After more than three years of fighting, and three weeks of intense negotiations, the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia agreed to a peace plan Tuesday to end the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II.
President Clinton, cherishing the success of the American-led strategy to end the war, announced the dramatic breakthrough from the Rose Garden and reaffirmed his commitment to send 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia.
As the White House prepared to take its case to a skeptical American public and Congress, Clinton reminded Americans of the “atrocities that have appalled people all over the world,” and asked them to recognize that U.S. money and might is essential if the fragile peace is to become permanent.
“Without us, the hard-won peace would be lost, the war would resume, the slaughter of innocents would begin again,” Clinton said. “The parties have chosen peace. We must choose peace as well.”
White House officials said the president probably would make a televised address to the nation soon.
The settlement sets in motion a chain of events that could lead to the deployment of 60,000 NATO soldiers within weeks. If all goes well, the parties would meet in Paris to sign a peace treaty by mid-December. The bulk of U.S. forces would begin deployment several days later.
Congressional leaders, however, are apprehensive about dispatching American soldiers on the risky mission because they are skeptical about the prospects for lasting peace in a region.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the leading GOP presidential contender, said he welcomed Clinton’s promise to give Congress time to review the peace agreement before ordering American troops into the region along with other NATO forces.
But Dole insisted that the president “has not yet made the case to Congress, or to the American people, for a massive deployment of American troops … to implement this agreement. He will have many questions to answer in the coming weeks.”
The reaction of Serbs, Muslims and Croats in Bosnia to the agreement will have a critical impact on both the debate in America over sending U.S. troops and the likelihood of an enduring peace. Already, some Serbs are complaining that the deal should be repudiated, while Muslims and Croats are certain to be unhappy with elements of the agreement, particularly the territorial concessions.
The next step is for NATO to quickly complete its military plan, which then will be submitted to Clinton for review and approval in a matter of days. It also will be submitted to the North Atlantic Council for approval.
Clinton said he will make sure the NATO plan is “clear, limited and achievable, and that the risks to our troops are minimized.”
Agreements to end the murderous war in Bosnia have been signed before - and have failed. Tuesday’s signing ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base was marked more by sober warnings than smiles.
“On paper, we have peace. To make it work is our next and our greatest challenge,” said Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who led the way during four months of shuttle diplomacy. “It has been a long and winding road for all of us, and it’s not over. Far from it.”
NATO allies and survivors of the Balkan war alike are counting on American muscle and leadership to provide the backbone of peace. As German diplomat Michael Steiner put it Tuesday in Dayton, “Without the American soldiers, the whole peace agreement falls apart.”
The document - an ungainly thing with 11 annexes, 102 maps and countless codas and subclauses - is a framework in black and white that seeks to transform four years, two wars and more than 200,000 deaths into the makings of a peaceable future.
The peace treaty calls for an independent Bosnia to become a country of two states. One state would be controlled by the rebel Serb factions that waged a war of secession. The other would be governed by a coalition of Muslims and Croats.
For the time being, at least, Bosnia would be a country of two armies - or three, counting the NATO forces whose mission is to keep the rival sides apart and prevent a return to war. The agreement calls for foreign governments to train a civilian police force and prepare for free elections next year.
Indeed, the day-to-day administra tion of Bosnia is one of the most difficult challenges ahead. Forty-three months of war have created two million refugees and left the infrastructure and the economy in tatters.
While the NATO military force is designed to make the country safe for rebuilding, it will take many hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to pay for the work of renewal.
Clinton has said the United States is likely to spend perhaps $600 million on economic assistance to Bosnia, in addition to the estimated cost of $1.5 billion to deploy troops. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are working on a development strategy.
Previous agreements have failed to stop the killing. Hopes for greater success this time rest on NATO’s apparent willingness to commit troops and the willingness of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to promise peace in return for an end to the economic vise that grips his country.
Yet, one of the most unpredictable hurdles in the way of a treaty-signing in Paris next month is the ability of Milosevic and the other leaders to convince the politicians and the public in Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo and Pale, the rebel Serb capital.
Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, certainly the most agonized figure in Dayton, agreed Tuesday to surrender half of prewar Bosnia to Serbian forces that murdered and plundered their way to military gain. He found himself trading chunks of land with the enemy in return for a promise of peace.
Gone are the former Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa, overrun in July by the Serbs, who then slaughtered thousands of innocents. Still part of the Muslim-Croat federation is Gorazde, the last outpost of Muslim control, now surrounded by Serbian territory.
Izetbegovic hardly thought it was fair, but he signed.
“To my people, I say this may not be a just peace, but it is more just than a continuation of war,” the scholarly Izetbegovic said Tuesday. “In the situation as it is … a better peace could not be achieved.”
Sarajevo will remain largely unified, although the Bosnian Serbs were granted jurisdiction over neighboring suburbs. The capital city will be governed by the Muslim-Croat coalition, a firm goal of the Bosnian government delegation.
All sides made clear that the peace agreement is more a beginning than an end, more an opportunity than a lasting result. The challenge of turning paper into peace is beyond difficult.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher spoke of the need to be “realistic and cold-eyed.” European negotiator Carl Bildt said results will be the key to a “true peace.”
Amid the hopes and the applause, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, said, “These decisions will become historic only when they are implemented.”
During his weekly lunch with Vice President Al Gore Tuesday, Clinton called Milosevic and Izetbegovic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and told them “you’ve done an honorable, noble thing to give your peoples a future of peace, and we will support you,” according to White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
Clinton told them this “represents the dawn of a new era for Bosnia” and explained that this agreement would be especially meaningful to Americans on the eve of Thanksgiving.