Downing Street ponders the prospect of war

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The Independent Online
A NIGHTMARE, coming to your street this winter: tens of thousands of fellow Europeans starving to death. Television film, night after night, of relief convoys carrying the food and clothing you helped pay for, besieged or looted in snowy mountain passes. Children dying, as murderous, lightly armed guerrillas jeer at the United Nations and the European Community. Welcome to Christmas in Bosnia. Something must be done.

Another nightmare, just as plausible, just as worth dwelling on: the Balkan war becomes a full-scale international conflagration. Now Kosovo is also alight. Greek troops fight their way north; Serbs are heading south. Body-bags containing the remains of members of the Cheshire Regiment and others, arrive back in London each evening. There are irate rumblings in Turkey, and in Russia, which finds the ganging-up on its former ally Serbia intolerable. A more general slaughter beckons.

Whitehall is in the grip of a surreally calm dispute about the balance of nightmarish probabilities. But although senior ministers and officials are deeply divided, the mood has become perceptibly more hawkish in recent weeks. Perhaps surprisingly, the Foreign Office is chief hawk. It is leaning strongly towards military action against the Serbs, including attacks on Serbian-held airfields to enforce the much-flouted no-fly zone over Bosnia, and the dispatch of military observers, followed perhaps by ground troops, into the southern province of Kosovo, which is widely expected to be the 'next Bosnia'.

An influential section of the US diplomatic and political establishment has been arguing for air strikes. The argument is threefold: that the UN is being flouted and its authority must be upheld; that it is essential now to deter Serbia from further aggression; and that would- be warlords in the former Soviet Union need to be sent an early message.

Meanwhile, 'doing something' for Bosnia and Kosovo is becoming interlinked with the sensitive matter of the European Community's self-respect. Washington's expressions of derision and sarcasm about Europe's inability to look after its own back yard have become steadily louder and more pointed. The barbs have entered European skin. Intervention is dangerous, goes the argument, but the alternative may be intolerable, as Europe's arguments about Maastricht, cohesion funds and subsidiarity become buried by the spectacle of all those corpses. The policy, in short, is changing. Senior officials in London, Paris and Washington are quietly preparing for imminent meetings about military action.

Yet John Major himself is more cautious than his Foreign Office ministers. He is disturbed about the possibility that the deeper involvement of ground troops might ignite a long, unwinnable war. There is a mood of some bitterness about the Americans, since no one in either the departing Bush team or the still-forming Clinton one seems willing to commit GIs. If US warplanes destroyed Serbian airfields, might not the Serbs simply attack the British and French relief convoys? What would we do then? Run for home with our tails between our legs, or charge into battle? Running would not do a lot for European self-esteem, or the authority of the United Nations. And fighting would embroil Europe in a long-term peacekeeping operation that would make Northern Ireland look dull.

What of Kosovo, whose ill-armed inhabitants are nervously waiting for the Serbian tiger to turn on them? Kosovo is largely Albanian but was once Serbian, and is regarded by the Serbian nationalists as their spiritual home. To regain it for Serbia would require horrific and unprovoked 'ethnic cleansing'. One senior Whitehall figure argues that it would inflame Western feeling as severely as the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 - though the Serbs would offer a much easier target. But the mere threat of foreign troops arriving in Kosovo could provoke a sudden slaughter of Albanians.

This slaughter may happen anyway. But all-out war between the international force and the Serbs over Kosovo would make it more likely that the neighbouring, relatively tranquil Macedonia would explode. The Greeks would invade it, and occupy the south of a mini-state they detest. The Bulgarians and the Serbs would not stand back. The war would spread.

So far, the most likely outcome is the worst. There will be half-hearted military intervention. It could come quite soon, but it will be pitifully insufficient to defeat the Serbian army. There will be the stings of air strikes, and punitive prods by small numbers of troops, whose governments are not committed, politically or psychologically, to real war. Thus stung and prodded, the Serbian man-eater will become more dangerous, not less.

This outcome is likely because it tries to evade the lethal logic of the situation: accept that this war will claim many thousands more innocent lives and that it may end in total Serbian victory. Or be ready to fight, and defeat, Serbia. Small wonder that politicians and officials are arguing, faced by hideous 'what ifs?' each way they turn. The disagreement so far is about minor-sounding things, such as whether Serbian flights over Bosnia can be tolerated, and how to turn the international spotlight on little Kosovo. But everybody involved knows what may come after the first air strikes. And this week, for the first time, the balance is edging towards deeper involvement.