Believing one thing and doing another

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH and French governments are very close to losing their argument with Washington about the use of force in Bosnia. Intense diplomatic and political efforts are going on behind closed doors to try to persuade President Bill Clinton to stick with the current policy, which only goes as far as an anti-Serbian blockade. But, according to senior sources in London, these efforts are failing.

Mr Clinton is said to be within a day or two of deciding to commit the United States to a policy of lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia. This is the policy advocated by Baroness Thatcher but described by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, as producing 'a level killing field'.

Indeed, the US may well go further and decide to arm Muslim fighters itself. If Mr Clinton does take this proposal to the United Nations, he could produce the biggest diplomatic crisis in British-American relations for many years. 'We aren't going to end the Atlantic alliance over this, or bust up Nato,' said one British observer, 'but it will be difficult.'

Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, is currently in Washington, struggling to persuade the US administration not to end the arms embargo. A week ago he told the Commons that it was an 'understandable' argument, but went on that its result 'would be to prolong the conflict and to make it even bloodier and more vicious than it is today, bringing continued suffering to innocent civilians.' By and large, Labour and the Liberal Democrats agree.

So if the Americans plump for this policy, John Major will be left with a serious dilemma about how to respond - for instance, to a request from Washington that London should co-sponsor such an initiative. How would he balance the strong advice and public position of his own ministers against the strategic desire to keep on good terms with the new US president - and maintain the unity of Nato? Britain's effort to avoid this choice may yet succeed in changing Mr Clinton's mind. Britain and France are not the only Nato members who are seriously worried.

But if Mr Clinton is argued off the arms embargo option, he will probably veer towards air strikes. Again, Britain has serious reservations, but the Government is not quite as hostile to this as it is to lifting the arms embargo. Mr Rifkind told MPs that 'there could be circumstances in which the selective use of air power would be relevant.' But Ministry of Defence advisers are still saying that such attacks would kill large numbers of civilians (ministers agree) and that they would be militarily ineffective (some ministers, at least, are more sceptical about that).

Whether either of these proposals goes beyond a row between Nato countries depends partly on the reaction of the Russians. The view here is that Boris Yeltsin will win his referendum - or, as one Whitehall insider put it, 'will get to the microphone first, and announce that he has won.' As Mr Yeltsin will be desperate for Western support in the ensuing constitutional and legal struggle, this might make him readier to support an end to the arms embargo on the Bosnian government. Alternatively, if he feels the threat from nationalists and Communists is becoming critical, he could go the other way. In either case it will be intensely difficult to persuade Mr Yeltsin to agree that the embargo on Serbia should stay.

Some cynics suggest that Mr Clinton may even be relying on a Russian veto. It would, after all, allow him to talk tough and respond to the popular mood without taking the risks of following through. Or he could be using the threat of a change of policy to persuade the British and French to go further in the use of ground troops, say, to defend safe havens.

These are deep waters. But the most general assumption in London is that Mr Clinton is virtually of the same view as British and French ministers on the dangers of arming the Muslims or using air-strikes. He has simply decided that the pressure of public opinion in the US is too strong to withstand. He remains determined to avoid the use of American troops. So he has been thrown back on solutions that, intellectually, he rejects.

Even for those who (like myself) believe it would be more sensible to use force against the Serbs than to allow them total victory, this paints a depressing picture of the quality of the young US presidency. Mr Clinton was said to have been 'in agony' about the Waco siege. Presumably he is in agony about Bosnia, too. But it is hardly reassuring that he is apparently prepared to believe one thing and, for public relations purposes, to do another.

What does this mean for Bosnia? The mere perception in Belgrade that Washington is about to take a stride towards military action could, just could, persuade the Serbs to think again, and stop outside a disarmed Srebrenica. That best possible outcome - the political effect of force without the flesh-and-blood effects of force - may only be open for a few days. It would be fatally damaged if the British and French governments denounced Mr Clinton's emerging policy. The use of force is risky. The rejection of the use of force is, I think, even riskier. But to threaten force when everyone knows you won't deliver it is plain crazy.

So this is, as Lord Owen said yesterday, a very dangerous moment. The warlike noises from Washington, combined with a lull in the Serbian advance, probably provide the last chance for the Serbs to return to the peace negotiations. If they do not take it, then it looks as though the West can avoid the hard choices no longer.