"Will not tolerate," said the Foreign Secretary. It was a message that could be understood with equal clarity by Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade and any Albanian peasant in the hills of Kosovo. If you continue your war against the towns and villages of Kosovo we will stop you, the Serbian leader was told.
That was the promise. That was months ago. Now let us consider the reality. In the months since Mr Cook's bold declaration tens of thousands of people have fled in the face of Serb attacks. According to UN estimates, there are now upwards of 300,000 people living in the open, after being driven from their homes by Serbian forces. This week we hear that another 25,000 people have joined the flight following the Serbs' renewed offensive, shelling civilian centres with the declared aim of destroying the Albanian separatist movement in Kosovo.
Not that the news of this monstrosity attracted much attention in the world beyond Kosovo's grim borders. We have been preoccupied with sexual shennanigans in the White House and the chaotic gavotte in the Kremlin. The most powerful countries in the world are, as I write, led by a lying philanderer and an erratic drunk. It is not a good time to be searching for moral leadership. Besides, we are tired, are we not, of the Balkans and their relentless savagery.
We have had six years now of Serbs, Croats and Muslims, with their burning villages and refugee trails, their weeping women and murderous men, their demands for intervention, their rejection of intervention, their appeals to our conscience and their contempt for our weakness. We are tired and we wish heartily that the whole lot of them would vanish from our screens.
And so, when news leaks out of the thousands newly driven on to the roads, of a 10-month-old baby killed by shelling in the village of Senic, of men and boys being separated from the women by Serb forces, we hear barely a whimper from the leadership of the Free World.
Not that the media have been all that vocal either. The stories about the expulsion of 25,000 people from their homes, in the latest bout of Serbian ethnic cleansing, was tucked inside most of our newspapers. The reported comments of a US official, John Shattuck, that "horrendous human rights violations, violations of humanitarian law and acts of punitive destruction" were taking place on a massive scale, were not considered front page or top-of-the-bulletin news. As I say, we are tired.
Not, mind you, half as tired as a peasant woman trudging down the road from Suva Reka or Blace or any other of Kosovo's doomed villages. Not as tired as the men who are, at this moment, sitting in some Serb detention camp and wondering whether they will survive the next 24 hours. When thousands of frightened people are on the move, human dignity is the first casualty. Hungry and homeless, with the sound of shelling close behind them, the Albanian peasantry are being herded like animals in their own country. And, like animals, they must sleep, eat, shit and die in the open. Not a pretty image and not pretty language. But these are times and events which demand clarity of expression.
As it happens, I have spent the week reading a remarkable book on the massacre by Serb forces at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war. You remember Srebrenica? That was where we made another promise to protect frightened civilians - and then watched as the Serbs slaughtered them in their thousands.
Srebrenica was a "safe haven". The international community assigned Dutch UN troops to protect the people. Again, the promise was unambigous. We will protect you. But we did not. The Dutch troops, frightened and outnumbered, stood by as the massacres and ethnic cleansing began. Even as the US special envoy, Richard Holbrook, sensed that something "terrible" was going on, nothing was done.
The Graves, by the forensic scientist Eric Stover and war photographer Gilles Peress takes us to the mass graves uncovered in the aftermath of the war. But its greatest value is in reminding us of how the absence of a collective will and moral force undermined the international response to the unfolding horrors.
There is a particularly chilling episode in which a woman describes how a refugee bus was stopped in the middle of the night. A bearded Serb soldier stepped on and walked down to where a mother was sitting with a sleeping infant in her arms. The soldier unsheathed his knife, leaned over and slit the child's throat. Can you imagine what it is to experience - in the flash of a knife - the destruction of a life, the flow of your own child's blood across your lap. I have tried to imagine it, but cannot. I wonder how many more mothers, in the long columns of refugees that are now trailing out of Kosovo's villages, will suffer a similar nightmare.
In Bosnia, we knew of the horrors and acted too late. In Kosovo, we know but we refuse to act at all. This is not so much a question of indifference, it seems more like a tragic combination of political and moral exhaustion.
Mr Milosevic is in breach of almost every moral law, yet again, but here in Britain, we refuse to ban flights by his country's airline - one of the pitifully weak sanctions imposed by the rest of our EU partners. Our reason: it would breach a bi-lateral agreement with Belgrade. Breaching agreements! With Milosevic! If it weren't such a tragedy, I would laugh. Tell the abandoned thousands roaming the hills of Kosovo about the legal niceties of our arrangements with Milosevic.
The West fears that the triumph of the Albanian independence movement would trigger a bloody war in neighbouring Macedonia with the potential to bring in other states like Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. There is deep concern too that military intervention in Kosovo would provoke the Russians, who have already made it clear that Kosovo is a key foreign policy issue for the Kremlin. These are not unreasonable fears. The Russian leadership might feel tempted to distract attention from domestic problems by riding to the rescue of Milosevic.
I am not a Balkan expert, and so I defer to the views of the writer and historian, Noel Malcolm, whose understanding of these matters is both profound and widely respected. By failing to intervene, he argues, we are simply guaranteeing further long-term instability. The terror now being visited on the Albanians - who, after all, represent 90 per cent of the population - will create further bitterness, further bloodshed. Blood will follow blood, and a wider conflict may become inevitable.
But will we do anything? Will we live up to the promises made by Mr Cook and the Prime Minister, when they promised months ago to stop Mr Milosevic in his tracks? I don't doubt that Mr Cook wishes he could take action. I believe he is as horrified as anybody else by the relentless onslaught of the Serbs. But with America preoccupied by the politics of the pecker, and Europe divided, he may feel that there is nothing that can be done.
But there remains the problem of his promise. He told the Albanians that they would be protected. Hopes were raised, but the good men have done nothing. And doing nothing, as Burke told us, is the prerequisite for the triumph of evil.Reuse content