Owen takes the battle to the heart of the ally: Peter Pringle traces the path to a victory in Washington for the Owen-Vance peace team

NO AMERICAN administration, current or future, will easily forget Lord Owen's googly. It was the name given by the New York Times to the ball Lord Owen tossed up to the Clinton administration last week over his Bosnian peace plan, a ball that twisted and turned all the way from New York to Foggy Bottom and eventually zipped passed the straight bat of the new Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and just nicked the bails.

The result: Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance won the day. The Americans, having derided the Vance-Owen plan as unworkable, appeasing Serbian aggression and perpetuating 'ethnic cleansing', ended by saying they could work with it, if they could add a US diplomatic touch here and there.

It was not the intention of the New York Times leader writer to make Lord Owen famous. The most influential newspaper in America has been sniping for weeks at the UN- and EC-sponsored peace plan that would divide Bosnia into 10 cantons under a loose central government. When Lord Owen and Mr Vance got fed up with the criticism from the paper and officials in Washington they decided to come to New York and open fire on the US media and the administration.

The Times dismissed Lord Owen's efforts as 'cheeky, almost condescending'. It was assumed he and Mr Vance would run out of steam, or be battered into submission, give up and go home. But they kept fighting.

It was a week to be remembered, if only because it served notice on future administrations that the US cannot continue to hold year-long elections and two- and-a-half month transitions of government and expect world diplomacy to stand still.

Lord Owen and Mr Vance had no plans to embarrass the administration. When he was Labour's foreign secretary in the 1970s, Lord Owen made good friends with many of the high officials now in the Clinton entourage - Les Aspin at the Pentagon, James Woolsey at the CIA. So why was the administration not better prepared on Bosnia? And how did Lord Owen bowl his googly?

The answers are sobering when one thinks of the lives at stake. During the election campaign Mr Clinton spoke of using force, including bombing Serbian targets to help the Bosnians, while charging that then president Bush had offered the beleaguered Muslims scant support. It took time for the transition team to move off this position. During the transition, there was reluctance to make contact with Lord Owen and Mr Vance because the new team was trying hard to shake off an image of being a 'Jimmy Carter Number 2' presidency. Contacts with Mr Vance, a Carter man, would have reinforced that image.

So, the Vance-Owen plan was almost ready to go. The Bosnian Serbs and Croats were signing up, although the Muslims were still holding out, to see if the US could get them a better deal. But the Clinton administration sat on their hands, pleading the need for time for more reviews.

'Unnamed officials in Washington were denigrating and distorting the plan,' said Lord Owen in an interview on Friday. 'So Cy Vance and I knew we had to bring the battle here and educate the American press: stop the litany that the plan favoured 'ethnic cleansing', and that it was not viable . . . It was difficult for Vance because in Washington they were all his old friends so we agreed between us that I would put the knife in.' When Warren Christopher offered little hope of a quick response from the administration, Lord Owen turned on the media.

On one TV show after another he got progressively worked up. On public television he told one startled congressman he had 'a rant, not a policy' on the Balkans. He went on NBC, met CBS and influential foreign affairs writers, called the New York Times columnist Tony Lewis, got an aide to speak to the former New York Times editor, now columnist, Abe Rosenthal, and, finally, had dinner with his old friend, R W Apple, the New York Times' Washington bureau chief - at Mr Apple's request. Next day a front-page New York Times story by Mr Apple was headlined 'Mediator is upset at US reluctance over Bosnia talks'.

In the article, Lord Owen accused the US of foot-dragging and keeping the Muslims on a hook, thinking they could get a better deal, and, referring to US officials, asked: 'What do they want down there, a war that goes on and on?' He said, 'This isn't just the best act in town, it's the only act in town . . . it's the best settlement you can get, and it's a bitter irony to see the Clinton people block it.'

The message was received in Washington, but not well. On Capitol Hill senate aides compared Lord Owen to British colonialists. 'He thinks he can draw a map, like the British drew maps for India, Africa and Palestine and Cyprus,' said one. 'And then the natives will be satisified.'

By Friday, the headline in the Times signalled the change: 'Clinton seeking negotiated path to Bosnia pact.' The administration had dropped the idea of using force and instead was seeking a modified Vance-Owen plan.

The US apparently intends to use a carrot-and-stick approach that would threaten the Serbs with air strikes if they do not corral their heavy guns in depots designated in the plan, and would use diplomatic efforts to realign the Vance-Owen map to take care of the outstanding complaints of the Muslims and the Serbs. There are strong indications that the US is prepared to join the tens of thousands of extra UN troops that will be required to police the peace plan. In addition, Lord Owen and Mr Vance are seeking a criminal court to try those accused of war crimes.

This weekend, they continue their negotiations with the Bosnian parties and are due to report to the UN Security Council tomorrow. There could be a vote on the plan by mid-week.

NEW YORK - The Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic said yesterday he would propose a new map for the division of Bosnia, Reuter reports. He said the map could be 'easily justified by economic and geographic criteria. The provinces look better and more viable'.

(Photograph omitted)