WHILE WASHINGTON debates ending the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims, and NATO and the United Nations argue over air strikes and ground interventions, no one is talking to the man behind the bloody Bosnian Serb offensive, Radovan Karadzic. Does the Serb leader, who only last week was indicted as a war criminal, want peace and, if so, at what price?

Recently, as Sir David Frost's executive producer, I traveled behind so-called "enemy lines" to produce the first extended interview in several months with Karadzic, whose victories in Srebrenica and Zepa were finally sounding a wake-up call to somnolent Western non-policy. In approaching our rendezvous with the psychiatrist-turned-politician, we were warned by our local "fixer" of the perils of curiosity: "Don't ask about his relationship with General Mladic, his family, Milosevic and so forth." I thanked him and promptly forgot his advice.

As we boarded our planes for Belgrade, a last-minute letter of safe passage never materialized. "What good would that do in front of a drunk 20-year-old Serb with a gun? They wouldn't give a {expletive} if Clinton and Yeltsin were in the car with you," I was told by a top Serb diplomat in Geneva.

Diverted from the southwestern route from Belgrade to the Bosnian Serb headquarters at Pale -- apparently to steer us away from the misery of refugees fleeing Srebrenica -- we were sent on a 10-hour trek south, then west across the Drina River. That road would take us 15 miles south of Zepa and five miles north of Gorazde, the scene of the Bosnian Serbs' latest assault. Suddenly, the itinerary guaranteed double jeopardy: much talked-about Bosnian army sniper fire on Serb convoys and the tough talk of reprisal air strikes from a newly emboldened French President Jacques Chirac.

At the Serbian-Bosnia-Herzegovina border, we ran into CNN veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett, who was momentarily stalled by authorities. Spent bullet shells littered the ground. On the guardpost house was a huge stenciled sign: "God Is With Serbia." Our respective car convoys were joined as a Serbian police car led us into breathtaking terrain of rugged mountains, gorges and the sleepy green Drina River. Looking up, I could quickly see why so many in the States were sounding the panic button about the military dangers of "another Vietnam." Like the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the serpentine road to Pale was a living monument to six centuries of nativist resistance.

We drove by whole towns "ethnically cleansed" by Bosnian Serbs -- so many of them rendered lifeless, gutted, motionless and ultimately useless. The exception was Visegrad, on the Drina River -- the city with the elegant medieval bridge, and a latter-day scar. On every tree on main street, scores of leaflets were tacked to the tree trunks. Our fixer explained, "Each piece of paper is a war dead. They just say something vague like tragically passed,' but we know the truth by the birthdates."

We arrived in Pale at 10:30 at night, hours past our appointment. In the dark hours, Pale looked more like the former 1984 Olympic ski resort than the nerve center of the Bosnian Serb military command. We were driven to the "International Press Center," a mere villa with a few phones, a computer and Karadzic's short-fused 24-year-old daughter, Sonya, who is the center's "director." After a few checks, we were led to the command center, a reconverted diesel engine factory that resembled an ordinary suburban industrial park. Inside, dozens of soldiers in combat gear eyed us curiously. We were checked and triple checked. One of our fixers was thrown out because he was dressed in shorts. "Would you wear this if you were going to interview {Serbian} President Milosevic?" Sonya scolded.

