DISMAL EXPECTATIONS are just about the only thing going for the U.S.-brokered elections in Bosnia on Saturday. Even if NATO forces succeed in avoiding violence as citizens displaced by war attempt to vote in hometown precincts, the result is more likely to deepen the ethnic partition of the battered state than to bring it closer to unity. U.S. officials probably would be content if renewed warfare is avoided and the governmental structure called for in the Dayton Accords does not collapse overnight.
All this constitutes a pretty grim outlook for the most ambitious foreign policy initiative of the Clinton presidency. The White House was quick to claim credit when the introduction of 60,000 NATO troops, 19,000 of them Americans, were able to separate the armies of the Serbs, Croats and Muslims that devastated Bosnia in four years of civil war.
But as ethnic hatreds going back centuries snuffed out hope for power sharing and cooperation, official Washington retreated to a position of insisting that the elections take place on schedule -- come what may. The political stakes increased when Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole demanded a delay in Bosnian elections that "make a mockery of our principles and commitment to democracy."
If Bosnia goes haywire at the same time Saddam Hussein succeeds in reasserting control over northern Iraq, Mr. Dole might have the kind of issue that has eluded him so far.
Most troubling is the resort to nationalist passions by the predominant Serb, Croat and Muslim parties. Voters will choose from each of their own ethnic groups the members of a three-man presidency that can work only in "unanimity" -- an unlikely prospect. Bosnian Serbs will also elect a president of their own autonomous region plus members of national and regional assemblies; Muslims and Croats, joined in a tenuous federation, won't pretend to have a joint president but will elect members of national and federation legislatures.
The international community will attempt to make this complicated system work through a combination of sticks (sanctions) and carrots (money). Much is at stake: President Clinton's prestige abroad, NATO's ability to carry out peace-enforcement on or beyond the European periphery and the credibility of international tribunals seeking to punish war criminals. At this juncture, the success of none is assured.
It may have been unwise for the U.S. to get entangled in a Balkan civil war in the first place. But having done so, Washington has little choice but to persevere at this juncture.