West's policy of force appears to be going horribly wrong: Tony Barber examines the UN's options: war or humiliating retreat

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The Independent Online
IT HAS BEEN a shameful week for the West in Bosnia. It started with Nato aircraft bombing Serbian positions in the Muslim enclave of Gorazde, ostensibly to protect United Nations personnel there. It has ended, if the latest UN and US State Department statements are to be believed, with Gorazde's defences collapsing under Serbian onslaught.

The importance of Gorazde to the Serbs is clear: it straddles a key route linking Serb-held eastern Bosnia with other territory controlled by Serbs in the southern part of the former Yugoslav republic. It might appear that the only choice now for the UN is to plunge into full-scale conflict or accept a humiliating retreat.

By attacking the Bosnian Serbs last Sunday and Monday, the West committed itself to a policy of ending the Bosnian war, by negotiation if possible, by force if necessary. Yet we now see that almost 200 UN civilian and military personnel in Bosnian Serb-held territory are in effect being kept hostage. How much value do we attach to their lives? Enough to sacrifice them in the name of a Bosnian peace settlement whose contours our leaders have refused to reveal to us?

We also see that Russia is deeply angry with the West and is refusing to cooperate with Nato's Partnership for Peace programme for eastern Europe. Are we to pursue a Balkan policy so inimical to Russia that we throw away the historic opportunity to reincorporate Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia into the liberal democratic Western camp?

When one sees the pitiful sight of defenceless Muslim civilians fleeing from Serbian artillery attack, it is tempting to think that an immense amount of Western prestige is at stake in this conflict. Surely, the argument runs, we cannot allow the Bosnian Serbs to overrun Gorazde when only a week ago Nato, the most powerful military alliance in history, dropped its first bombs on ground targets.

But if a study of the post-1945 world tells us anything, it is that there is no more foolish policy than to fire weapons without having a precise political goal in mind. Vietnam scarred the collective outlook of Americans for just that reason. Afghanistan had a similar effect on the former Soviet Union.

There is now an urgent need for John Major, President Bill Clinton, President Francois Mitterrand and other Western leaders to tell us exactly what they are up to in Bosnia. Why are we slipping down the slope to war when the electorates in our democracies have not been told what type of Balkan settlement we stand for?

There is not in principle anything wrong with using force to achieve essential aims. The operation to expel Iraq from Kuwait is a case in point. But in Bosnia the signs are that it is all going horribly wrong.