Karadzic's press secretary, Jovan Zamatica, walked in -- a small, narrow-eyed man with Giorgio Armani glasses. Bizarrely, he spoke with a near-perfect Oxford accent but had a chilling, emotionless demeanor. After a brief hello, he wanted to run through how the "president" (as Karadzic styles himself) would enter the conference room and pose for pictures: " \. \. \. he'll enter through this door, turn left, Sir David goes here \. \. \. ." The smaller the country, I thought, the greater the obsession with trivial protocol. Two flags of the unrecognized Republic of Srpska hung in the corner; a royal insignia was placed on the desk (and was quickly removed by one of our cameramen). By 12:30 a.m., Karadzic, virtually unknown to Americans, walked through the door connecting his office to the conference room. He was top-to-bottom Slav: dark eyes, big frame, a serious demeanor and bouffant hair with its streaks of white and grey. He dressed in a dark blue suit with a hip blue silk tie. We were told that he bites his fingernails; they were chewed down to the bone. It is often remarked by those in their presence that the authors of considerable evil can seem to be ordinary men. And, indeed, my first impression was that Karadzic did not seem to be the type of man indictable for 20,000 rapes, genocide, a war with 250,000 dead, the merciless siege of Sarajevo and the log-jamming of Western foreign policy. Speaking in a soft voice in accented but reasonably fluent English, he looked like an auto parts distributor. There was nothing crazed or psychopathic about him -- leery, a bit cautious, but in no way possessed of the aura of a "little Hitler," as much of our research had suggested. Occasionally, he smiled.

With a few words about our road trip out of the way, Frost turned quickly to the week's atrocities: the past attack on Srebrenica and the near collapse of Zepa. Karadzic calmly gave justifications about how the U.N. "safe havens" were launch pads for attacks on Serb villages.

Frost pressed on: " \. \. \. it looks like the way the Nazis behaved \. \. \. "

Responding, Karadzic unloaded an arsenal of exaggerations, half-truths and falsehoods. His hands were politely folded. "You may ask television why they are representing things that way \. \. \. . They have hidden the truth \. \. \. ," he said. He then countered with contentions about "1,200 Serbs near Srebrenica in mass graves," adding, "As a matter of fact \. \. \. {French} General Morillon attended some funerals about it."

Turning to diplomatic options, Frost pulled out a hand-drawn map of Bosnia. The BBC's art department had painted bright colors for each of the republics; at one of the many checkpoints, Frost and I had drawn in the cities and rivers. Asked what Karadzic would settle for -- which town, which river, how much of Sarajevo, what percentages -- he began to point and explain. He wanted a divided Sarajevo, like Berlin, an "air traffic" corridor leading out of Banja Luka and a town here and a town there. He thought the Una and Sava Rivers would be "natural borders." With recent military gains behind him, he was sounding greedy. His index finger trailed across the map, pointing very specifically: We felt as though we were witnessing the division of Poland. While the cameramen were changing videotapes and Frost was making some notes, I sat down to talk with Karadzic. I wanted to figure him out, so I tried to engage him in chit chat. Psychologically, as soon as the cameras pause, the typical interview guest lets up. More often than not, little asides during these breaks reveal more than the formal statements. And surely, I wondered, how could a man who had first-hand experience of our American culture not imbibe some of its values, or at least recognize the boundaries of its moral tolerance? I started with his year in the United States.

"I understand you were at Columbia in 1974. What did you study there?" I asked.

"Poetry and psychiatry," he answered lightly.

"Isn't that what your wife did, psychiatry?" I went on, knowing that she too was a trained psychiatrist. (I also recalled that some 30 members of her family were reportedly killed by Croat fascists and Muslims.) I told him that we had uncovered in our research a psychological profile: "The Case of Dr. Karadzic," undertaken by three American professors. He drew forward in curiosity.

"What did they say?" he asked.

I told him that they drew heavily from his writings and poetry (Karadzic had written five books of poetry and, unbelievably, children's stories.) He chuckled dismissively, as if to say, "Oh, no, not that stuff."

Karadzic's writings, to be sure, were dark, with tones of self-pity, fervent nationalism and recurring images of death. In one poem, called "Sarajevo," he wrote about "calamity transformed into an insect and of its pulverization of that insect."

In fact, much of what Karadzic was now saying to Frost reflected, at a political level, the same plaintive and self-pitying tone of his poems. Was this the pose of the skillful psychiatrist trying to outmaneuver a world-class interviewer? "No one listened to the Serbs \. \. \. the West cries only for Muslim babies \. \. \. they are terrorizing our innocent people."

