guaranteed to break the moment it's out of the store.
Everybody in the Western world is standing by the door, pointing to the clock and demanding a purchase, while whispering low, "Make it nice, but keep it cheap."
Got the picture?
One Western diplomat who's pondered virtually every possible solution from his perch in Belgrade, said, "I think you could take any solution that's offered and find major flaws in it. You have to remind yourself that all the alternatives are bad."
The more one examines the various options being discussed, the more the diplomat appears to be right. No practical solution, it seems, is free of serious problems, no matter what some politicians might want the world to believe.
But this doesn't mean that everybody doesn't have favorite choices from among the list of losers.
The pessimistic Western diplomat is no exception. He'd still like to see the United States and Europe find a way to arm the Muslims. He argues that making the Muslims more militarily competitive with the Serbs and the Croats would quickly bring the fighting to a stalemate, in the same way that the Croats eventually fought the Serbs to a draw once the Croats regrouped and re-armed.
"You stop violence by changing the military balance," he said.
The Serbs, however, would hate the plan. So would the Croats. That alone might be enough to guarantee its failure. And any number of other diplomats and analysts say the idea is lunacy because it only guarantees a more even distribution of bloodshed and atrocities.
Besides, they say, it's too late to arm the Muslims. The land corridors are virtually shut, and the job would have to be done through the air. In a region where a no-fly zone is in effect, the strategy would re-open one of the few issues that has been put to rest.
What, then, of the current favored plan, which in broad terms lets the Serbs keep some of their territorial gains while leaving the Muslims in so-called safe enclaves, virtually at the mercy of future diplomatic efforts.
Analysts who favor cold pragmatism tend to prefer this approach, which seems to call for minimal diplomacy in the early going. They reason that if somebody has to be an aggrieved party -- and in Bosnia no workable plan would please everybody -- then it might as well be the side with the least means of disrupting it.
That would be the Muslims. They've got the fewest guns.
The Serbs, seemingly the guiltiest party of the three when it comes to brutality and war crimes, have hailed the plan as a breath of fresh air from the once-stubborn West, a reaction that many diplomats find embarrassing.
This has set off the critics who say the plan is a reward for bad behavior.
Milos Vasic, military analyst for Vreme, the Belgrade independent news weekly, said: "They [the Serbs] got away with the war in Croatia. They're getting away with the war in Bosnia. They are having great fun with all these people in the West. Raw power wins. It is nothing different from the last 10,000 years of history."
So much for the new world order.
One diplomat argued even more strenuously against the plan. "Even if it stops the fighting more quickly, there comes a point when morality has to count for something in all this, unless you believe that right or wrong have no place in this process."
Svetozar Stojanovic, chief adviser to the president of Yugoslavia, differs with all this talk of morality.
"Why is it so terrible that in a civil war the stronger side wins?" he demands. "That was your experience in the American Civil War. The North was stronger than the South, and that was that."
OK, the Western diplomat responded, willing to argue on strictly pragmatic grounds for a moment. Even on that level, he said, the plan is seriously flawed, especially if later diplomacy fails to free millions of Muslims from their refugee nightmare.
"Can you imagine 2 million Muslims living for the rest of their lives in European refugee camps that look like the Gaza Strip, just passing it off by saying, 'Well, that's life.' The kids who are between the ages of 10 and 20 right now will be terrorists for the rest of their lives."
Already, he said, the plan has strengthened the position of the radicals among the Bosnian Muslims, who so far have been easily blunted.
"And now all these people [Muslims] who had been saying, 'We should be talking to Iran, not to the United States,' they are all looking very smart."
Just relax, says Mr. Stojanovic, the Yugoslav presidential adviser. The Serbs will recognize that the Muslims must eventually be accommodated at the bargaining table. He
envisions a series of swaps evolving, both at the larger level, with large chunks of land being bartered, and at the smaller level, house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood -- a sort of mutually-agreeable, treaty-sanctioned ethnic cleansing.
But the Muslims aren't the only ones who might respond with radicalism, some say. Some fear the plan will strengthen the radicals on all three sides.
Amid all the pessimism, there is one plan out there that almost everybody thinks would stop the fighting and keep the peace.
"The only solution that will work is total military occupation, followed by disarmament of all the parties," Mr. Vasic said. "And then maybe you would have to have a continued presence for as long as six or seven years."
That, of course, would cost way too much, both in money and political will. None of the countries that would be expected to lead the way -- chiefly the United States -- has anywhere near the political climate that would allow for such extravagance.
But the price of not fixing the mess in Bosnia once and for all could be even greater in the long run.
Who's to say, for instance, that the Serbian war effort will simply grind to a halt just because a peace plan is accepted.
"If you look at a lot of the Serbian army, regular and irregular, it's kind of a lumpen class of people who've been living off murder and pillage for the last two years," one diplomat said. "Do you really expect that they will just pack up and go home? And if they do go home, these are people who didn't have jobs to begin with. You've already got an economy that is strained. You could soon be looking at the prospect of anarchy in Serbia, no matter what the proposal. Then what happens?"
The real shame, almost everyone agrees, is that there once were some bargain-basement solutions, such as smaller-scale intervention that might have stopped the fighting before it got out of hand.
But at the time, those, too, seemed way too expensive. What the peacemakers fret about the most is, will the overly expensive options of today also seem cheap by comparison at some horrible moment far down the road?
Dan Fesperman is a correspondent for The Baltimore Sun.