Policy wrecked on the rocks of US in-fighting

Bosnia: Michael Sheridan, Diplomatic Editor, on why the Anglo- French initiative floundered
Click to follow
This is the tale of how Britain and France set out to fashion a "robust" approach to the Bosnian war but found their initiative fatally confused by politics within the Clinton administration and poor co-ordination between Downing Street and the French President, Jacques Chirac.

The outcome left the two countries committed to the dispatch of British and French reinforcements to a war zone without any clear prospect of either resolving the conflict by force or settling it by negotiation.

It all seemed simpler when the Cabinet met at Downing Street on the evening of Sunday 28 May and decided to send more troops to Bosnia. They were to boost the beleaguered credibility of the United Nations force, to "provide muscle" to back negotiations and to put in enough men and materiel to help in a pull-out, if that became necessary.

The next day Douglas Hurd went to Brussels, where European Union foreign ministers endorsed the Anglo-French rapid reaction force. He went on to The Hague, where there was a meeting of the Contact Group on Bosnia attended by the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, and the Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev.

There was no objection from Mr Kozyrev, provided negotiations continued with Serbia. Mr Christopher gave no indication that there would be problems in Washington. The next morning, at Noordwijk in the Netherlands, Nato ministers heard details of the rapid reaction force.

But it soon became public knowledge that the US-mediated negotiations with President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia had folded and the US envoy, Robert Frasure, had left Belgrade.

It was not such common knowledge that a faction within the Clinton administration, including the UN ambassador Madeleine Albright, had insisted Mr Frasure be tightly restricted on the concessions to be offered to Mr Milosevic. Britain and France had no political process left to back up their military deployments.

Ms Albright and Mr Christopher, British and French officials felt, were not always singing in harmony.They also realised that the National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, was pulling Mr Clinton in differing directions over Bosnia as part of a power struggle with Mr Christopher.

On Saturday 3 May Malcolm Rifkind went to Paris for a meeting of defence ministers, including the US Defense Secretary, William Perry. France proposed that the rapid reaction force should be under the command of its own member nations to escape UN bureaucracy. But the French eventually accepted this would create too many chains of command in Bosnia and the force should formally be integrated into Unprofor.

But Mr Perry had left the meeting before this agreement was reached and went back to Washington apparently convinced Britain and France would fund and command the force on their own. Key members of Congress were briefed to this effect.

Horrified, the British and French tried to reverse this impression, which meant the estimated $400m (pounds 250m) costs would not be met by the UN. But Mr Clinton's Republican critics, hostile to foreign aid, the UN and European policy in Bosnia, seized on the fact that the US would have to meet 31.7 per cent of any UN-funded operation. They dug in their heels.

President Chirac stepped into the fray. But he had not co-ordinated his approach with John Major. Mr Chirac argued the case with Congress and boldly told his listeners that Britain and France demanded political backing but did not much care about the money. Fine, said the Republicans, we shall endorse it but not fund it.

So when President Clinton dined with Mr Chirac and Mr Major at the G7 summit in Halifax, Canada, last weekend he had to confess he was in a bind. The whole saga has made the prospects for a clear policy on Bosnia gloomier than ever.