A British tail wagging the American dog

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WHEN the Cabinet meets this morning, there should be a row. John Major, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind are committing themselves to backing air strikes against the Serbs, at least in principle. They have concluded that the West might be able to use its arsenal to political effect, after all. They have done so reluctantly, but a bridge has been crossed.

Other cabinet ministers remain bitterly hostile, at least in private, to any further escalation of pressure. They have the strong support of senior Conservative backbenchers, such as the chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, who wants British troops pulled out. Will they speak out? Some will demand assurances about the aims of the attacks, and about the safety of soldiers, which will be very difficult for Mr Rifkind to give. But it is unlikely that any more junior cabinet members have the confidence to reject a policy advocated by the Prime Minister and Mr Hurd. At any rate, it will test how open Mr Major's Cabinet is.

After Cabinet, however the argument goes there (and however it is glossed for outside consumption), the divide should be graphically displayed in the Commons. If Mr Major tries to reconcile a united Nato front with the demands of his party, we could yet end up with the absurdity of air strikes accompanied by the rapid withdrawal of all outside ground troops. That would the final disaster.

We are not there yet, and even the prospects for a united Nato position are questionable. Air strikes are the one policy that can unite European governments, military planners and American public opinion. But they may not be the favoured option in Washington.

The idea has been getting about that relations between London and Washington would not be affected if Bill Clinton decided to try to persuade the United Nations to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. Diplomatic sources are still acutely concerned that he will go for this option: here, ministers are, if anything, hardening in their view that such a policy would not only be impractical, but immoral.

Among other European Community states, only Germany has shown the slightest enthusiasm for such a policy, and that may be connected to its own inability to take any military action. Certainly, there seems to be no prospect that Britain or France would follow a US lead in lifting the embargo. Indeed, the debate at the heart of government is whether under such circumstances Britain would abstain at the UN Security Council - or would actually veto the US proposal.

A veto would be an extraordinary occurrence. It would be the beginning of the end of the so-called 'perm three' - the US-British-French inner group that, since the end of the Cold War, has been the driving force behind Security Council resolutions. It would be the first veto since the end of the Cold War, too, and would mark a dramatic break from previous British practice, for instance when London disagreed with Washington over Arab-Israeli issues. That time, we abstained. There would be protestations of mutual regard and private messages of understanding about the mood of voters. Even so, it would be the worst military row since Suez.

So how serious is the threat? In practice, it would be extraordinary if such a veto was ever used: this is part threat, part bluff. But it is a potent way of trying to blow the Clinton administration away from a policy that European governments think they could not sustain. On the other hand, senior British strategy advisers are being flown to New York soon to be available to the Government if a Security Council showdown happens.

The message that a US resolution to lift the arms embargo would not have British support has already been passed to Washington, which is also taking soundings with the French. There are faint signs that the debate in the Clinton adminstration is moving slightly away from arming the Muslims and towards air strikes, as London wants. The matter remains delicately balanced, but if Mr Clinton does go that way, it would be reasonable to credit, or blame, British and French pressure: the tail does sometimes wag the dog.

A few days ago, there seemed to be yet another glimmer of hope in Bosnia itself. Srebrenica was quiet. No further Serbian attacks had been launched elsewhere. Lord Owen was in Belgrade and the talks were still on. And now? The advance continues. Nato troops are dangerously exposed, despite their non-combat role. The Bosnian Serb assembly is as bitterly militant as ever.

Is it too late for outside force? It is very late, but we should not be paralysed by the vicious Croat-v-Muslim fighting. The Bosnian Croats have clearly decided there is no international rule, and that with the Serbs continuing to grab territory, they might as well return to the same bloody trade. Had Nato troops been there to defend surviving Bosnia, it might have been different. But even now, air attacks, plus the defence of civilians in the unoccupied centre of Bosnia, could stop the Serb advance.

Based on what has happened so far, we must assume this will not occur. We must assume there will be no serious discussion of ground troops being used, except in a passive role, at today's Cabinet. We must expect the air strikes to come too late, as well, and to be followed by a quick withdrawal of our soldiers, and then by further vicious massacres. Those who oppose military intervention dwell on the horrors of a long-drawn-out guerrilla war against British troops. Those who still back it are entitled to dwell on the horrors that await the unarmed, innocent Bosnians if we walk away.