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The Pink Envelope

SERBS in Bosnia have again exposed Western weakness. On Tuesday the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians were supposed to give a simple ``yes'' or ``no'' to a partition of Bosnia arranged by a ``contact group'' of French, US, Russian, and British officials. The plan was 60 days in the making, and as British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd said, it was a firm ``take it or leave it'' proposition.

Bosnians and Croats agreed to the plan, which gives Serbs 51 percent of Bosnia. But the Serb answer was a ``yes'' only if many conditions were met. There was even a mocking burlesque in which the Bosnian Serb ``parliament,'' advised by individuals accused of war crimes, answered the world's great powers with a note sealed in a pink envelope.

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Now, after 60 days of assurances by the contact group, formed after the Sarajevo marketplace massacre, that they really meant business this time, it is disappointing to find US national security adviser Anthony Lake saying the plan is not a ``take it or leave it'' proposition and that negotiations may take place into the indefinite future. This suggests that the group, led by US envoy Charles Redman, has little political will. With a pink envelope, the Serbs show they know this.

The mass murders in Bosnia, the dislocated families, the 1.5 million refugees, the raping and looting - this is not a game. The Serbs continue to ``ethnically cleanse'' towns such as Banja Luka. For the West to tolerate continued brutality, to again capitulate to aggression - only compounds bad precedents and the loss of Western credibility. The issue is not the Serbs. Their aggression is clear. The issue is what the West, specifically the US, is prepared to do.

A contact group that only ``tightens'' the sanctions on Belgrade signals yet again that in Europe, where the West has spent the most capital on security and civil society for 50 years, new rules apply. It must be said that no officials, journalists, or experts familiar with Bosnia really believe that the Serbs will voluntarily give up land they have taken by force; no one really believed the contact group would succeed. Still, it is very sad to find the White House now temporizing, since President Clinton consistently used the contact group as a reason not to take action to help Bosnian victims. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott asked Senate majority leader George Mitchell to oppose the Senate effort to lift the Bosnian arms embargo since it might upset the contact group plan. Now it appears that plan meant little. No deadlines or verification procedures have been made public.

In leading the contact group, the White House agreed to do what said it never would - allow genocide to be ratified in a peace treaty. Now that the Serbs have said no, what is the next move? Is there a backup plan? Will the US now lift the arms embargo? Will it finally take sides against aggression?

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