Policing the world - it's a tough job, but someone's got to do it

It is absurd that the EU is not the main military, as well as political, force in shaping the Balkans' future
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A FEW years ago the actor, Bill Murray, starred in a film in which the flawed hero awoke each morning to find that it was the same day - Groundhog Day - all over again. This was intensely frustrating, of course, but at least it gave him the opportunity to perfect a technique for seducing his beautiful, but hostile colleague. In the end he succeeds, but only by changing his character.

Well, yesterday morning we all got up to discover it was Groundtroop Day once more. This is the recurring day when newspaper editorials and shadow foreign secretaries thunder that its time for the West/the UN/Nato to stop fannying around in Slavia or Mbobo, and get stuck in and sort things out.

There's nothing like an atrocity for concentrating the mind. That Kosovan ravine with its limp harvest of civilian bodies taunts us with our parents memories of Einsatzgruppen and Polish forests, and our own shame, that of newly dug trenches spotted by aircraft near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. (And please, will the Serbian reader who wrote in last time I mentioned Srebrenica, and calling me a "dirty Jew" threatened my life, save himself and me some time and send it directly to a police station.)

But what are the troops to do in Kosovo, and who is to supply them? Well, in the first instance they are to "stop the killing", and then somehow to pave the way for the "inevitable" creation of an independent Kosovo. Or, according to a second view, they are to act as a "third force, armed and determined" to "stand between" the Serbs and the Kosovars until some (unspecified) resolution is reached. Yet another suggestion is that the troops might expedite the arrest of those responsible for the Racak massacre and ensure their delivery for trial on the charge of committing war crimes. The experience of war crimes prosecutor Louise Arbour yesterday, refused entry yet again to Kosovo, suggests that only force will ever bring the killers to justice. That, or a badly timed trip by an octogenarian Milosevic to visit his London osteopath.

Certainly, the unarmed monitors have been unable to prevent several breaches of the October ceasefire, mostly by the Kosovo Liberation Army. It may have been the killing of a Serb policeman that enraged the Serb commanders sufficiently for them to send their executioners hunting for warm bodies on which to inscribe their cold message. Whatever the mothers of Belgrade or grannies of Pristina might want, their men - the ones with guns - are determined to fight. When winter has passed, there will be massacres that make Racak merely the gory hors d'oeuvre to the really substantial feast.

Let us agree then, that without troops from the outside, the future holds only misery for the people of Kosovo. Thirty thousand Nato personnel currently hold the line in Bosnia (weren't they all supposed to be out long ago, or have I misplaced a couple of Christmases?), policing an agreement that has been signed. How many more might be needed to police one that hasn't even been suggested yet, I do not know. Yet, without them, there will be more suffering than our consciences can probably bear.

If thousands of our soldiers are not to be garrisoning weirdly named mountainous villages a decade from now, we must somehow achieve a settlement. What we are presumably looking for, given the demographics of Kosovo, is a way of levering the Serbs out of a province that all shades of Serbian opinion seem to regard as integral to their national existence. You want to talk about interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries?

And who is to accomplish this? Well, the Americans mostly. They've got the money, the size, the machines and the attitude. We British are also good at this kind of thing, and it is generally agreed (even by the Guardian) that we should look for some substantial contribution from our allies in Nato.

I hardly need to point out the irony of these demands for American troops to be deployed in the Balkans, following the way some sections of British public opinion have characterised recent events in the Gulf. It is barely a month since the bombing of Iraq was greeted by a chorus of derision so loud that it was practically impossible to make one's voice heard over it. China and Russia did not agree with the action; it wasn't legal under the UN charter; the innocent would suffer; it was the cynical war of Clinton's Cigar; by what right did we set ourselves up as the world's policeman?

Well, Clinton is being impeached for real now, and he could certainly use a diversion. China and Russia will object even more strenuously to Nato forces effectively assisting as midwives to the birth of an independent Kosovo (and Yeltsin is sick again). The legal status of Nato intervention in the internal affairs of the former Yugoslavia is decidedly dodgy. And there we are again, pinning the sheriff's badge to our jump-jets, and going to do what a man's gotta do.

But this one we're in favour of. Don't ask me why the bastard Milosevic is considered to be so much more of a bastard than the bastard Saddam. It may be because we've already had one Gulf War, and that exhausted our patience with Gulf Wars, whereas we haven't been properly involved in a Balkan War yet. Perhaps we are only prepared to tolerate armed action when the proceedings are heroic, casualty-free, decisive, kill no civilians and above all, are quick.

But let's presume that we genuinely feel the moral tug of Racak, and the need to do something about it (while also conceding that it may be in our interests to avoid a conflagration in the scrub land adjacent to our backyard). Well then, we have decided that we must police the world. (And, incidentally, how about offering some direct help to the suffering, terrified and exhausted inhabitants of our former colony of Sierra Leone, who witness Racaks on a weekly basis?)

That being so, I can think of no good reason why the Americans should always be expected to bear the brunt of such operations, only to be constantly reviled when things go wrong (as they do). If we are into world-policing, then others must contribute more. It is absurd, for instance, that the EU is not the main military, as well as political force, in shaping a peaceful future for the Balkans. The vast bulk of any army enforcing a new Kosovan settlement will have to come from the streets of Britain, the farms of France, and the forests of Germany.

Don't shake your head like that! It is childish and self-defeating to will the ends and cavil always at the means. It is like pouring vitriol on the social workers who take children away from families, and then crucifying the same workers when the kids aren't removed quickly enough.

In Kosovo there is no pain-free solution; if we do not want any more massacres, then we will have to pay real money and expend real lives, and tell other people in other lands what they must do. And so every day, for many years to come, will turn out to be Groundtroop Day. With enough practice we might even get it right.