Paris. -- The great powers' "peace ultimatum" to the Bosnian combatants, announced last week in Geneva, has already provoked American criticisms that it abandons the moral principle that aggression and ethnic cleansing should not be rewarded.
The elaborate plan for geographical and ethnic partition of Bosnia inside its existing state boundaries, issued by the United States, France, Britain, Germany and Russia, awards the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia a considerable part of the territory it has seized by force and purged of Muslims and Croats through terror.
However, those Americans who criticize President Clinton and other Western leaders for agreeing to this plan are mostly those who also refuse to have the United States, or anyone else, conduct the military operations necessary to correct its injustices. In the absence of an American commitment to reverse ethnic cleansing, the criticisms are unwarranted. This plan is the only one on the table.
Much is wrong with it. It quite possibly will prove stillborn. If it survives, the survival will be feeble. However, it is the only program the major powers have been able to agree on, and the only one they have committed themselves to enforce with peace-keepers and air power.
That promise may be doubtful in the American case, despite the commitments given by the Clinton administration. While Congress takes a strong line on arming Bosnians, it takes a different line on putting American troops at possible risk. There is already a disagreeable element of demagogy in congressional calls for unilateral U.S. renunciation of the arms embargo on Bosnia that ignore the vulnerable situation of the relief agencies and U.N. troops deployed there.
There will be no unambiguous "yes" to this plan from any side. The Serbs may reject it outright. The Bosnian Serb authorities would themselves undoubtedly prefer to give an evasive response so as to escape the threatened reprisals. However, they will be under pressure from local Serb leaders and military commanders to refuse agreement. The plan requires them to give up a third of the 70 percent of Bosnia's territory the Serbs now control.
Even if Serbs, Croats and the Sarajevo government all accept the plan, they cannot be expected to respect it, except when to do so suits the interests of all. A Bosnian government official has said, "We'll sign and then ignore the agreement. That's what everyone has done in this war so far." He is perfectly correct, and that is what is likely to happen. But that still would mean muted war in place of all-out war.
The plan's demand that refugees and the "ethnically cleansed" be allowed to return to their homes will certainly not be respected. This is one of the flagrant hypocrisies embedded in the plan. The Serbs have not gone to the trouble to drive non-Serbs out of regions claimed for Serbia only to meekly admit them back, at foreign behest. But what Muslim would want to go home, if the Serbs are in control? The Muslims nonetheless are not going to give up their claim to cities where they once were the majority.
This plan must be seen as a program for a pause in the war, not for peace. A pause suits the major powers because it will get the problem off the television and front pages, and appease public opinion. President Clinton is not the only head of government under public and legislative pressure to solve the war without inconvenience to the public or the necessity for politically compromising votes by legislators.
However, it is necessary to ask if all the powers involved in drafting this plan are willing to apply the measures threatened in the case of Serb rejection. If the arms embargo is lifted and NATO employs air power against Serb violations of U.N. exclusion zones, the war will enlarge and the Serbian national army could again become involved. The now-familiar scenarios by which the war spills over into Serbia itself, and then beyond, will again be relevant.
Faced with this prospect, will the European governments really agree to lift the embargo? Would they really withdraw their U.N.-committed forces to let the carnage proceed unimpeded? What would the Russian government do? It has been solidly cooperative until now, despite the reproaches of Radovan Karadjzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, that Russia has failed its duty to its "Slav and Christian Orthodox brothers."
However, this plan is the only game in town. That is the salient fact. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., has said that this is not a plan "this president or this nation will want to be remembered as having been any party to." What alternative does he offer? If there is to be even a pause in the war, this is how it will happen.
Otherwise, peace in the short term is out of the question, and peace in the long term will come only -- as someone who was there said of the first world war -- when one of the two last heroes on the two sides, grappling with knives, teeth and fingernails, has finished off the other.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.