A real life or death decision

MPs must put aside their outrage and face up to a momentous choice over our role in the Balkans
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The Independent Online
As Parliament re-assembles at short notice tomorrow, it confronts the most serious military choice for Britain since Margaret Thatcher ordered the dispatch of the Falklands task force 13 years ago. That was a difficult and dangerous choice too, made straightforward only by hindsight. The risks were horrible. Yet it was simpler than the Bosnian decision in every way. It was a British choice alone. The desired outcome was clear. There was a plausible end-point.

Today's choice is far harder. Nothing can or will happen in the Balkans now that will cause Union Jacks to wave or garner politicians' grateful votes. That more British soldiers are fated to die seems inevitable. It would be a remarkable retreat from that country which was accomplished without casualties, while further military involvement would certainly cost more lives than those who have died so far. There are, first and foremost, those 33 hostages.

The choice, left open by the sending of more troops, is: out, or deeper in. "Out" means that we shall witness the slow strangulation and butchery of a Bosnia that was recognisably political, multi-ethnic and European. "Deeper in" means a long and bloody war to drive out the Bosnian Serb army and produce a viable,defensible Bosnian state; and though the first signs from Moscow seemed moderately encouraging, as Michael Sheridan pointed out yesterday, this carries the medium-term risk of an American-Russian confrontation in the Balkans.

Faced with the choice of bad or bad, many MPs, like many of the rest of us, will merely smoke with impotent anger. Member will vie with Member in finding words savage enough to describe the behaviour of the Bosnian Serbs; they will be spared not a single adjective from the armoury of parliamentary aggression. There will be other targets, too - the White House and its strategy of fighting a far-off war on behalf of liberal columnists with other people's soldiers; the cynicism and manipulation of the Bosnian government itself; the Belgrade politicians. There may even be anger and regret directed at those MPs who so passionately opposed military force three years ago, when it might have worked at relatively little cost.

But how will the Commons divide? The politicians worth listening to will be the ones who chuck aside the thesaurus of vituperation in favour of a hard analysis of the options. They spend the year with letters after their names, salaries and the attention of the media because they are supposed to be experts in choice. Occasionally their choices and analyses really are about life and death; the reaction of the Commons to the invasion of the Falklands had a big impact on the Thatcher administration's determination to reclaim the islands by force. This moment is another such.

The first hard proposition for MPs to address is this: are we prepared to lose more, possibly many more, of our people in this conflict? If the answer is no, then we must soon leave it and live with our consciences.The Bosnian Serbs derive their strength not from guns or local knowledge but from a single acute insight; that "these people", the British , the UN, are not prepared to shed their own blood. In any conflict, of course, the side willing to die trumps the side that isn't. Serb tactics have been to force the UN to recognise openly its own lack of neutrality, then to confront its lack of willpower. It has been poking the international force in the chest and saying, "You want to fight or not?", in the sure knowledge that answer is, "Well,no". The paradox of a white-painted tank, or a soldier whose job is to stand by, is one that the hostage-takers have rubbed all our noses in.

This is not to knock the achievements of the UN's paradoxical army thus far - special forces waving olive branches have kept alive tens of thousands of people. But, it it's to come to a shooting war, there is an imbalance of will-power that all the laser-guided, precision-milled, microchip-directed military hardware in the cavernously huge arsenals of the West cannot correct. While US planes fly, but US troops cannot be killed, the Muslim enclaves cannot be defended. As things stand they, and their people, are forfeit; there are many more hostages in Bosnia than the Western soldiers.

It may be that pulling back to Sarajevo therefore becomes the next logical step for a bewildered and collapsing world order. The Serbs might allow people to stream there from the enclaves, turning the city into an even bigger, pullulating refugee camp, its remaining inhabitable buildings clogged with exiles and wholly at the mercy of Serb gunners. Its chances of avoiding epidemic and starvation would depend on the coffers of the UN, which would rely on the Serbs to let supplies through. Either the noose would be slowly tightened until the Bosnian government sued for peace, or Sarajevo would become a subsidised West Beirut for Europe, a shanty town for exiles in those tents tomorrow's generations of terrorists are grown. Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.

Nor would the evil stop there. We would be back to the world of the League of Nations, a time when the phrase "international community" disappeared, except as a bad joke. American isolationism, already a rising force, would be greatly strengthened. It would be grimly matched, as in the Thirties, by European handwringing. Wet, clammy, purposeless - and dangerous - would be the norm here.

It is not possible to describe quite how dangerous it would be to bequeath to the next generation a Europe which aspires to be no more than an inward looking and high-consumption Switzerland - a frightened Europe. But that it would be dangerous, we cannot doubt.

These may seem windy generalisations with which to respond to this particular emergency; but this is how countries and peoples decline. It is the specific, local choice which turns out to determine the larger direction. Of all the hustling, competing evils, surely a desperate scuttle from Bosnia, leaving the field to perpetrators of genocide, would be the least tolerable, the least safe.

The cost of establishing Sarajevo and the area around it as a secure bridgehead that could not be threatened by the Bosnian Serb army would be great and long-term. It would mean attacking well-entrenched positions and holding territory, possibly for years, against a venomous enemy. It would mean dead British and dead French teenagers. But it looks like the only plausible option, short of scuttling.

It is the less bad one. There is no equilibrium left; either things tilt now towards a final Serb victory and the end of the UN as a force for order, or they tilt towards the final frustration of that victory. It is possible that if the Serbs come to realise that their hostage-taking will mean, after the fall of the enclaves, a much bigger and longer Western involvement, serious negotiations will follow.

Possible, but not something to bank on. In the end, we need to wade deeper into this quagmire because, like all countries, we need a sense of self- respect. Up to the weekend, we have struggled on in Bosnia while retaining our self respect because we have been an ambiguous but wholly well-meaning party to a vicious war. Now there are no more ambiguities left to hide behind. It would be better to paint the tanks green than to abandon them.