As the UN turns its back on former Yugoslavia, the last pretence that the outside world can impose a happy ending on the conflict there has been dropped. For millions of refugees, this means a future without hope; for the West, humiliation - and dange
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The Independent Culture
SOMETHING is ending in Bosnia, but it is not the war. If the United Nations finally withdraws its "protection force", the bloodshed will quite certainly go on, and - for a time at least - may even grow worse. What is ending is a pretence: the long, wordy, evasive pretence that the outside world could bring an end to the conflict on terms which have anything to do with justice.

There is a winner. The Serbs have won their war. There will, after all, be a Greater Serbia, a confederation or perhaps eventually a unitary state which brings together most - though not all - of the Serbs who inhabited the old Yugoslavia. This state may or may not annex more of Bosnia; the actual possession of Sarajevo, for instance, is not necessary to complete the plans of either Slobodan Milosevic or Radovan Karadzic, although there would be little to prevent the city's fall after the departure of the UN and Nato. But Greater Serbia in effect now exists, and in effect - veiled by all sorts of hypocritical diplomatic reservations - its existence is being recognised.

There is one winner, but a multitude of losers. One loser, plainly, is the Bosnian government, even if the lifting of the arms embargo helps it to reconquer something of what it has lost. Another collective loser is the refugee mass, the hundreds of thousands of displaced families hounded out of all the territories occupied by Serbian forces who now face a life sentence of exile in dreary camps or migrant hostels all over central and western Europe. But the third great loser is the West.

This is the most devastating, and the most humiliating defeat suffered by the Western powers since Munich in 1938. Yalta, where Churchill and Roosevelt accepted with a few threadbare protestations the Soviet domination of eastern Europe, merely recognised facts which it was too late to change. The failure of Nato to prevent the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961, like its failure to reverse or even affect the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, was no more than obedience to the rules of the Cold War - which ordained that any attempt at military intervention would unleash global nuclear war. But the Bosnian defeat is both more shameful and more dangerous. Shameful, because the West might have prevented the worst of the Bosnian war and imposed a limit to Serbian expansion. Dangerous, because the guardians of European peace - the statesmen and institutions and pacts whose duty is to make a security system and deter aggression - suddenly look about as convincing as cardboard figure-targets on a shooting range.

NOW, in the final act, comes the babble of exculpation, as everyone blames everyone else. The British and the French blame the Americans for refusing to put troops on the ground in Bosnia and for suggesting that air strikes could somehow swing the balance of the war (although Nato had no remit to attempt any such thing and air strikes have little effect on small, concealed units of infantry). The American right-wing, in both Congress and the media, accuses the Europeans and above all Britain of cowardice and a secret preference for the Serbs, who they apparently think could be bombed into submission.

The Germans, or at least some conservative German analysts, have a more sinister complaint. They suspect that a secret Franco-British entente has revived, committed all along to a set of antique, balance-of-power objectives. The entente's main aim is the establishment of a Greater Serbia as the major power in the Balkans. This would at least bring a crude stability of fear to the whole region, and set up a powerful Western client- state "with whom one could do business".

Flattered and bribed into the Western orbit, this Greater Serbia would relieve two venerable nightmares which obsess the Foreign Office and the Quai d'Orsay - still mentally living in the run-up to the First World War. The first is the expansion of Russian influence into the Slav Balkans. The second is the "danger" that Germany might exploit its special relationship with Croatia to run an independent foreign policy which meddled in Balkan affairs. British diplomats, indignant, dismiss all this as ridiculous paranoia. The Germans, however, wonder whether the collapse of the whole Unprofor operation and of the official "pro-Bosnian" rhetoric might not be seen privately in Paris and London as a kind of success.

THE TRAGEDY of the West's intervention in Bosnia is a tale of obstinacy in the face of facts. In itself, the idea of inserting UN troops to relieve human suffering was a brave and practical scheme. And it did, as everyone repeats ad nauseam but fairly, save hundreds of thousands of lives. Even the peculiar involvement of Nato, as a sort of sub-contractor to protect the humanitarian effort, was defensible. The trouble was that both the UN and the Nato member governments persuaded themselves that the humanitarian operation would also - somehow - have a peacekeeping effect. All those blue helmets and white-painted armoured vehicles would soothe savage hearts, without actually having to fire a shot. But, as we know now, it had the opposite effect. By taking responsibility for some of the most hideous consequences of the Bosnian struggle, like mass starvation and the sufferings of those driven from their homes, the UN presence has made it easier for warlords to concentrate on war.

This was clear years ago. So was the impotence of the UN to stop the fighting, let alone restore the borders of independent Bosnia. But Western governments, harassed by agonised public opinion at home, never found the courage to admit it. So began that disgraceful period of pretence - the empty threats, the futile ceasefires, the trampled peace plans, all designed to persuade us that the West was about to achieve what could never have been achieved - which is now reaching its moment of truth.

Watching on television the living skeletons of Omarska camp, or the daily life of Sarajevo under siege, other Europeans asked the obvious question: should we not be fighting for these people as well as feeding them? The hurried, invariable reply was a double one: it would take hundreds of thousands of foreign soldiers, and anyway, public opinion would rebel when the first body-bags came home. Neither point is certain. In Britain, at least, polls have suggested that the public would have accepted the risk of casualties if it meant "saving Bosnia". And it may well be that the use of small, highly-trained professional units - a Marine Commando, for instance - to clear positions held by amateur militias would have shattered the grasp of Croat, Serbian or Bosnian commanders over their own forces throughout the region. But we will never know. The politicians of the West never for a moment intended to be drawn into the "political" use of force in ex-Yugoslavia. And yet for three years they implied that under more provocation they might do exactly that. Now their bluff has been called.

The West's collapse in Bosnia sends up a dust-cloud of uncertainty which hides the very future of Europe. This is by far the worst crisis in Nato's history, a fiasco which has set the European partners against the United States. Even the British, usually so servile to the "special relationship'', have been driven to gang up with France to resist American ideas about Bosnia. Perhaps Nato only knows how to do one thing - to unite against a massive threat from the East, the purpose for which it was created - and should never be tempted to wander out of that area into anything else. But perhaps, worse still, Nato has lost even that capacity. Last week in Budapest, President Yeltsin growled that Nato should not acquire new members. But the next candidates for membership, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, must now be wondering whether Nato still has the elementary will to protect its own.

And yet Nato is all we have. It remains Europe's only weapon to deter an aggressor, contain an expansionist tyrant and defend the borders of small and unstable nations. Every kind of trouble lies ahead. Nobody can now reverse what has happened already in ex-Yugoslavia. But there is still time to prevent the next round: the eruption of Macedonia into a spreading ethnic conflict which could drag in Albania and Serbia, then Bulgaria, and finally - if all control were lost - Greece and Turkey. Far to the north-east, in the political earthquake zone which runs from the Baltic republics through Belarus and Ukraine to the Black Sea, lines have to be drawn and the consequences of crossing them have to be proclaimed with deadly clarity.

The use of armed force is a resort so terrible that it deserves respect. If you are prepared to use force, you must make your enemy know it. If not, it is better to be honest and walk away. The crime of the United Nations and Nato in Bosnia is to have coquetted with force, a sham which is always seen through and leads to worse suffering.

The Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg once said that "war does not walk at once on to the stage. He arrives early at the theatre, and stands about for a long time in the wings, waiting for his cue."

That proved to be true about Bosnia. But the cue came, and he delivered his performance. The houses burned, the soldiers raped and died, the innocent lost their country. Now he is looking for his next theatre, somewhere in Europe. There is still time to recognise him, and - if we have better bolts and keys - to keep him out. !