After years of trying to stay clear of the deepening Balkan tragedy, the Clinton Administration seems to have taken on the daunting task of guaranteeing the survival of the precarious state that American diplomats hope to create out of the chaos of Bosnia- Herzegovina.
By agreeing Thursday to play host to Bosnia peace talks, President Clinton bound his government tightly to a process that--at best--will produce a country split between bitter ethnic enemies and with an economy in tatters.
It is a high-stakes bet that could pay off handsomely for both Clinton and the antagonists. Or it could plunge the United States into the conflict at an unpredictable cost.
"These discussions will look and feel like what you remember from Camp David," State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said in describing the talks, which are scheduled to begin Oct. 25 at a still-unselected site in the United States.
Although the White House said Clinton is unlikely to play the same personal role in the Bosnia talks that former President Jimmy Carter assumed during the 1978 negotiations between Israel and Egypt at Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains, the risks and responsibilities assumed by the United States are similar.
As happened in particular with Egypt after the 1978 accord, the U.S. government seems ready to take on a new client state--but one that will need years of outside support to survive. However, as in the Israel-Egypt agreement, the Balkan talks could bring peace to an unstable and strategic region and re-establish Washington's claim to world leadership.
Of course, this is all down the road. The cease-fire brokered by U.S. peace envoy Richard Holbrooke does not take effect until Tuesday, and the talks, if all goes well, will start 15 days after that. But, for the first time in 3 1/2 years of warfare, the combatants are at least talking about the possibility of peace.
And the selection of the United States as the venue for the negotiations is a clear signal that the U.S. mediators and the warring factions believe the cease-fire will hold, a requirement for success at the bargaining table. Staging the talks in the United States magnifies their visibility, a step the Administration and the antagonists would be unlikely to take unless they expected success.
For the President, the payoff is clear. A Bosnia peace agreement would establish his credentials in foreign policy, an area long considered his weakest point, on the eve of his reelection campaign. And it would demonstrate that even in the post-Cold War world, there is no substitute for American leadership.
For the warring factions--the Muslim-led Bosnian government, Croatia and its Croatian Serb brethren, and the Bosnian Serbs--the advantages of drawing Washington into the center of the process are also clear.
The Muslims and their Croatian allies expect billions of dollars in postwar economic assistance to reconstruct the country. Although the United States is expected to contribute only a fraction of that money, Washington has become adept at raising funds from other countries for causes like fighting the Persian Gulf War or establishing a Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Even more important from the Bosnian government standpoint, the United States almost certainly will offer some form of security guarantees. Defense Secretary William J. Perry said in an interview with Reuters television that Washington will seek to forge a military balance between the government and the rebel Serbs. His aim, he said, is to persuade the Serbs to give up tanks, artillery pieces and other heavy weapons to reach military parity with the government's arsenal. But if that does not work, Perry said, "there may need to be some additional arms brought in to the Bosnian government forces."
For the Serbs, the advantages of U.S. mediation are less obvious but no less important. The Serbs expect to come out of the talks with control over an autonomous region made up of almost half of Bosnia's territory. By assigning a central role to the U.S. government in the negotiations, the Serbs stand to gain a greater degree of international legitimacy for the partition.