Inside File: Owen's lack of style pays off

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WHATEVER the very real objections at home and abroad to Lord Owen's manner and style, most diplomats agree that had it not been for these very characteristics the protagonists in the Bosnian war would not have come this far. 'Impulsive', 'erratic', 'un-English', 'a high-wire act' were some of the descriptions applied to him this week in Western capitals.

These also happen to be the very opposite of the characteristics ascribed to Lord Owen's predecessor, Lord Carrington. And had he been mediating, the parties would probably still have been holding inconclusive ranting sessions in separate rooms among the gold-framed Canalettos at Christie's (where Lord Carrington is chairman).

Lord Carrington, much as he was an upright, courteous and very English gentleman, displayed in private a tenuous grasp of the Balkan maze into which he had been plunged. He would name, say, the Serbs as the majority in a certain area, only to be corrcted by one of his aides. He spoke wistfully of Tito, seeming almost to regret that the dictator had died to leave him with this mess.

Yet the complications of the Bosnian situation were not the only factor that made it different from the Lancaster House settlement on Rhodesia which Lord Carrington successfully ushered through. The other difference was that the Rhodesian parties wanted a settlement.

The Bosnians didn't, and what was required was a firm enough grasp of the facts to bully them with confidence. Take, for example, the Muslims. Their sole objective remains Western military intervention. The biggest villain here is not President Alija Izetbegovic but his Foreign Minister, Haris Silajdzic - who, diplomats say, is capable of engineering a Serbian attack on the Muslims to strengthen the intervention case.

In Athens last weekend, one diplomat said: 'Don't mention that man's name to me. Our only hope of having any sensible discussion with Izetbegovic is if he is out of Silajdzic's reach.' As it turned out, Mr Silajdzic did not come and Mr Izetbegovic did not give his usual press conference to issue his usual calls for intervention.

The Muslims have succeeded on one front: the Americans now favour supplying them with arms. British and French diplomats who oppose the idea because they have troops on the ground and because they don't see the sense of pouring more arms into an area already awash with weapons, have taken to ridiculing privately the arguments put forward by its American proponents. These include General Barry McCaffrey, who is accompanying Warren Christopher on his European tour this week. Diplomats say Gen McCaffrey - a hero who helped mastermind the left hook of the Gulf war - claims he 'knows from experience' that lifting the arms embargo works because it worked for the Contras and the Afghan mujahedin.

'Never mind there are 10 million Afghan refugees] Never mind the war there is still going on]' said one European diplomat. It doesn't look as though President Bill Clinton will get the allies on board on that one.

Should the Vance-Owen plan fail, the allies will probably agree to limited air strikes. This is just as well for Mr Clinton: in Washington they wonder why the allies are giving Mr Christopher such a hard time. President Bush was able to get even the Syrians to fight with America against Iraq. What would people think if Mr Clinton could not get even his closest allies to fight in Bosnia?

These are some of the personalities brought together by the past year's diplomatic wrangling. There are countless more, of course - not least Radovan Karadzic, psychiatrist, leader of the Bosnian Serbs and chief ethnic cleanser. Mr Karadzic fears he may not be with us much longer - he said privately at the weekend he was afraid for his life at the prospect of going to Pale to get his 'parliament' to approve the plan.

So far, virtually all the players have been men in dark suits. France is proposing to change that. It is considering dispatching an envoy to Kosovo. Lucette Michaud-Chevry, the new French Minister for Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, is a tough West Indian, with a no-nonsense approach that won her the highest score of any deputy in the French elections. She is known as the Iron Lady of Guadeloupe.