Karadzic even tried to suggest that Muslim fundamentalism was not only Serbia's enemy, but all of ours. Time and again, he said that the West didn't even listen to him. He sounded like the Rodney Dangerfield of the Balkans, but there was nothing funny about the consequences of his desire for respect. As one of his aides had put it, "If no one talks to us, we will keep going forward in a military way."

Frost then asked him about his expertise in paranoia. "I can't judge myself as a psychiatrist," Karadzic said. But why, Frost went on, did he use his skills "to whip up feelings, increase paranoia and not to clear it?"

"That's impossible to do. I used to work with small groups, up to 12 people," he said. "You can't treat the whole nation. History has treated our nation."

Frost then asked him about imminent war crime charges by the International Court in The Hague. Was he afraid of being formally indicted?

The court, he complained, was founded on a "discriminatory basis \. \. \. founded to threaten and to threaten Serbs." He argued that war crimes were not a part of Bosnian Serb policy, only the excesses of civilians. " \. \. \. This war is a continuation of the first world war and the second world war. The same families have suffered from the same killers. It had begun in 1914, if not earlier."

No one understood the mind of the Serbs, he argued; indeed, history was so unforgiving to his people that the Serbs had learned to celebrate defeats -- in battles against the Turks, the Austro-Hungarians, the German fascists and now, irony of ironies, their old World War II allies, the Western powers.

Near the end of the interview, Frost asked him about a confidential letter, dated June 8, 1995, that Karadzic had sent to President Clinton. In the letter, Karadzic called on Clinton to convene a "Camp David"-style peace conference. Karadzic wrote that peace could come "in a short time." Now on air, Karadzic repeated the offer but made it sound as though it was Frost's.

"I think you are quite right," he said. "We should move to get some type of Camp David -- stay several days, if not weeks, and \. \. \. help settle the whole Yugoslav problem." One wondered whether Karadzic was proffering an olive branch to buy time for his top military commander, Ratko Mladic, to complete his blitzkrieg. When the interview was again interrupted with a tape change, Karadzic said, "How did you know about this letter?" Frost indicated that we had mutual connections. Karadzic smiled faintly.

"They didn't even answer my letter," Karadzic protested with visible offense. "I don't even know if it was even received," Zamatica added.

Karadzic also had bitter words for the so-called "Contact Group" of great powers. "All the Contact Group does is contact itself, not me \. \. \. . The Serbian nation is 11 or 12 million people. We can't be great.' Britain is great. Germany is great. We are not great." The interview ended just before 2 a.m. Karadzic wanted to pose for pictures and chat with us. We were told that Karadzic works late but sleeps until 10 in the morning. His daughter had disappeared. Outdoors, one could hear the muffled shelling of Sarajevo, only four miles away. Before leaving, Karadzic asked how we thought he did, whether his points were clear and well made. He then became almost light-hearted: He talked about soccer, how he used to be the psychiatrist for the Sarajevo soccer team working in "team motivation \. \. \. not one-on-one but the team."

As we drove out at dawn from Pale, it occurred to me that, Karadzic's wounded ego aside, it might be useful for the Clinton administration to talk to Karadzic again, to engage him face-to-face right here in his third-floor "presidential" conference room in Pale. Someone should study his map; clearly, Karadzic's mind was not made up. His military men had placed 70 percent of Bosnia in his pocket, and he said he would settle for less, perhaps 56 to 60 percent. In terms of curbing bloodshed and preserving the semblance of a homeland for the Bosnian Muslims, the difference is not inconsequential.

Moreover, despite their monstrous and unforgivable excesses, the Bosnian Serbs, like any protagonist, truly feel they have cause for aggression, historically valid or not. If no call is paid to Pale, nothing will be resolved. One hopes that such diplomatic entreaties will be made -- before the U.S. sends in the Apache helicopters and before Karadzic becomes the next Gavrilo Princip, the Serb nationalist who triggered World War I. As Karadzic said ominously toward the end of the interview, "So if the third world war is here, then we are not responsible." Florescu is co-executive producer of PBS's " \. \. \. talking with David Frost."