Few cheers for Rose as he bows out of Bosnia

Claims that the UN general caved in to Serbs are overblown, writes Tony Barber, Europe Editor
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Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose completed his assignment in the world's most thankless military job yesterday when he left Sarajevo after a year as commander of United Nations forces in Bosnia. Reviled by Bosnia's Muslim-led government and outsmarted by the Bosnian Serbs, General Rose embodied the West's inability to impose its will on former Yugoslavia and to command the respect of the local politicians and warlords. Like his predecessor, General Philippe Morillon of France, General Rose raised high hopes when he arrived in Bosnia and promised a more "robust" approach to the UN's peace-keeping operation. In the end, he left the republic much as he found it: at war, with the Bosnian Serbs in control and with a lasting settlement as far off as ever.

Self-confident to the last, General Rose denied his mission in Bosnia had ended in failure. "We managed to hold the line. There is a very clear distinction in my mind between peace-keeping and peace-making. We have moved painfully down the road to peace," he said.

The 54-year-old former SAS commander stirred such controversy that his friends and enemies have exaggerated the influence that he exerted over developments in Bosnia. Supporters credited him with ending the Muslim-Croat war that raged for a year in central Bosnia until last spring; critics denounced him for failing to stop Bosnian Serb onslaughts on the Muslim enclaves of Gorazde and Bihac.

In reality, the United States played the most decisive part in halting the Muslim-Croat war, by warning President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia not to annex parts of Bosnia and by promoting the concept of a Muslim-Croat federation that would be linked to Croatia. Still, General Rose deserves praise for ensuring that the US-brokered peace has more or less held in central Bosnia.

In Gorazde and Bihac, the key factor in the UN's failure to check Bosnian Serb aggression last April and November was not General Rose's behaviour but that of his political superiors in London, Paris, Washington and UN headquarters in New York. The Western powers could not agree on a coherent military plan of action to deter the Bosnian Serbs and the British government in particular was determined to avoid large-scale punitive action that might suck Nato into a wider, more dangerous war in the Balkans.

As a result, although the Atlantic alliance fired its first shots in anger last year, they were limited air strikes that had little physical or political impact upon the Bosnian Serbs. Nato was humiliated but the fiasco was primarily the responsibility of the bickering political leaders, not of General Rose.

The general pointed out on numerous occasions that UN troops did not have the equipment or a mandate to take the war to the Bosnian Serbs. "I am not morally indifferent, but as a peace-keeper I have to stick in the middle," he said.

"Nato force was always to be kept relevant, proportional, done with warning and only as a last resort. To talk about taking out Bosnian Serb air-defence systems - you're talking about Gulf war fighting. We're not in that game here. We're not the enemy ofanyone."

The problem with General Rose's definition of impartiality was that it often seemed to translate into submission to the Bosnian Serbs and to impatience with the Bosnian Muslims. In Gorazde, the general reserved his fiercest anger not for the Serbian forces who had stormed into a vulnerable town that was full of refugees but for the Muslims whom he accused of deliberately caving in so as to provoke Western intervention on their side.

The general was right in pointing out that the Bosnian government has proved capable of resorting to many stratagems in order to try to reverse the disastrous course of the war. The Muslims have exaggerated their losses, broken ceasefires and generally done whatever they could to prolong the war in the hope of finally receiving Western and preferably US military assistance.

However, General Rose's criticism of the Bosnian government for adopting these tactics was a classic case of failing to see the wood for the trees. The fundamental fact of the war is that the Serbs have waged a ruthless campaign to destroy the centuries-old multi-ethnic communities of Bosnia.

In so doing, they have conquered about 70 per cent of the territory and killed or driven from their homes enormous numbers of Muslims. In these circumstances it appeared perverse on the part of General Rose to single out the victims for criticism.

The general's view was that the Muslims had lost the war and needed to understand that no international cavalry was going to come riding to their rescue. This made him an object of loathing to the Bosnian government and to Western interventionists who called him an appeaser of fascism.

However, General Bertrand de Lapresle, the French UN commander for former Yugoslavia, has praised General Rose. "He has remained steadfastly loyal to the principle of peace-keeping, applying the relevant UN mandates with vigour and impartiality," he said.

Even some Clinton administration officials who are inclined to support the Bosnian Muslims have acknowledged that General Rose performed a service by calming the conflict in the Sarajevo region. However, other policy-makers in Washington grew increasingly angry with the general during the past year over what they saw as his obstruction of a tougher line against the Serbs.

Like his three predecessors as UN commander in Bosnia, General Rose is returning home with his reputation somewhat battered by his experience. His assignment coincided with one of the worst-ever rows among the Nato allies and with a decline in the prestige of Nato and the UN in Bosnia.

However, if a finger of blame is to be raised, it should not be pointed at one commander but at the Western governments that failed to agree on a consistent and workable policy on Bosnia.