Inside File: Europe angry at White House's 'simplistic' view of Bosnia

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a derogatory nickname used privately within the Clinton administration in reference to Cyrus Vance, the co-author of the UN-EC peace plan: 'Little Chamberlain'. The rather inept metaphor reflects the most basic misapprehension in the American perception of the conflict in Bosnia - the idea of a war with one aggressor advancing across borders, a war with two sides only, a war of black and white.

'That's the misconception that lies behind all their stupid ideas,' said one European official who had recent dealings with the Clinton administration on Bosnia. The justification behind what the US sees as at best, European inaction, at worst, a European sell-out, is the realisation among Europeans who have dealt with the issue all along that it is much more multi-faceted than that.

Consider, for example, the way US television covers the conflict: the networks will show footage from Mostar - where it is Croat forces, not Serbs, who are doing the 'ethnic cleansing' - but fail to put it in the context of a multi-ethnic conflict. The commentary will instead focus entirely on Serb aggression.

Another example of the many facets that worry European governments is the long-term possibility of a Muslim mini-state in Bosnia. Governments in the Islamic world, such as Saudi Arabia, have recently sent private signals to Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President, that they would be prepared to fund and support the Bosnian Muslims provided they formed a homogeneous Islamic nation rather than part of an ethnically mixed federation. Such a Muslim mini-state would be land-locked, hemmed in by nationalist, authoritarian Serbian and Croatian states. Should it feel insufficiently supported by the West, it could provide fertile ground for Islamic extremism.

European officials see the roots of the American over-simplification precisely in the fact that the issue has been left largely to the media while Mr Clinton concentrated on his domestic troubles. 'From April, when he gave vague promises of 'doing more' about Bosnia, until last week, Clinton simply abandoned the debate,' said a European official. 'The whole discussion was conducted on the opinion and editorial pages of the New York Times.'

The irritation on the American side was what they saw as the public pretence by Europe and the Vance-Owen team that should the peace plan be implemented, the Serbs' territorial gains would be somehow undone. But even EC diplomats admit privately that should the Vance-Owen plan be implemented, it will not mean that Serb gains will be reversed. But, they argue, at least there is a chance that killings will stop.

The Europeans, meanwhile, grew impatient with American talk of 'doing more' without a hint of a US commitment to peace-keeping troops on the ground. It is only logical that such a commitment should be opposed by military men such as Colin Powell, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Europeans say the problem was exacerbated by the continuing absence of Les Aspin, the Defense Secretary, following his heart surgery. This left the President exposed directly to the military commanders without a political filter in-between.

Once the American simplistic, stop-the-Serbian-aggression view got going, the administration found it hard to stop. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, came to Europe with a set of proposals - air strikes and arming the Muslims - which the Americans were convinced were right but which they also knew full well the Europeans opposed.

Madeleine Albright, the US ambassador to the United Nations, was described by one European source as 'a menace'. She privately suggested to Mr Clinton that the US go ahead and table a UN Security Council resolution to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia's Muslims, in order to test the strength of the allies' objections; meanwhile she claimed that air strikes would not require any further UN resolution at all.

The proposal of arming the Muslims has been abandoned for now. Adding to the current irritation in Europe is that the change of heart in Washington will now be blamed publicly on the inactivity of Europe. One official said about arming the Muslims: 'What they're going to do is not do it, and then blame us.'

The West is now waiting for President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia to deliver the agreement of the Bosnian Serbs to the Vance-Owen plan. No measures have been ruled out, however. Should the safe areas declared by the UN come under threat, the American advocates of air strikes may yet have their day. But after Tuesday's public airing, there are few specifics to disagree on at the moment. By last night, everybody was agreed that the transatlantic row had peaked - for now.