Leading Article: Waiting for Washington

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WITHOUT a decision in Washington, there can be no effective Western policy towards Bosnia. That much has become obvious over the past year. So has the need for speed. The longer the delay, the more the warring parties will be tempted to improve their positions on the ground, and the longer the Muslims will hope that help is on the way.

During his campaign, Bill Clinton talked of stopping Serbian aggression, enforcing the no-fly zone and possibly arming the Muslims. Once in office he came up against European fears of endangering the aid convoys and their protectors, strong opposition from the Pentagon to any military involvement and warnings from Moscow that attacks on Serbs would strengthen conservative opponents of President Boris Yeltsin. Hasty rethinking and consultations with allies have so far produced nothing positive, only grumbles about the Vance-Owen plan (mainly because it rewards 'ethnic cleansing'), sharp criticism of Lord Owen himself and vague hints that a modified version might be acceptable.

The main trouble with all Western and United Nations policies until now is that they have not been backed by force or credible sanctions of any sort. As a result, they have suffered systematic humiliation. Every negotiated ceasefire has been immediately broken. When the Croats started to recapture territory, the Serbs simply brushed aside United Nations troops who had taken custody of their heavy weaponry. When the Croats reclaimed the Peruca dam, the UN troops fled, leaving the Serbs to detonate mines that could have been removed. Around Sarajevo, aid convoys are regularly robbed by Serbian forces and UN forces cannot even offer safe passage to Bosnian politicians. Economic sanctions against Serbia are laughed at as fuel barges make their way unhindered up the Danube.

Against such ineffectual outside intervention, it is scarcely surprising that the parties to the conflict take matters into their own hands. What reason has been given to Croats and Muslims to believe that diplomacy will restore the lands that have been taken from them? Why should Serbs give up the areas they have conquered? The Europeans can be proud of having fed a great many starving people, but that is all, and it is not enough.

Washington must now decide what it wants and how much it is prepared to do to achieve it. The Vance-Owen plan is far from ideal: the Americans are right to point out that the map on which it is based concedes too much to the Serbs. But the plan has the advantage of defining the type of state that Bosnia should be and ruling out territorial annexation by Serbia.

Critics must say whether they are against the principle of a decentralised Bosnian state, or merely against the lines on the map. If the principle is wrong, what is the alternative? If the lines are wrong, how far should they be redrawn, or should the Muslims be given the means to adjust them on the ground? If the plan can be modified to make it acceptable, will the United States commit itself to a major role in policing it? If not, what is the point of talking about it, since the Europeans cannot manage on their own? Until these questions are answered, the fighting will go on, the dangers to the region will increase and the credibility of outside states and institutions will continue to decline.