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Mission not accomplished

The Clinton administration's Bosnia policy becomes clearer by the day: Get our troops out on a schedule that keeps them from becoming an issue in our presidential campaign, and don't worry too much about what they leave behind.

Vice President Al Gore admitted as much Sunday when he said the administration is still committed to removing U.S. troops from Bosnia by the end of the year. Gore also all but ruled out an American presence in any smaller peacekeeping operation that might remain in Bosnia once the 60,000-strong NATO force departs.

This would be wonderful news if the reality of life in Bosnia warranted such an optimistic timetable. Unfortunately, the NATO mission has failed to meet most of its stated objectives. A tenuous pause in hostilities has been maintained, but little has been done to prevent a resumption of warfare as soon as NATO is gone. Thousands of refugees have been denied peaceful returns to their former homes. Indicted war criminals have retained their authority and escaped justice. And the vision of free elections to establish a new multiethnic government has been all but abandoned.

The Clinton administration may have given up on the original aims of the NATO mission, but it is working feverishly to maintain the illusion of progress through the fall. Richard Holbrooke, the State Department official who hammered out the Dayton peace agreement, was brought out of retirement to finesse a deal that led to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's nominal departure from public life. Not even Holbrooke made much of an argument that the deal would bring any real change in the Bosnian Serbs' political leadership. Meanwhile, Washington is still determined to go through with some sort of Bosnian elections in September, even though no one seriously expects them to be free, fair and binding.

The NATO mission began to go wrong from the moment Western leaders allowed Bosnia's warring factions, particularly the Bosnian Serbs, to get away with major violations of the Dayton accords. It is not too late for the United States and its allies to get serious about enforcing those commitments. At this point, though, that probably would cause the NATO military mission to become lengthier and more dangerous.

That's why White House officials would rather ignore reality until after Election Day. If that strategy helps President Clinton win re-election, he will deserve to have to deal with the political, military and moral mess it is likely to produce early next year.

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