Since brokering an end to the Bosnia war in 1995, President Clinton has twice set specific dates for ending the mission of U.S. troops there, only to later admit that he would not meet his own withdrawal targets.
In conceding Thursday that he no longer has any idea when the troops will leave - he refused to even guarantee they would be out by the time he leaves office in 2001 - Clinton acknowledged a painful truth for U.S. policymakers.
Prevailing against the dark and intractable forces of conflict in the murky Balkans is not a short-term proposition, but it will require continued effort, risk and expense on the part of the United States and its NATO allies.
While not backing away from the cause of Balkan peace, the administration has been forced to concede that it has widely underestimated the difficulty of many of its goals: from the return of refugees and the building of joint political and police functions to the capture of indicted war criminals.
The picture is hardly one of failure, however.
It was, after all, U.S.-led force and diplomacy that ended nearly four years of bloodshed, atrocity and destruction among Croats, Muslims and Serbs in Bosnia two years ago. Since then, much has changed on the ground.
Serb snipers and artillery, for example, no longer terrorize the citizens of Sarajevo.
The flow of gas has returned to once-icy homes, clean water has returned to residences, schools and hospitals, and scores of miles of roadway and bridges battered by war have been repaired - the result of some $2 billion in international reconstruction aid. Another $1.4 billion in aid already has been pledged.
Economic activity in Bosnia has roughly doubled since the war’s end. Even commerce among former Croat, Muslim and Serb foes is beginning.
There have been, also, a series of national and local elections, beginning to let people, not generals and thugs, have a say in their fate.
Some 350,000 refugees have returned to their homes.
“You’ve had 24 months of peace,” Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Samuel “Sandy” Berger said Thursday. “And it’s not just because you’ve got a soldier on every corner. The Bosnian people want peace.”
What’s stalled, though, is the core of Clinton’s peace plan - convincing former battlefield foes to work together in a single Bosnia broken into two cooperating states - one dominated by Serbs, the other by non-Serbs.
The single largest impediment to that, analysts say, is that former Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his top general Ratko Mladic remain at large. It has been nearly two years since the two were indicted for alleged war crimes by a United Nations tribunal set up to judge those who committed, ordered or oversaw the rape, torture and murder of civilians that characterized the fighting in Bosnia.
There’s evidence of wrongdoing on all sides, but the Serbs stand alone in perpetrating deliberate atrocities upon Muslims and Croats. Serbs make up two-thirds of the 74 suspects indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, Netherlands.
Many in Bosnia regard Karadzic on a par with Hitler. Nothing would mark as dramatic a turning point in the restoration of peace in Bosnia like bringing Karadzic to justice before the Hague tribunal.
“The fundamental problem is that Karadzic in particular still wields a heck of a lot of influence over what happens in the Bosnian entity,” said Kurt Bassuener, policy analyst with the Balkan Institute, a Washington think tank. “As long as he’s considered in de facto control, it’s going to present a problem.”
For Bosnians, that problem is serious. Of the 2 million Bosnians who were run out of their homes by the war’s violence and ethnic terror, only about 30,000 non-Serbs have returned to areas now under Serb control. One reason is fear of retribution from Karadzic’s or Mladic’s henchmen.
Until large groups return home, knitting together a viable Bosnia will be difficult, perhaps impossible.
The second part of the Karadzic problem involves cooperation among Serbs and non-Serbs, without which Bosnia can’t function as a single state.
Bosnians, particularly in the capital of Sarajevo, to which Karadzic and Mladic lay siege for nearly four years, aren’t likely to ever cooperate with a state with links to either man.
The problem is that the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia has so far elected not to arrest either Karadzic or Mladic. Clinton fears that such an arrest could spark a gunfight that would result in American casualties, or provoke general confrontation from Serbs.
Clinton - who will visit U.S. troops in Bosnia on Sunday - indicated Thursday there is no change in that policy, saying, in essence, that peace could still take hold in Bosnia even if Karadzic and Mladic remain at large.
That approach still infuriates many Bosnians, who see those two men with the blood on their hands of an estimated 200,000 people killed in Bosnia’s painful war.
A Bosnian woman who spent the war in Sarajevo and has since moved to the United States said that peace cannot come to Bosnia unless the NATO forces are willing to do what’s needed to arrest Karadzic and Mladic and bring them to justice before the Hague tribunal.