WASHINGTON -- War crimes are casting a large shadow over the Balkan peace process, putting the United States in a difficult position as it tries to broker an end to the four-year war.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the pivotal character at the U.S.-sponsored peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, is considered an unindicted war criminal by much of the world; and the Bosnian Serb leaders he supposedly speaks for actually have been indicted, which is why they can't come to Dayton to speak for themselves.
The question of how to hold these men accountable for the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II has been diplomatically set aside for the moment, but ultimately it will have an impact on the talks and on the U.S. military role in Bosnia.
Human rights groups warn that, unless war criminals are pursued and punished, whatever peace settlement emerges from Dayton may prove meaningless. The Clinton administration, they say, will be key to making sure war crimes are credibly handled.
"If there is a peace that precludes justice, it won't be a lasting peace," says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "President Clinton has to weigh forgiving mass murderers against the benefits of a peace accord."
The tension between securing peace and serving the ends of justice is personified by Mr. Milosevic's presence in Dayton. American and European negotiators see him as key to a settlement, not least because he is free to travel.
The political and military bosses of the Bosnian Serbs, both under indictment by the U.N. war-crimes tribunal, face arrest if they set foot outside territory they control.
Mr. Milosevic also is believed to exercise a strong political influence over the Bosnian Serbs and, through the Serbian government and military, over the Bosnian Serb war machine. At Dayton, he heads a negotiating team representing both his own government and the Bosnian Serbs.
But it is precisely this influence that makes Mr. Milosevic a leading, though as yet unindicted, suspect in the atrocities perpetrated by the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia starting in the spring of 1992.
"There is no doubt he was one of the architects of the strategy that produced these war crimes," says Warren Zimmermann, the U.S. ambassador to Belgrade early in the Bosnian war.
As early as December 1992, then Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger said Mr. Milosevic would have to answer to accusations of having "political and command responsibility for the crimes against humanity."
It would be convenient for the United States and its European allies if the whole question of war crimes could be left to the United Nations tribunal and kept totally removed from the Dayton talks. But this is impossible.
And the chief judge of the war-crimes tribunal, Antonio Cassese, has urged that any final settlement call on the parties to assist in the war-crimes probe. Total cooperation presumably would mean surrendering Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic for trial, or even requiring Mr. Milosevic to submit to questioning.
The issue of war crimes is bound up with the Dayton talks in another respect:
The United States has promised to seek a lifting of U.N. trade sanctions against Serbia once a settlement is implemented. But U.S. officials insist they will maintain an "outer wall" of sanctions -- by blocking Serbian efforts to obtain loans from international financial institutions or to join world organizations -- unless it cooperates with the war-crimes tribunal.
The question also has a bearing on the role of American troops in implementing a settlement. The Pentagon has ruled out using American peacekeeping forces to search for war-crimes suspects, although U.S. troops will be directed hold any suspects who fall into their hands.
In an ironic twist, the war-crimes issue could even give President Clinton an excuse for not fulfilling his promise to dispatch American troops to the Balkans to police a settlement. Secretary of State Warren Christopher warned last week that the administration would not be "comfortable" sending troops to Bosnia if Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic remained in control of Bosnian Serb territory.
Administration officials say, however, that Mr. Clinton isn't looking for an excuse to avoid meeting his pledge, even though he faces congressional opposition to a troop deployment.
Rather, there is concern even within the administration that the president may surrender to the opposite impulse: giving short shrift to war-crimes prosecutions in order to get a peace agreement.
One result could be allowing Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic to step down from power but escape prosecution.
White House and State Department spokesmen insist that they want the war-crimes tribunal to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But doing so depends in large measure on the United States, since Washington supplies much of the money for the tribunal as well as the intelligence that will help investigators dig up evidence.