Intervention by Mr Gladstone's inheritors

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'REMEMBER that He who has united you together as human beings of the same flesh and blood, has bound you by the law of mutual love; that that mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, is not limited by the boundaries of Christian civilisation; that it passes over the whole surface of the earth, and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its unmeasured scope.'

The words are those of William Ewart Gladstone, speaking at Dalkeith in Midlothian in November 1879 on the subject of a far-away war - one involving British troops, in Afghanistan. Gladstone was hot for moral wars and equally hot against immoral ones. But that sentence can stand as the classic expression of Victorian Liberal morality applied to Abroad.

Just as the United States has a strongly Christian culture, like Victorian Britain but unlike Britain in the Nineties, so the inheritors of Gladstone's vision live today in New York and Washington. The grandly moralistic tone of editorials about Serbia in the New York Times recently was pure Gladstone. When Warren Christopher, President Bill Clinton's Secretary of State, announced that the administration would send ground troops to Bosnia to police a peace treaty, he used words that were a laconic, unrhetorical version of Gladstone's at Dalkeith: 'The conflict may be far from our shores but certainly it is not distant from our concerns.'

Gladstonianism can often reduce the world to black-and-white simplicities, but its moral force should not be sneered at. Mr Clinton's acknowledgement that the Owen-Vance plan has something going for it, and deserves US support, is excellent news. It means generous, moral instincts among leaders of the world's only superpower will be harnessed to help to stop the fighting in a small and wretched country - and not, as seemed possible so recently, unwittingly to help it to spread. It suggests that Lord Owen's pugnacious tactics in New York, finger-jabbing round the talk shows, worked. That is a real achievement. It deserves applause.

And as the applause dies down, what then? The peace plan, or some new version of it, is both a more practical and a more moral one than simply hoping that the Bosnian war will burn itself out. This war will not burn out. There is political and human tinder scattered all around. The border area between Serbia and Montenegro, inhabited by Muslims, is already smoking. Kosovo's Serbs have elected to their parliament 'Arkan', a militant nationalist regarded by the United Nations as a war criminal, which can hardly be good news for the area's Albanian majority, nor for neighbouring Macedonia.

Beyond the Balkans, a decision not to intervene would send powerful messages to minorities and their would-be protectors throughout Eastern Europe and ex- Soviet Asia. If the United States had decided against intervention, the Europeans would have lost their nerve, too. A general pull-out would have begun. That would have been tragic well beyond Bosnia. Across Europe, a second division would be encouraged; a mental border, if not a steel and concrete one. This time it would be created by the scared and selfish democracies, above all in fortress EC, trying to keep out the chaos and despair. Bosnian intervention makes that decadent (and, by the way, futile) policy impossible.

Literally, to intervene means to interpose oneself, to go between. The peace plan would require armed outsiders throughout Bosnia doing just that between the new cantons and even hostile villages. The risks would be considerable. But if all sides had signed up to such a deal, then the motives for continuing to fight for territorial advantage would be lessened. It would be immoral - let's not avoid the word - for outsiders, including Britain as well as the United States, not to try to help to make such a treaty work, using troops for a limited period, say a year.

What, though, if such a peace treaty cannot be agreed? It would be even more important then to try to stop the war spreading. Swedish and Norwegian troops have already arrived in Macedonia, but more UN troops may be needed. In Kosovo, military observers could make it harder for local Serbian militants.

Second, force should be used selectively to impose an arms embargo on all sides and to protect aid convoys. The leaders of UN convoys seem now to want more protection. They should know. So air and artillery cover should be offered for as long as possible without all-out war between the UN and any of the Bosnian irregulars.

Third, since one of the most horrific aspects of the war for civilians is the lack of anywhere to flee to, UN troops could set up and defend safe havens. The big objection to this is that it helps to divide the country and underscores ethnic cleansing. But when it is a choice of life or death for civilians, we have an obligation to offer them the chance of running for safety. That could involve a longer-term, though limited, military commitment. This should be accepted.

All these options fall short of full-scale war. Because such a war would probably end up being fought by UN troops against everybody in Bosnia, even the most ardent interventionist ought to regard it as unacceptable. If the choice narrowed to that, or getting out, it would be better to get out. But the choice is not that stark. Not yet. The balance of risk and pity still favours deeper involvement; the time to draw back is not yet. If we pass by on the other side, knowing what is happening, we will be lessened.