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This Is No Time for Routine Diplomacy in Bosnia

No longer the hot potato it once was, it's still far from a stable environment

We have just had a whiff of deja vu: an ultimatum that the two Bosnian Serb leaders indicted as war criminals surrender power under threat of economic sanctions. But the deadline passes with President Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic fat and sassy as ever and no sign of sanctions.

The international war-crimes tribunal and heads of government at the latest Group of Seven summit demand their arrest; the NATO commander says he will grab them if ordered; the order never comes. The key is Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Richard Holbrooke, who twisted Mr. Milosevic's arm at Dayton, was summoned to try again.

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Does this signal a new case of jitters in the West at a delicate stage of the peace process? The mandate for IFOR, the implementation force of the Dayton agreement, expires in December. Elections are scheduled in Bosnia for September, although prescribed conditions haven't been met. One local election has been held, in the city of Mostar, in an atmosphere of unrelieved tension. The city remains bitterly divided between Muslim Bosniacs (those who want a unified, multiethnic Bosnia) and the uncompromising Croats. The Bosnian election also may simply confirm the reality of ethnic separation.

The failure of Croats and Serbs to cooperate in the investigation and prosecution of war crimes is an open scandal. Serious issues affecting future stability are still unsettled. The Bosnian Serb republic continues to drip poison into the political mix. Hatred of Bosniacs and Croats feeds denial of Serbian guilt.

Where we've come

Things were worse, to be sure, when Bosnia was a hot potato tossed back and forth by a dithering NATO and a hapless United Nations, both dominated by the same Western powers. It was only in the summer of 1995 that the United States, revolted by the carnage when the Bosnian Serbs overran the "safe area" of Srebrenica, pushed NATO into an air offensive. Suddenly it was clear that endless negotiation was not, as the British and French thought, "the only game in town" and that airstrikes would not lead to more hostages or to uncontrollable conflict but would instead at last get the Serbs' attention. They came to Dayton and accepted a peace formula that could have been simpler and more practicable had it been forced on them two years earlier.

IFOR has done its work. Its mission was to stop the killing and separate the parties, forestalling spontaneous recombustion. The hope was that the people of Bosnia would turn away from the rage and cruelty that had made life a misery for four years. Not enough time has passed for this to happen. Extremists in all camps also terrorize those who want to restore civilized normality.

Two things are clear. One is that an external preventive force must remain in Bosnia beyond the one year originally planned. The US has said it would join some NATO successor operation. France has talked of an additional two years. Washington and the European Union agree it must be a joint force, tacitly accepting that the Europeans, fumbling for their own defense identity, have not found the will to act. The new force need not face another war, though it could be tested. Its main contribution would be the certainty of continued presence to help the healing process. The longer it stays, the smaller the attraction of extremists who mean to wait it out and start another round.

The force's presence, however, is not enough. It also needs a broader mandate than IFOR's. This must reflect policy decisions, not yet visible, by the US and the others involved. They may be foreshadowed at a NATO conference in September. Arming the Muslims to give them a crack at self-defense is a positive move but only partial. Dayton provides for confidence-building measures and arms reductions. Much better would be elimination of heavy weapons. There is no place in the former Yugoslavia for battle tanks, artillery, bombers, attack helicopters, and such. In Bosnia they could be seized. Croatia and Serbia should be made to disgorge them; strong economic and political pressure could do it, within a framework of NATO defense guarantees to all.

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It is not a stable environment. The Bosnian Serb republic has won recognition as a distinct entity, and one can posit its ultimate aim of union with Serbia. The Bosnian Croats have the dream of union with Croatia but are tied to the Muslims in a second entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Together, the two are to form the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a complicated government headed by a three-person presidency - more an act of faith than a constitutional structure.

Questions, still

Major questions remain. The town of Brcko is vital to the Bosnian Serbs, whose republic would be split in two without it. For the Muslim Bosniacs it is the best link with the outside world. An arbitration board is to rule on it this year. Eastern Slavonia, seized by the Serbs in 1991, is to revert to Croatia, but a Balkan agreement is never final. Gorazde, a Muslim town in Bosnian Serb territory, was a prime target for ethnic cleansing and, lying at the end of a corridor jutting east from Sarajevo, is highly vulnerable.

This is no time for routine diplomacy. The West is dealing with sovereign states. The rights of sovereignty can cover the most sinister skullduggery, as Saddam Hussein's Iraq has shown. Yet, sovereign rights cannot be roughly overridden without shaking the world system. The UN charter permits action against a threat to international peace and security, but the UN has, for the time being, been pushed aside. The West has painted itself into a corner; it will take ideas and resolve to get out.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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