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Dayton's Fading Promises

Threat of U.S. and NATO 'mission creep' in Bosnia looms larger

September 29, 1997

The maps and the governmental structures that were laid down at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 have largely come to naught nearly two years later. The international diplomats who traveled there to end the war in Bosnia have only the promises of what might have been.

There might have been a disarmament. A roundup of war criminals was possible. Fair elections seemed attainable. But all these prospects have been blown away by the hot winds of ethnic hatred. The Balkans win again, to their great loss.

Now it should be clear to the United States and its European allies in NATO that writing a prescription for peace on a sheet of paper was a frustrated exercise. It stopped the war, and to that tens of thousands of Bosnians--Serbs, Muslims and Croats--probably owe their lives. But the Dayton accords and the hard work of outsiders to sort out the civil affairs of a bloodied country and to build the structures of a viable national government have so far fallen short.

And if the peacemakers cannot do the job, it's clear where the responsibility will first fall. The 33,000 NATO troops, more than 9,400 of them Americans, have been placed ever closer to the point where police and protection roles give way to combat missions, particularly in the Serbian sector of Bosnia where trouble is boiling between the forces of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and those of Biljana Plavsic, his successor as president of Republika Srpska, the Serbian third of the country.

NATO makes no bones about playing favorites. Its forces are backing Plavsic in the struggle for Serbian leadership. She may be a die-hard nationalist, but she's not a flat rejectionist like Karadzic, who was indicted as a war criminal by a U.N. tribunal. NATO's new military commander, U.S. Gen. Wesley K. Clark, came on the scene declaring his troops would not give way to Serbian agitators in achieving NATO goals. "We will use all means necessary, including lethal means," Clark warned.

Now, so long after the world first hailed the Dayton agreement, NATO and the Americans are more deeply involved than ever in this Balkan tar pit. President Clinton continues to send the message that he intends to withdraw the U.S. forces by June at the latest. Congress is grumbling about foreign wars. What to do?

The Times have never supported an open-ended American military commitment in Bosnia. We are concerned about "mission creep," the commitments that would drag American soldiers deeper and deeper into the quagmire. After all, the current focus is primarily on who will rule in Republika Srpska, and even if Plavsic prevails is security any closer? There is no certainty.

The Clinton administration needs to make Bosnia a top-priority project. The prospects for a workable government and an end to human rights abuses must be closely measured. Set a target date--June or later--and mark the progress. NATO should not be an occupying power. The Bosnians must face that fact.

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