Another war, another word game: Robert Fisk likens the West's treatment of Bosnia to an earlier betrayal

Click to follow
Which Bosnian minister described a meeting with European mediators as follows? 'He added hurriedly and with superficial casualness that no answer was required from us, that they regarded the plan as accepted, that our government had that very day, at the latest at 3pm, to send its representative . . . to the sitting of the Commission . . . The atmosphere, he said, was becoming dangerous to the whole world . . . X did not conceal his weariness. They gave us a second slightly corrected map. Then they finished with us, and we could go.'

Was this Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president? Lord Owen had often enough failed to conceal his irritation and weariness with the Bosnian government, complaining - how long ago, it seems now - that they were behaving like victors rather than losers. The secret of this chilling paragraph is that it comes from William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and the exchange described in the passage comes from the pen of Dr Hubert Masaryk, writing to the Czech foreign ministry in September 1938.

The man who was forcing the map upon Masaryk was the secretary general of the French foreign office. 'X' was Neville Chamberlain. The ethnic map was of the Sudetenland. The victor was to be Adolf Hitler.

European ministers long ago condemned such parallels. Slanderous, irresponsible, inaccurate, they have told us. And they engage in a word game. Bosnia, they claim, is a civil war - forgetting that the apocalypse of 1939-45 began as a European civil war. In the Middle East, however, listening to the news of the latest slaughter in Sarajevo is a painful business. Out here, it seems as if the reaction of European governments is not so much one of indignation, but of determination not to take military action in the face of even further war crimes. For what happened in Sarajevo on Saturday was a war crime.

Yet on Sunday, there was the United Nations, solemnly analysing the shell crater in the Sarajevo marketplace. So far, announced the officers of Mr Boutros Boutros-Ghali's 'peace' force, it was impossible to prove who fired the fatal shell. It was as if the League of Nations had sent a team to Warsaw in September 1939 to investigate the slaughter of civilians under German bombardment. Could it be, perhaps, that the Poles were bombing themselves? To be sure, the parallels are not exact. The Bosnians have shelled their own people before. And the Polish government, dictatorial and anti-Semitic, was not blameless in the years before the Second World War. But who, one wonders, are the soldiers of Unprofor - or, indeed, the European governments - trying to fool?

All across the Middle East, Muslims are asking this question. They are asking themselves why the massacre of their co-religionists in Bosnia is allowed to continue. At its most nave, the question is simple: if Muslims were slaughtering Christians in Bosnia, would the West still be standing idly by? More sophisticated inquiry tends to focus on that moral crusade which we waged only three years ago, when the largest army in the Christian world went to war with the most powerful army in the Muslim world.

In those days, of course, the moral issues seemed clear enough. I remember General Norman Schwarzkopf's first press conference in Dhahran. When, I asked him, was he going to tell his soldiers that they might have to fight a war against the Iraqis for oil? 'This is not about oil - it's about rape,' he boomed back at me. 'In fact, it's about gang rape.'

Iraqi troops did rape several hundred women in Kuwait. But then came Bosnia and the systematic and deliberate rape - as a matter of policy - of up to 20,000 Muslim women. And there were no General Schwarzkopfs to be seen. British ministers who unhesitatingly sent British troops off to war in the Gulf, who denounced any voice that expressed reservations about the moral purpose of the conflict, now spend their time warning of the danger of British casualties in Bosnia.

Indeed, they expend much effort planning not a careful military intervention to stop the horror in the Balkans, but a tactical European retreat every bit as pitiful as Munich. Hitler could not control Yugoslavia with 100,000 troops, European governments point out, so how can we? At a press conference I attended in Vitez, Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, shamefully used these Nazi statistics to demonstrate the impossibility of imposing peace on the Balkans.

But let us return to the Middle East, whose nations - most of them - were persuaded to join in the war for Kuwait's liberation. Across the Arab world, there is growing anger about Bosnia.

Satellite television nightly beams into millions of Arab homes the humiliating epic of rape and butchery. And it is having its effect. One of the most dreadful atrocities in Algeria in recent months was the killing of 12 Croat workers whose throats were cut - according to the Muslim extremists responsible - because of Bosnia. In Cairo last year, a gunman burst into the Semiramist Hotel coffee shop and shot an American and a Frenchman in the face with a submachine gun. Only later did the Egyptian police admit that he had confessed the murders were committed 'in revenge for Bosnia'.

Isolated incidents, you might say, forgetting that 30,000 Egyptians gathered in Al Azhar, the oldest university in the Muslim world, last autumn to protest at the bloodbath in Bosnia. What they objected to was not so much the abnegation of responsibility and respect for human rights which European policy - especially British policy - represents; it was the conscious programme of non-involvement, the deliberateness of the West's refusal to risk European lives in a European conflict in which Muslims were the principal victims.

In the West, the weekend's cull in Sarajevo seems set to produce more variations of the word game. Lord Owen was back in action yesterday, censuring all thought of military action. Britain's policy seems unchanged. Any Western involvement in the war would necessitate a possible - probable - British withdrawal. British regiments have battle honours - Corunna, Waterloo, Mons, Dunkirk, El Alamein. Who knows, faced with such evil in the Balkans, the Coldstream Guards may have to add 'Retreat from Bosnia' to their curriculum vitae.

If that turns out to be the case, Eastern Europe will no longer trust us. In the Muslim world, smouldering suspicion of the West's true intentions will burn brighter. It will be the very final goodbye to the New World Order. As for us, we'll be left to re-read Shirer's history of the Third Reich.

(Photograph omitted)