A Cease-Fire First--Then the Negotiation : Stop the carnage, then work on the details of the postwar settlement

Thursday the Parliament of the Serb Republic of Bosnia voted to put the peace plan drafted by Cyrus R. Vance of the United Nations and Lord David Owen of the European Community to a Bosnian Serb referendum. The mediators clearly regard this move as tantamount to a rejection of the plan. It must be noted, however, that this "parliament" has never been properly elected. The Serb Republic of Bosnia lacks international recognition. Although its legislature has only the most questionable kind of domestic recognition, a public referendum called by this body, if one can be held, will almost surely vote rejection.

What this development highlights, however, is not just the intransigence (and shrewdness) of the Bosnian Serbs but also the fatal limitations of the Vance-Owen peace plan. In successful peace negotiations, first comes a cease-fire, then the negotiation of a durable peace. Vance and Owen have placed the cart before the horse. They ask the combatants to approve a new, 10-province map of Bosnia and a sweeping revision of the national constitution and only then to stop killing one another.

ENFORCEMENT PROBLEM: And if they don't? Owen, who stated a bit peremptorily when the plan was unveiled that U.S. troops would be essential to its enforcement, was rightly criticized because the plan is all but unenforceable. The hostile ethnic groups of Bosnia do not fall neatly into geographic regions. This is the very reason it exists as a multiethnic political unit distinct from Serbia or Croatia. The Vance-Owen commitment to ethnicity as a principle of political organization creates an indefensible jumble of sub-units. Enforcing it would be like strapping down the pieces of an armed jigsaw puzzle.

If the United States is to engage its military power in the service of a Bosnian peace, therefore, it should not be in the service of this plan. At some future point, when the plan has been drastically modified and its signatories--above all, the Serbs--are not hellbent on subverting it, the United States not only can but surely must join in a multinational ground force to police its observation. Short of that, the plan is by no means a work of such political genius that American guns should be fired to impose it on a population implacably opposed to it.

Is the game then lost? Not necessarily. Last August in London, all three of the contending parties reached an agreement that called for the surrender of all heavy weapons to the United Nations, the lifting of the siege of Sarajevo and other besieged towns, the dismantling of detention camps, the recognition of the governments and borders of the post-Yugoslav republics, and the return of territory seized during the fighting. All of this was understood to be a prelude to the solution of Bosnia's internal problems.

The London agreement--in which President Slobodan Milosevic played the same "statesmanlike" role he has played in this week's speeches to the Bosnian Serb Parliament--was not honored. Fighting afterward only grew more savage. And yet that agreement was, diplomatically as well as militarily, the indispensable first step. Rather than insist on acceptance of the Vance-Owen map, the United Nations--and the United States--should begin again with the London agreement.

CONSENSUS PROBLEM: If any air strikes are made, if a no-artillery zone is added to the no-fly zone, if the Bosnians are armed, if armed intervention is attempted to enforce Thursday's U.N. Security Council resolution calling on the Serbs to withdraw from the Bosnian towns they have under siege, any and all of these measures should be regarded as aimed not at some kind of Bosnian Muslim victory but only at the enforcement of just one provision--the cease-fire provision--of the London agreement as the sine qua non for serious peace negotiation.

That point reached, the Vance-Owen plan will remain on the table as the proper starting point for discussion; but the discussion will not take place above the screams of the dying. For a commitment so clearly limited, President Clinton--if and when he makes his long-awaited major statement--may well manage to build a national consensus.

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