Hurt British feelings are the least of it

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YOU KNOW the phrase, dancing with anger? Well, a dance of some sort has been observable recently at No 10, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. Normally restrained people are furious with the Americans over Bosnia. Feet are twitching, fingers are drumming. And their owners promise that this is only the start. They will be not merely miffed, irritated or displeased, but livid, incandescent. They may be unable to control their language. The worst crisis in Atlantic relations since Suez. And so forth.

What is the cause of this? The possible lifting of the arms embargo, establishing the 'level killing field' that Douglas Hurd has been warning against for more than a year. Such a development would require the swift and dangerous exit of British and French troops, followed, most people think, by carnage as the Serbs try to grab their victory before the Bosnian government gets its mortars, artillery and machine-guns.

I say 'followed'. But the carnage could well start before British troops got out. There could be serious casualties to explain. There would certainly be scenes of dreadful bloodshed on our television screens again.

Why might this happen? Not because President Clinton wills it, but because he is in the grip of Congress, and Congress is in the grip of populist American pressure for 'something to be done' about Bosnia. This something must not, however, involve American troops being killed. The only alternative to military engagement, Washington opinion has concluded, is to allow the mainly Muslim victims of Serb aggression their weapons.

What is the timescale? In four weeks' time, on 15 October, the deadline for the Bosnian Serbs to accept the proposed map of a new Bosnia expires. If, as seems inevitable, they do not accept it, and if Congress has not flinched, then the Americans will go to the UN Security Council. If their lobbying fails, they may then lift the embargo unilaterally. All that might take a few weeks, suggesting that Armageddon for Bosnia is being pencilled in for December - a Christmas present from the world.

What horrifies British politicians is the thought of being held responsible for the spectacle of British troops fleeing while civilians are massacred. So the chorus would go up: it was not us, it was the Americans. That, at least, is the threat.

In practice, the thing might be messier even than that sequence of mess. According to most plans, it would take at least six weeks to get the British forces home with the minimum of bloodshed. So the retreat has to start soon. But when it does start, it may signal to the Bosnian Serbs that London thinks it has lost the argument about the arms embargo, so encouraging them to begin their offensive anyway. Britain and France will, no doubt, do their best to persuade everyone that this is a precautionary measure, which should make the Serbs think, rather than fight. But these people are not good listeners.

There is still a good chance that this may be averted. First, intense work has been going on to persuade Congress not to vote to lift the embargo. In Washington, British officials are pitching in to bolster the US administration, while any Congressmen who stray over to Europe are lassoed and sent smartly over to the Foreign Office or the Quai d'Orsay for a whisky.

Second, negotiations continue at the UN and within Nato about alternatives, including air strikes. These were once regarded in London with horror but are now seen as a less-bad option. So it is not impossible that Congress may yet be persuaded to soften its stance and that the arms embargo can be retained through the winter, allowing the UN troops to stay on.

But if the worst comes to the worst, I do not believe that the recriminations between London and Washington will get out of hand. The British veto will not be used against the Americans at the UN Security Council (as was threatened on the same issue a year ago). British ministers will control their language. Too much is at stake for a real bust-up.

So what is that dance? There is genuine worry and frustration and, yes, anger in Whitehall. In the end, despite the grandeur of the Foreign Office, the cleverness of its diplomacy, the bravery of our armed forces, and the united front with France, Britain is in a terribly weak position.

This process is being driven by forces inside Bosnia which have proved remarkably impermeable to outside influence, and by parts of the American political system beyond the reach of diplomatic persuasion. It is being driven by the domestic US opposition to President Clinton, which has him on the run and is behaving with vicious irresponsibility.

And it is being driven too by the American media, whose attitudes ahead of the November mid-term elections matter so much to the embattled White House. Beside the simple 'something must be done'-ism of the syndicated pundits and the chat-show hosts, how heavy do the opinions of a couple of stuffed-shirt limeys weigh? Pretty light.

The parallels with White House involvement in the Irish peace process are unavoidable. There too, urgings of restraint from London are less important to President Clinton than domestic imperatives - in this case, the Irish- American vote. The US administration will do its best to accommodate John Major's views about Gerry Adams. But Senator Edward Kennedy is in deep, deep trouble in the Massachusetts race, and just now the Senate matters more than hurt British feelings.

We have two examples here of a much wider pattern, a mismatch between how our national leadership is accustomed to presenting itself and its real situation. The politicians still want to be regarded as potent authority figures, whose footfalls echo loudly, whereas in fact, their power is heavily circumscribed. This is a pretty obvious point, even more obvious in economic decision-making than in diplomacy. But what is obvious cannot yet be frankly admitted.

It puts sensitive political leaders in a terrible bind. Their lives depend upon the assertion of authority. Authority depends - does it not? - on taking responsibility for things, even terrible things. Here, and in many other cases, they are not responsible. Yet to proclaim one's impotence is an undignified and perilous thing in the old political game. It undermines authority.

There is an angry dance going on in Whitehall. But it is a rather rare and dismal shimmy. It is an infertility dance.