LEADING ARTICLE: Cold comfort in Bosnia's peace

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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton finally got his Bosnia peace agreement yesterday after a marathon bout of negotiating that stretched America's arts of persuasion and power to their utmost. Mr Clinton was right to talk of "a historic and heroic choice" by the leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. They had, he said, heeded the will of their people to stop the slaughter, to give their children and grandchildren the chance to lead a normal life.

As the first snowflakes of a bitter winter fall on the Balkans, it may just be that its inhabitants are witnessing the end of four years of conflict. It is a war that has shamed Europe. From 1991 to the present day, the scourges of mass murder, ethnic persecution and benighted nationalism stalked the south-east corner of our continent. And Europe, for all its councils and commissions, its parliament and institutions, failed either to prevent it or stop it.

That is the most pertinent lesson of the collapse of Yugoslavia. It took Mr Clinton's belated commitment to compel all three warring groups to come to the negotiating table. It took American air power, exercised through Nato, to bomb the Bosnian Serbs into submission after their heinous offensive against the "safe area" of Srebrenica. It will take American ground forces to enforce the peace, bolstered mainly by soldiers from Britain and France.

Yet again, as in 1917 and 1941, a conflict between Europeans has been decisively altered only by the intervention of the United States. Winston Churchill once memorably used a phrase about the New World coming forth to the rescue of the Old. But this is a rescue operation performed with little enthusiasm by the rescuer and scant gratitude by those to be saved. The President faces a tough contest with Congress, which is understandably dubious about sending American boys to Bosnia. Awaiting them on the hushed battlefield are well-armed factions who will be quick to seize advantage and who must be ruthlessly and impartially repressed. Rough and trying months could lie ahead.

There can be little moral satisfaction in this agreement for those who supported the Bosnian government's cause. The deal creates a Bosnian state divided between a Muslim-Croat Federation and the so-called Serb Republic, a worse fate than the provisions of the much-derided Vance-Owen plan which fell apart two years ago. In American policy, sermonising has yielded to realpolitik.

None the less, peace is better than war, even peace at a price that many of the diehards in the Sarajevo government find difficult to accept. Bosnia will have a central government, elections, an agreed constitution, a central bank and a presidency. In deference to public outrage, all three sides agree - at least on paper - that refugees can return to their homes and that men indicted for war crimes cannot hold office.

The balance sheet is still grim. Yesterday's agreement was the fruit not of reason, but of conquest. It was made possible by Croatia's defeat of the Krajina Serbs last August, by Bosnian gains in the subsequent campaign, and, perversely, by the brutal Serb assault on the "safe areas" that finally discredited the United Nations and brought the Americans into the fray. Both the United States and Europe need to grasp that reality if yesterday's "peace" is to be made permanent.