Bosnia Crisis: Ministers to sift through wreckage of Western policy: EU tries to salvage credibility for its policies

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The Independent Online
EUROPEAN foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg today to sift through the wreckage of Western policy in Bosnia after the Serbian assault on Gorazde.

They will see what can be salvaged and try to establish why the strategy that the EU, Nato and the UN adopted in Bosnia has failed. All three institutions have taken knocks to their credibility. The idea of a safe haven, always flawed, has come apart. Nato air strikes failed to prevent Bosnian Serb forces from dominating the town.

The UN's presence in Bosnia will be urgently debated. Since the conflict began, there has been a contradiction between the humanitarian aspects of UN operations, the protection of civilians and their attempts to prevent the spread of the war. In February, several foreign ministries, including those in London and Paris, were musing that this could not be squared. Maybe it was better, the argument went, to withdraw and let the Bosnian Muslims fight the war their way.

At that time, another argument prevailed. Nato air power would back up Western policy, first around Sarajevo, then around the safe havens and elsewhere. Washington and Moscow would become diplomatically engaged. It seemed to bear fruit, ending the siege of Sarajevo and assisting peace in central Bosnia. But in eastern Bosnia, the Serbs pressed their advantage. Nato air strikes last week failed to check them and the follow-up was uncertain. Late last week, even after further attacks were requested by its forces, the UN held back.

Officials say that fear of further reprisals against the UN was one reason, underlining the fatal confusion about the twin roles of Nato and the UN. Another reason for caution was a desire not to upset the Russians. A third seems to have been an assumption in Washington that the Serbs did not really want to take the town, merely to use it as a bargaining counter. But a deeper contradiction has run through Western military policy from the start: the allies were not serious. It was no secret that each had reservations about key aspects of the policy.

There was never any desire among existing troop contributors to increase their presence to the levels required to do the job. The United States has held back from putting troops in, and others were unable to fill the gap. Without this, the UN and its ground commanders knew the task was impossible. Britain was never keen on air power, or on extending the Western military role, because of the threat to the humanitarian operation.

The use of air power was essentially a substitute for deeper military involvement. But again, there were uncertainties over how far the West would go. A few low passes by aircraft - even the sporadic air attacks of last weekend - were not enough to do damage: they were signals. If the bluff was called, more had to be delivered, and it was not.

This weekend, Nato twice prepared for further attacks and twice they failed to materialise. Whether this was because of the weather - as officials in Bosnia claimed - or because of the lack of people on the ground, is uncertain. Yesterday, there was only one forward air controller (FAC) in Gorazde to direct strikes and he was locked in a building with UN personnel, as a crowd demonstrated outside. Without the FACs, no action could take place.

Gorazde is Nato's first failure, the first time it has fired its guns in anger. Nato diplomats will meet this week to discuss the next steps: but hard decisions must be made.

Nato and the EU may press on with their current policy in the absence of anything new. They could escalate the level of violence - unlikely with the UN still in Bosnia. Or they could withdraw the UN contingents, and the US proposal to lift the arms embargo and mount credible air strikes may resurface. But a new policy is likely to be undermined by recriminations about why this one has gone wrong.