Hold fire on setting up this European military force

This new force could undermine the drive for a more human-rights friendly world

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Nothing is quite so ruinous to political reputations, not to mention human lives, as a misconceived military escapade. With the Government embroiled in controversy over the creation of a European rapid deployment force, it is time to embrace caution. Strange, you might think, for a self-professed apostle of humanitarian intervention to sound alarm bells about a force that is designed to give the world's dictators pause for thought. But I am worried by the prospect of a new force, precisely because I believe it could undermine the drive for a more human rights-friendly world.

Nothing is quite so ruinous to political reputations, not to mention human lives, as a misconceived military escapade. With the Government embroiled in controversy over the creation of a European rapid deployment force, it is time to embrace caution. Strange, you might think, for a self-professed apostle of humanitarian intervention to sound alarm bells about a force that is designed to give the world's dictators pause for thought. But I am worried by the prospect of a new force, precisely because I believe it could undermine the drive for a more human rights-friendly world.

The impetus for the new Euro rapid deployment force has been driven ostensibly by the impotence felt by European leaders during the collapse of the former Yugoslavia, not least the embarrassing fiasco of Kosovo when the US steadfastly refused to commit troops for an invasion of the province. With the almost certain arrival of George W Bush (the most internationally ignorant US president in recent history) in the White House, the argument for a European rapid deployment force seems unanswerable. What are we to do the next time some petty monster decides to butcher women and children?

I suspect that in the case of our own Government the commitment to the rapid deployment force is motivated by broadly humanitarian considerations, but the French purpose is notably less altruistic. It is not, as some commentators have argued, a narrow case of France undermining Nato in order to indulge her old anti-American passions. Rather it is about re-inventing France. A European rapid reaction force with French troops at its cutting edge would satisfy the French ambition to be a serious world power once more, an objective that is impossible to achieve while Europe is so dependent on US military power.

Of course it is not a bad idea to reduce our dependence on American power. I am writing as someone who watched genocide unfold in Rwanda while the US military argued over rental terms with UN troops who were trying to save African lives. Regular readers will know that I lay the major blame for the abandonment of a million people to massacre in Central Africa on the Clinton White House. The fact that Britain supported the US stance in the Security Council is a disgrace which has never been properly acknowledged.

But I am also aware that the French military and foreign service behaved shamefully in Rwanda, training and arming a murderous army, because they placed the foreign policy interests of France above those of humanity. They weren't the first power to behave this way in post-colonial Africa but few have had such a dreadful influence on events. A few years before Rwanda I was on the streets of Kinshasa when French and Belgian paratroopers arrived, ostensibly to protect the Europeans living there, in reality to prolong the rule of President Mobutu whose unpaid army had risen against him. The intervention prolonged the corrupt and despotic rule of Mobutu.

Even now, France retains a deep mistrust of British and US ambitions in Central Africa, believing that Anglo-Saxon influence poses a mortal threat to the continuation of a French cultural/linguistic tradition in the countries of the Great Lakes and further afield in the former French colonies of West Africa. The coming to power in post-genocide Rwanda of the largely English-speaking Rwandan Patriotic Front has enhanced the sense of threat felt by the French.

Given that Africa promises to confront us with recurring demands for humanitarian intervention, there must be huge doubts about the capacity of the British and French to agree on a common policy.

The major powers will continue to be guided by a specific view of where their national interests lies. There are times when this will coalesce into a common front, for ethical or strategic reasons, but there will be plenty of occasions when it will not.

The British will feel it necessary to intervene in Sierra Leone and will do so whether or not the French like it. It is hard to imagine the French resisting the temptation to intervene in Francophone Africa if the Quai d'Orsay believes the interests of France are at stake.

There is still no commonality of interest in foreign policy among the member states of the EU. And to project military power effectively you at least need to achieve political consensus about what your are planning. A Europe divided over the military and political objectives of intervention cannot possibly enter the moral quagmire of war. Consider what happens to individual nations who embark on muddled military adventures: the Franco-British experience at Suez, the Americans in Vietnam.

What is this force for and where will it fight? Take a quick tour of the world's trouble spots and try to answer that question. The Middle East? Forget it, the Americans and Israelis would never allow it. The Balkans? Possibly, the fires are still smouldering and there are battles of territorial redemption still to be fought. Africa? Possibly, but as I've already outlined, too much of the continent is still divided into colonial spheres of influence.

Whether it is in Africa or in the Eastern Mediterranean there are endless possibilities for dispute between European states over questions of national interest or tribal allegiance (Italy and Greece versus the rest in the Balkans, to name one).

We are conveniently ignoring the fact that European blundering and division were central factors in the escalation of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Let us imagine that a European rapid reaction force had been available in 1990 when the conflict erupted in Croatia. Would Britain and France have taken the crucial step of despatching their forces against the Yugoslav national army after German policy-makers had pushed them to recognise the new Croatian state? They would not, for the same reasons that kept them from intervening when the ethnic cleansers swept through Bosnia two years later.

When you send men into modern battle you must expect substantial casualties and I am not remotely persuaded that the leaders of the European Union would be willing to take that degree of risk. Up to now the Americans have provided a useful scapegoat: "We can't intervene if they won't support us." Lest this be construed as an anti-French rant, let me set the question of motives aside and at least give Paris credit for being willing to deploy troops when nobody else will.

But if you despair when the US retreats into isolationism and refuses to help the victims of the world's small tyrannies, what are the options? The answer lies in getting the politics right before we even dream of setting up military forces. Establish first a set of principles for intervention and bind the member states to action irrespective of their national or tribal interests. The UN Convention on Genocide offers a model, although it has been sadly ignored in practice. There cannot be any opt-out clauses. After that, get your military men to prescibe the kind of force that will work and the resources they will need. This will take a long time. Longer than modern politicians are inclined to like. But it might save reputations and, of course, human lives.

 

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent

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