U.S. grabs the reins in Bosnia


WASHINGTON -- A crucial new element is driving the suddenly more aggressive allied pursuit of peace in Bosnia: United States leadership, both military and diplomatic.

After nearly four years of feckless Western diplomacy and limited airstrikes, analysts see the Clinton administration seizing the moment both to propose a formula for negotiations and to fill the airspace over Bosnia with U.S.-led attack jets.

"Power talks," said Dov S. Zakheim, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The United States, essentially since World War II, has been the one that can take the lead and get the allies to follow."

This was dramatically demonstrated when President George Bush mobilized the international coalition to face down Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf war.

But in Bosnia, until now, there has been disagreement among such close allies as Britain, France and the United States, and conflict and confusion between the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

'Problem from hell'

The result: What Secretary of State Warren Christopher once termed "the problem from hell" has remained just that -- a tragic and bloody conflict, defying resolution.

It is still far from resolved. But inside and outside the administration, there is optimism that the tide is now turning rapidly against bloodletting and toward peacemaking.

"We have to resist the temptation to be a little bit euphoric because there is good news for a change out of Bosnia," said Nicholas Burns, the State Department spokesman.

"We have taken a few steps this week toward peace, and that is very gratifying, and that is good news. But we have a long, long way to go."

Two dynamics are at play, both of them in the hands of the Clinton administration:

* Military action. Although the strike plan was drawn up in NATO headquarters, not at the Pentagon, U.S. planes are flying about 90 percent of the missions over Bosnia.

Adm. Leighton W. Smith of the U.S. Navy, as commander in chief of allied forces in Southern Europe, is leading the operation.

The decision to launch air attacks was eased by the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers from target areas.

The fear that they could be seized as hostages by the Bosnian Serbs had restricted earlier options.

The immediate goal is to destroy the Bosnian Serb capacity to wage war against civilians. The ultimate goal, however, is to force the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table.

"We have a military objective which will support the political objective," said Norman Cigar, a professor of national security studies at the Marine Corps School of Advanced War Fighting in Quantico, Va.

"I think this is the best way to convince the Bosnian Serbs that they cannot continue with their military strategy. We are at a turning point."

Stressing that he was giving his personal opinion -- he is a government employee -- Mr. Cigar said the bolder American stance is "making a tremendous difference."

He pointed out that both Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, had said that "the one country that matters is the United States."

Russia a weak player

"They have written off long ago Russia as a weak player that will go along but cannot be counted on," Mr. Cigar said.

The Russians, who have ethnic and religious ties to the Serbs, have condemned both the Allied airstrikes and the deadly attack on a marketplace in Sarajevo that provoked them. But administration officials do not expect Russia to try to block progress toward a peaceful settlement.

For now, administration officials are awaiting a signal from the Serbs.

"We are simply asking that they accept the reality of the war, that the war has turned, the tide of the war has turned against them," said Mr. Burns, the State Department spokesman.

* Diplomatic action. The administration is aggressively pushing a new peace plan.

Yesterday, the administration's chief Bosnia negotiator, Richard C. Holbrooke, was in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, for talks with the leaders there.

Today, Mr. Holbrooke will be in Belgrade, Serbia's capital, to meet President Milosevic. Tomorrow he is off to Germany for a meeting of the five-nation international Contact Group on Bosnia, and on Sunday he will brief the North Atlantic Council, the political arm of NATO. He will stay in Europe next week to continue his shuttle diplomacy.

Officials have refused to discuss details of the plan, other than to say it confirms the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a single state, giving 51 percent of Bosnia to the Muslim-Croat federation and 49 percent to the Serbs, and guaranteeing the rights of all residents.

According to reports from Europe, the new formula slightly shifts the territorial divisions in a previously proposed settlement, giving the Bosnian Muslims more land -- and security -- around Sarajevo and recognizing the Bosnian Serb conquest of Srebrenica and Zepa.

One heartening factor is that Dr. Karadzic has authorized Mr. Milosevic to be the chief negotiator for all Serbs.

Mr. Burns called that "a procedural breakthrough" that ends a 16-month-old argument over who should talk for the Serbs.

Critics of U.S. policy, however, see the burst of activity as driven more by developments on the ground that require reaction than by the sudden assertion of leadership by the Clinton administration.

They point to battlefield setbacks for the Serbs at the hands of both the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims, as producing the diplomatic spurt; and they see the Bosnian Serb attack on the Sarajevo marketplace as provoking the allied airstrikes.

"There was no American leadership," said Daniel Nelson, professor of international studies at the Old Dominion University, and a foreign policy adviser to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt during the Missouri Democrat's term as House majority leader.

"We have erred so greatly and been so flaccid up until this point, that we have minimized the chances of this working now, when it might have really worked earlier," he said.

Sen. Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader and a Republican candidate for president, has credited Congress -- not the administration -- for strengthening the allies' resolve.

Western nations, he said, recognized that without action, Congress would override Mr. Clinton's veto of legislation to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia.

Mr. Dole said he was ready to consider delaying his attempt to override the veto if the attacks prove part of an "effective" peacemaking policy.

For Mr. Clinton, being able to claim he had untied the Gordian knot that is Bosnia would lend a political boost to his re-election prospects.

But even if the warring stops, the peacemaking will not be easy.

All sides will likely simply substitute the negotiating table for the battlefield in pushing their conflicting claims to territory and power.

As Mr. Burns warned yesterday, "There are many, many more steps along the way before negotiations among the parties can even begin."

There is one other peril for Mr. Clinton: If peace comes to Bosnia, he is committed to sending up to 25,000 U.S. troops to monitor it, a potentially dangerous assignment for them -- and for him.

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