Confusion and distrust hang like fog over the Balkans. But hope is breaking through. The war has undergone a rapid change, the fortunes of the combatants have shifted dramatically.
Now it is the Bosnian Serbs who flee for their lives before Bosnian/Croatian Federation forces. Now it is Bosnian/Croatian Federation forces that the United States and its associates in the contact group attempt to "restrain" from reclaiming the territory that Serbs captured earlier in the war -- though no one has offered a satisfactory explanation as to why Bosnian Serbs should be permitted to keep the spoils of war, and thus profit from aggression.
It is inconceivable that after having done virtually nothing to help Bosnians and Croats protect themselves against the sieges and the "ethnic cleansing" of Serbs, we should now involve ourselves on the side of the Serbian aggressors.
Croatians, too, suffered shelling, siege and loss of territory when, at the beginning of this war, they lacked the weapons with which to defend themselves against Serb attacks. It is not for us -- who turned our backs on them then -- to deprive them now of the right to regain the land we did not help them protect.
By deciding to respect the arms embargo adopted before the breakup of Yugoslavia, before the referendums and declarations of independence, and before Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were admitted to the United Nations, the United States and its NATO allies effectively denied those new states the right of self-defense that the U.N. Charter recognizes for all people. Surely we should not also deny them the right to protect their own territory when it has been so clearly demonstrated that no one else will do so.
We must not guarantee Serbs the territory that they won by aggression. Yet that is what we do when we try to impose a settlement that divides Bosnia into two parts with 49 percent going to Serbs and 51 percent to Bosnians and Croats.
To be party to such an unjust settlement is bad enough. To send U.S. troops to enforce it -- making them a party to this injustice -- is unthinkable.
It is true, as has been said, that the Bosnian government itself accepted the 51/49 division of territory. But it did so under great pressure from the United States. And Americans do not have the right to apply such pressures. The United States should instead emphasize the other aspect of the framework negotiated by Mr. Holbrooke: the part that proclaims Bosnia-Herzegovina "one and indivisible," which has already been recognized by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. It affirms the existence of the state whose existence Mr. Milosevic, and the warlord Radovan Karadzic and their cohorts have sought to deny.
The U.S. government, which grossly overestimated the strength and invincibility of Serbs and the boldness of Mr. Milosevic, should focus now on the reintegration of people and territory into a unified Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than 2 million Bosnians were driven from this land. It is time to prepare for their return.
Mr. Karadzic and his Pale government have no legal standing except for his indictment as a war criminal. Mr. Karadzic's grandiose habits alienated his allies and cost him their support. Now, Mr. Milosevic has signaled he is no more interested in protecting Pale than Krajina.
The available evidence indicates that Mr. Milosevic has already abandoned the dreams that drove him to attack Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. It is extremely important that the Clinton Administration not arouse again the ambitions for empire that have caused such destruction and misery in the past three years. It is not for the United States to disturb the fire in these ashes.
There are only two tasks worthy of a skilled American mediator: the repatriation and reintegration of Bosnians and the reconstruction of a multi-ethnic democratic country which respects the rights of all its citizens.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is a syndicated columnist.