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Troops Are in Bosnia - Now for the Hard Part

GETTING the hardware of the American troop deployment into Bosnia is the easy part. Getting the right political ''software'' set up there, so that the deployment can succeed, will take much more thought and commitment.

The United States government already knows the tool that can rebuild European societies shattered by the terrors of war. What tool is that? The building of democratic institutions.

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What everyone of every group in Bosnia needs is a political system that has a good chance of resolving internal differences and getting Bosnia back on its economic and political feet. Not an easy task.

At Dayton, Ohio, all three of the local rulers who participated at least seemed to sign on to the right things. The Dayton accord promises free and fair elections throughout Bosnia ''within six to nine months,'' with displaced persons able to vote in their original places of residence. It provides for ''protection of human rights and the free movement of people, goods, capital and services'' throughout Bosnia. And it mandates creation of local mechanisms to ensure protection of ''human rights and fundamental freedoms''.

Wonderful intentions - or hollow words? In the weeks since the Dayton agreement, ethnic-Croat commanders in central Bosnia have been scorching the earth in areas due to be handed back to the ethnic Serbs. And ethnic Serbs have continued to drive non-Serbs out of their families' longtime homes in Banja Luka.

The cynicism with which these local militias regard the Dayton text might not have mattered if the process had provided any mechanism for outside enforcement. It does not. NATO and other outside forces will not be there as enforcers. Can the ethnic militias' allies in the states of Serbia and Croatia be expected to rein them in instead? Possibly, but it is not likely to happen unless we set up a comprehensive system of carrots and sticks to guide them toward doing so.

Meanwhile, the Dayton process, by advertising the short life of the US troop commitment, encourages all the region's maximalists to play a waiting game.

Is there anything the Clinton administration can do to give the Dayton process a better chance of success? Three sets of actions may help:

* The United States and its allies should make clear to the leaders of Serbia and Croatia that their treatment by the international community will depend on how effectively they rein in ethnic extremism in Bosnia and at home.

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* Real financial and political proof must be provided to the Bosnians that the US commitment to multiculturalism, democratic values, and the prosecution of war criminals is sincere. All parts of the Bosnian polity that share this commitment should be rewarded, while any that may oppose it should be rigorously shunned.

* President Clinton should meanwhile pursue his conversation with the American public about the fact that there are some international missions that are worth the risk of some American casualties. Our armed forces, we must remember, are staffed only with volunteers. Creating room for uncertainty regarding the date for ending the deployment could be enormously helpful in discouraging the waiting game.

So far, most of the discussion in the United States about the present Bosnia mission has focused on military logistics and possible troop casualties. But it is the political parts of the Dayton agreement that, in classic Clausewitzian form, should provide the backbone of the mission. Do we or do we not believe that democracy is the political system best suited to resolving tangled political conflicts?

After World War II, American policy stressed that building or rebuilding democratic institutions in Europe, while maintaining accountability of leaders for war crimes, was the way to build the continent's future. The same is true today.

As I said, the political ''software'' part of implementing the Dayton agreement will be the hardest. With NATO troops now streaming into Bosnia, their political leaders owe it to them to try to make the political part of the engagement a success.

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