In Bosnia, we have arrived at the moment of our testing. The Dayton peace accords, which Richard Holbrooke bullied the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosnian Muslims into signing two years ago, contained two core promises. The first was that the war's serious criminals, most of them Serbs, would be arrested and brought to trial. The second was that the ethnically cleansed populations (at least those among the cleansed who were still alive) would be allowed to return to the areas from which they had been driven and to reclaim their homes. Upon the fulfillment of these promises rested any hopes for a real peace in ex-Yugoslavia. But Dayton purposely avoided the question of who would do the fulfilling, and how.

This was not entirely a bad thing. A peace with a hole at its center was in the short term preferable to no peace at all, if there was a commitment to filling the hole later. Something had to be done to end the immediate horror, and neither the Serbs nor the Croats would have signed a peace accord that proposed the imminent arrest of major war criminals and the imminent return of seized property and cleansed land to their rightful owners. They signed because they needed some respite from war so as to consolidate their gains, and because they figured there was a reasonable chance that the hole in Dayton would never be filled.

For a long time, this appeared to be a good bet, as the NATO forces charged with keeping the peace in Bosnia kept it in the most decorous fashion, never attempting anything impolite, such as--oh, I don't know--arresting Radovan Karadzic. The criminals remained criminal, the dispossessed remained dispossessed, the stolen goods remained stolen. The peacekeepers remained in their bunkers, hiding behind the sandbags and the fiction that they were not there to take sides. But then President Clinton did something wise and made Madeleine Albright his Secretary of State.

Albright is not the woman her predecessor was. She campaigned for a get- tough line, and, with the impetus of next year's deadline for the removal of America's 8,500 troops in Bosnia wonderfully concentrating the president's mind, she was able to swing the debate within the administration her way.

In recent months, the NATO forces in Bosnia, pushed by the U.S. and now led by the hard-line General Wesley Clark, have abandoned the passive, hunker- down policy favored by William Cohen, the defensive Defense Secretary, and they have gone on the offensive. They have pursued war criminals. They have used force to keep the peace. And, most crucially, they have--finally--taken sides.

The side they have taken is that of Biljana Plavsic, the president of the Serb Republic mini-state which takes up 49 percent of Bosnia. Plavsic is engaged in a take-no-prisoners struggle with former president and current indictee Karadzic, with Karadzic's forces controlling the eastern half of the Serbian portion of Bosnia and Plavsic's forces holding the west. The U.S. and its NATO allies are backing Plavsic in this fight, because--while Karadzic is adamantly opposed to Dayton and a unified Bosnia--Plavsic has committed herself to the key goals of Dayton, a conversion that is admittedly recent and somewhat suspect.

Under an agreement between the Clinton administration and Britain's new Blair administration, NATO is now committed to a strategy of working to surround Karadzic and his forces, to disarm paramilitary and secret police forces still loyal to Karadzic, and to seize from Karadzic the media outlets that he is using to incite violence against Plavsic and NATO. In the past few weeks, this strategy has become operational, with NATO forces training Plavsic's police forces and deploying on Plavsic's behalf.

On August 17, British and Czech troops under NATO command, acting to foil what was believed to be an imminent coup attempt against Plavsic, took a police station in Banja Luka from Karadzic loyalists and confiscated weapons sufficient for a 2,000-man army. The troops, backed by tanks, helicopter gunships and armored personnel carriers, operated under orders to fight if attacked. They turned the station and its weapons over to Plavsic's people.

This new aggressiveness is dangerous. American troops are now very close to being involved in open warfare, and there have already been casualties and setbacks. An attempt on August 28 by U.S. troops to take the police station in the town of Brcko away from Karadzic forces failed after hundreds of Karadzic loyalists armed with firebombs and clubs counterattacked, injuring two U.S. soldiers, three United Nations policemen and several civilians. Some 300 U.S. troops who seized a Karadzic-run television tower in Tuzla were subjected to twenty hours of harassment by a Serb mob, and, unfortunately, handed the tower back. More violence may be expected, and it may escalate into combat.

Taking Plavsic's side is not only risky, it is not altogether palatable. Plavsic is a charter member of the nationalist Serb movement that brought Karadzic to power. She was a staunch supporter of the campaign of ethnic cleansing, which she once called "a natural phenomena" and which to this day she will not denounce. She has publicly embraced the mad brigand called Arkan, the worst of the Serb ethnic killers, and she has said that Serbs are genetically superior to Muslims and that Sarajevo should be a divided city.

So is it worth risking American lives for her? I'm afraid so. Consider the alternative of doing nothing, of letting Karadzic and Plavsic fight it out while we hunker back down until the time comes to ship out. What this would accomplish is not peace, but war. Without NATO's help, at least half and possibly all of the Bosnian Serb Republic will remain in the hands of a corrupt regime determined not to accept the terms of Dayton. In this case, bringing war criminals to justice is not only a moral goal. It is also a practical one. Karadzic and his fellow gangsters, free and empowered, will always agitate for conflict. That is the only hand they can play; peace for them means jail, or death. Similarly, peace cannot occur in a Bosnia that is allowed to remain effectively partitioned, with displaced people denied access to their stolen homes and land. A divided Bosnia, with all its injustices intact, is inherently unstable; it will simmer and sometimes erupt, and it will require a more or less permanent peacekeeping force. Hunkering down will not ensure that we leave Bosnia next year; it will ensure that we stay there for many years. We have a chance here for a real, large and moral victory. The administration seems to grasp this. It must not lose its clarity when things get muddier and bloodier.

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By Michael Kelly