Even so, these have been fascinating exchanges, and rich in irony. We have had the former prime minister, our arch-opponent of European union, attacking Europe for failing to behave like a unitary superpower. Then we listened to the Defence Secretary saying there was virtually nothing that his gleaming, multi-million-pound arsenal could accomplish when faced with a few thousand Serbs. (I wonder if the Treasury will quote his speech back at him during the next spending round?)
Above all though, and central to what happened yesterday, was Mr Rifkind's rejection of Lady Thatcher's charge that the policy of Her Majesty's Government amounted to 'feeding people, but leaving them to be massacred'.
It was worth dwelling on. First Mr Rifkind argued that 'removal of the United Nations arms embargo would certainly result in the Bosnian Muslims being free to acquire all the weapons they needed'. (To try to stop themselves being slaughtered, presumably, although Mr Rifkind didn't say that. He did note that the well-armed Serbs would also acquire more weapons. But they are not exactly short of them now.)
Then he said: 'The result would be to prolong the conflict and make it even bloodier and more vicious than it is today, bringing continued suffering to innocent civilians.' (Ah: the result of arming the Muslims, allowing them to try to save themselves, would be to prolong the war, which is defined as a Bad Thing. The victims, not their persecutors, are now being defined as the problem.)
So if the main aim is to stop the war, and the British government believes that this is more important than allowing the defenders of Srebrenica or Sarajevo to obtain weapons, then the clear result of the policy is that the Serbs will be allowed to take what they want, and quite quickly. If the result of a policy is the destruction of Bosnia, is it fair to say that the British policy itself is the destruction of Bosnia? Unfair, no doubt. But frankly, this is a distinction with no practical difference.
No minister would ever put things as baldly as that, of course. The politicians and their servants are obliged to pretend that the Serbs can be stopped, while knowing quite well that they have neither the policy nor the will to stop them. UN types are forced to stand alongside fascistic demagogues and the leaders of local killers, with fixed smiles on their faces, pretending they are doing some good, pretending that these talks might still, even now, be successful. And they are forced to rely on actions that they know, in their heart of hearts, cannot work.
Take sanctions. Mr Rifkind told the Commons yesterday that the Government was frustrated about the failure of 'diplomacy and military pressure'. What military pressure, by the way? Never mind. Mr Rifkind took some comfort from the fact that 'other weapons are available. The sanctions noose is being drawn tighter against Serbia, whose future is grim; she faces isolation and economic ruin.'
Oh, really? Try this: 'We must learn from the lessons of history. We know perfectly well that economic sanctions, including comprehensive mandatory sanctions, have never had the effect desired.' (House of Commons, 23 October 1985: Malcolm Rifkind on South Africa.)
Mr Rifkind knows, none better, that the Serbs cannot be stopped by these means; and that if the war ends quickly, it will be on their terms. So why don't we take the logic a little further? Mr Rifkind's peroration included the unexceptional statement that 'pressure on those responsible for prolonging the conflict must be increased'. Yet his Government has already come dangerously close to saying that the Muslims are the ones prolonging the war.
How inconsiderate they are, these bloody Bosnians - bleating for weapons and failing to be ethnically cleansed, raped and murdered with sufficient zeal. Perhaps we should stop feeding them, too? Come to think of it, why don't we just bomb the Bosnian civilians ourselves and be done with it? That would speed the war up splendidly. Or have I missed something in the argument?
The question facing those who think we should intervene is: how? We should arm the Bosnians, as Lady Thatcher said. We should also contemplate attacking Serb forces from the air, and keep doing so until they pull back. A dangerous answer?
Yes. But there is a bigger question facing those who don't want to intervene: if you allow massacre to create an unstable and triumphalist Serbia, do you really think it will end there? And what will you do when it spreads to Macedonia and the former Soviet Union, sucking in Greece and Turkey - both Nato countries? It was, of course, terrible for Lady Thatcher to denounce Western governments as 'accomplices to massacre'. But what other phrase, I wonder, would have suited the situation better?Reuse content