Liberal warmongers have a lot of awkward questions to answer

My foreign policy requires that we employ more soldiers, equip them better and use them more often

IT WAS about three weeks into the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia, and I felt myself being swept away on the mighty tide of the Veteran Journalist's contempt. I was in one of the BBC's radio cubicles at Millbank, and the VJ's voice was coming down the line from one of those pleasant-sounding (but actually ramshackle and coffee-stained) places, usually referred to as "our Winchester/Stratford/Perth studio". I forget which it was.

The war was not going well, and we liberal warmongers were under pressure to justify Nato strategy; radio presenters are rarely on the wrong side of a running argument, and their scepticism at our belief in the need for intervention was becoming almost physical.

This, they were suggesting, was what happened when ex-hippies got to starting wars. But even allowing for this atmosphere of hostility, I was not prepared for the scale of the VJ's assault. The words he used were the words of complete dismissal: incompetent, ludicrous, absurd, misconceived, stupid and so on. "This New World Order," he finally spat, "I hate it."

But what's to hate? The New World Order, a relative of the Ethical Foreign Policy, connotes a very loose post-Cold War agreement on how, and according to what principles, the world should now be policed. Based substantially on the wealth and armed might of the world's one remaining superpower, the United States, it suggests that the more that can be done to make all countries into liberal, minority-loving democracies, the better it will be for everyone. In other words, let us help them to be more like us.

For 40 years this is not what we said. Then our enemy's enemy was our friend. "He may be a bastard," as an American president once remarked of a client dictator, "but he's our bastard." A highly pragmatic diplomacy operated, aimed at consolidating spheres of influence.

But where do we stand now? These days, any Tom, Dick and Harriet thinks he or she owns our foreign policy. You get a few heads on sticks, and the shout suddenly goes up for intervention, for troops, for anything. What, the VJ might ask, have the Indonesians ever done to us? Or the East Timorese done for us? How many of the inhabitants of, say, Carlisle, can place Dili within the correct hemisphere? What happened to West Timor? Is there one at all, or does Timor just end abruptly in the middle? It is, the VJ may well argue - deploying his armoury of heavy-calibre words - absurd, ludicrous and misconceived for us to get involved.

Heads on sticks. Terrified women pushing their kids over the UN compound wall. Guys in fatigues wielding machetes. Shades of Rwanda, shades of Bosnia, shades of the pogroms. Who could name the capital of Rwanda, until suddenly it was full of the corpses of Tutsis? But let me ask you this: knowing what you now know, what would you give to be able to turn the clock back, and put Western armoured cars between the Interahamwe and those they were about to slaughter? Would it be worth pounds 100? More?

This is not a costless world, unless you are a radio presenter. Or a cartoonist. Only they can portray Western intervention as a bumbling, ithyphallic Clinton astride a Cruise at one moment, and then draw a gasbag UN blethering as children die the next. Heads he wins, tails you lose - if only satirists ruled the planet.

So New World Order people like me (and maybe you) - we softies who cannot bear to see heads on sticks - have a lot of awkward questions to answer. Earlier in the week, Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, was asked about the deployment of an armed UN force to police the passage of East Timor from Indonesian rule to the independence that the people had just voted for. "I wish," he said rather gently, "it were that easy to convince the governments to give you troops for some of these operations. Even in some situations when we've been given a clear mandate with a need for a peace- keeping force we've not been able to get the forces from them."

If we NWO types had our way, this situation would be much worse. When Mr Annan refers to peace-keeping he's primarily talking about standing between two antagonists, whose conflict might threaten world peace. But I also want the ability to intervene in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations, where that is the only way of protecting large groups of civilians from being massacred. My conscience requires lots and lots of troops.

In East Timor, Britain is unlikely to be asked for more than logistical support for an Australian-led operation. The Americans (naturally) will be leant on to contribute rather more. I imagine that the Portuguese, as former colonial rulers, will also want to do their bit. But it doesn't change the fact that this need to set the world to rights is an expensive and a difficult business for us as a country.

A large part of our armed forces is now tied up in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Kosovo, and will be for a long time. Another international crisis, and we would be unable to do very much to help. And my foreign policy requires that we employ more soldiers and pilots, equip them better, and use them more often.

This is hard for me, since - like many liberals - I am very uncomfortable about guys with guns. The very characteristics that might make fighting people effective (such as controlled savagery), scare the living daylights out of me. My idea of absolute hell is Saturday night in the Squaddie's Arms, Aldershot, and yet here I am advocating that it is time to beat our ploughshares back into swords.

And, although I dislike the notion of imperialism, my policy also requires sometimes substituting my judgement for that of rulers in far-off lands. How confident am I that UN intervention in East Timor will not strengthen the hands of those in Jakarta who oppose reform? Might it not be better to turn the clock back to the days of nudging dictators in the right direction, and of keeping the troops at home?

That, of course, was the Old World Order. Let us recall its other great successes. It delayed for over 30 years the implementation of sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. It gave covert military support for Unita in Angola, Renamo in Mozambique and the contras in Nicaragua, thus blighting three poor countries for a generation. It connived in the 40-year marginalisation of the Palestinians. And it permitted the Indonesians to annex East Timor, using weapons supplied by our arms industries.

That was only the West. Meanwhile the Russians were busy giving it out from the other side of the great divide. Communism's greatest export turned out not to be the empowerment of the masses, but the Kalashnikov.

So East Timor may provide a challenge to the New World Order, but it also shows the fatal flaw in the Old one. Which is that what goes about, comes about.

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