Dayton, Part II?

Bosnia-Herzegovina spent much of the 1990s at the top of the world's newscasts, as a savage three-sided war between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniak Muslims ravaged the country.

But over the last 12 years, the good news in Bosnia is that there has been almost nothing newsworthy. The 1996 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the conflict has lasted more than a decade and withstood some perilous moments that had the potential to spark new violence -- including the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 and a declaration of independence by Kosovo in 2008.

The Dayton treaty was forged with U.S. diplomatic and military muscle to achieve one primary aim: stop the killing. As with any compromise, it had imperfections. And while all of the three warring parties have followed the letter of the Dayton Agreement, none of them have wholeheartedly embraced it. And Bosnia still remains outside of the major institutions -- the European Union, NATO -- that would stabilize the country on a more permanent basis.

Indeed, after a decade locked in Dayton, there is a sense inside Bosnia -- and outside of it -- that the sturdy stalemate has grown plain stale and that the United States might once again need to muscle Bosnia's ethnically based parties into a permanent political solution.

After they put down their guns, Bosnian politicians of all ethnicities never quit squabbling among themselves over laws, property, responsibility for the war, and even the flag and national anthem. But they have also chafed under continuing international supervision -- including an appointed European high representative for Bosnia who possesses wide-ranging political powers to annul laws that go counter to the Dayton Agreement, remove Bosnian officials deemed obstructive, and even legislate for the country.

Muslims, Serbs, and Croats all want a hand in determining their country's course. But none of these groups can agree on what sort of course it should be. Bosniak Muslims want a strong central state. Serbs want continued autonomy -- or even secession. Croats would like closer ties with Croatia -- and many have already immigrated to that neighboring country.

The divisions have created a firm international consensus that the country's politicians are not ready to rule and that the safest course is a continuing role for outsiders in running Bosnia.

"I think it is a little premature to take the training wheels off at this moment, until the Bosnian authorities demonstrate that they've got their hands on the handlebars," Raffi Gregorian, who until last week was the acting international high representative, told Reuters last week.

The antagonism and deadlock in Bosnian politics over recent years backs up that conclusion. If the international community withdrew right now, Bosnia would certainly tumble into political chaos and perhaps return to its previous violence.

If the international community -- led by Europe -- was willing to run Bosnia indefinitely, there would be no problem. But many governments involved in supervising Bosnia's peace -- including Russia and the United States -- think that 13 years is long enough to get hands on handlebars. Moscow and Washington would like to get out of the Bosnia business once and for all. And the EU wants its relationship with Bosnia to shift from policeman to partner.


So if Bosnians want the foreigners out and the international community wants to go, why hasn't it happened yet?

It is not for lack of good intentions. Since British politician Paddy Ashdown was named as the high representative back in 2002, both he and his two successors have enunciated a desire to be the last official in charge of Bosnia. (An intention to end the position has been announced twice before as well.)

But far from winding down the office of high representative, the Peace Implementation Council that oversees the Dayton Peace Agreements named a new high representative -- Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko -- to take the position just last week. And to underscore the indecision about timetables, the council gave Inzko an indefinite term. (The council will meet again in June.)

The fault does lie partly in the Dayton Peace Agreements. The treaty was conceived and agreed upon in exigent circumstances. Once the United States threw its full military and diplomatic weight (tardily, in the view of many observers) to help end the protracted war in Bosnia, it was not going to accept failure. Targeted bombing of Bosnian Serbs, along with a "green light" for a Croatian offensive to take back much of its territory, was followed up by the hardball diplomacy of Balkan envoy Richard Holbrooke which secured the agreement.

Dayton ended the war, but it has not obtained a secure state. The compromises required to stop the killing -- two ethnically separate entities within a unitary state and a presidency that rotates between ethnic groups -- have proved to be an insuperable bar to Bosnian integration and political cohesion.

The blitzkrieg of diplomacy left lasting resentments. Bosniak Muslims thought that the creation of an entity called "Republika Srpska" locked in territorial gains that Serbs had achieved through terrorism and killing. Bosnia's Serbs felt that they were bombed to the negotiating table by NATO and bullied there by Serbia's ruler, Slobodan Milosevic, in an effort to rehabilitate his own international standing. Bosnia's Croats bemoaned the fact that they were forced into a political marriage with their Muslim countrymen, rather than being given the opportunity to unite with Croatia.

Events outside of Bosnia have also stirred its internal politics. Kosovo's declaration of independence last year, for instance, spurred Bosnia's Serbs to renewed calls for self-determination and a referendum on their independence. If Kosovo's Albanians have a right to independence and swift recognition by the international community, they ask, why not us?

The continuing war-crimes trials at the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia -- including the impending trial of Radovan Karadzic, who led Bosnia's Serbs during the war -- are a potent counterargument to awarding Bosnia's Serbs such independence. But the question of whether Dayton is the best path forward for Bosnia is a fair one.

Many observers (including the Peace Implementation Council) have placed great hopes in a new plan announced last November by politicians from all three of Bosnia's ethnic groups to meet conditions laid out by the council for an end to the protectorate.

The Prud Process (named after a town in northern Bosnia where it was created) is a promising attempt to rewrite the Dayton Agreements, but it faces many potential roadblocks. It kicks many issues down the road until after the international presence ends, providing potential flashpoints for new violence. Support for the plan among Bosniak Muslims is divided along political lines. (One party is in favor, the other against.) Many Bosnian Serbs see it as an end to any potential hopes of independence.

And many elements of the plan that have been announced amount to kicking key issues about the property and an upcoming census of the country (and its inevitable political fallout) down the road for four or five years.

The Prud Process led to an intensification of efforts to force Bosnia's leaders into a political solution. The previous high representative, Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak, reasserted his powers to rule by edict to push the process forward with uneven results at best.

The appointment of a new high representative will be taken as a sign of failure. Far from being on its way to oblivion, the position is still deemed necessary. (Indeed, The International Herald Tribune reported on March 14 that the United States had held up the appointment of Inzko to ensure that he would be "tough enough" to handle the fractious interethnic politics.)

Holding up appointments seems a churlish and unprintable use of U.S. power in the region. Better yet would be a return to the tactic that worked so well in ending the war: an intensive and sustained bout of diplomacy.

If the Prud Process shows anything, it is that there is sentiment within Bosnia to break out of the political impasse. Perhaps bringing the main players out of Prud -- to Pittsburgh, maybe? Or Phoenix? -- will jumpstart the negotiations that have already begun. Bosnia's politicians will bask in the prestige of a U.S.-brokered negotiation to revise their constitution. The European Union will have a big problem solved -- and be able to play the useful role of good cop to the more forceful ministrations of U.S. diplomats.

Going back to Dayton might not be the answer. But going back to a forceful and sustained U.S. presence in negotiations could break the deadlock -- just as it did in 1996.