LEADING ARTICLE: A defeat for good intentions

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The Independent Online
NEXT month, a wretched anniversary will fall. It will be four years since the outbreak of the wars in former Yugoslavia. Four years in which something like 200,000 people, many of them civilians shelled from the skies or butchered on the ground, have been killed. Four years which have seen the largest forced population movements in Europe since the Second World War and its aftermath. Four years in which our illusions of a post-Cold War "peace dividend" have been shattered. And four years in which most citizens of Western countries have had a terrible sense that something went wrong, that more could have been done to avert a tragedy that will surely scar our continent far into the next century.

We in the West like rational solutions to clearly identified problems. That was the basis for the years of peace and prosperity that followed the defeat of Nazi Germany. Extreme poverty, famine, ethnic hatred, aggressive war-mongering - these, we thought, had been banished to other places. Now, just as the rise in unemployment punctured the belief in rational solutions to domestic economic problems, so the intractability of the Yugoslav conflict threatens our belief in such solutions to international problems. The West has sent its finest diplomatic minds to the war: Lords Carrington and Owen, Douglas Hurd, Cyrus Vance, Mitterrand, Stoltenberg. There have been ceasefires and surgical strikes. There have been brave and clever military commanders. All to no avail: Yugoslavia has turned into a terrible defeat for the well-intentioned.

Nevertheless, we still ask: could it have been different? And what can we do now? The West has never been willing to impose a settlement on former Yugoslavia by military force. Public opinion, rightly or wrongly, shamefully or not, would never support such a solution. It would not tolerate the inevitable deaths of Serb civilians at the hands of Western forces any more than it would tolerate the deaths in any numbers of British and American soldiers. The Western effort in Yugoslavia has been based on an illusion: that peace can somehow be enforced peacefully, rippling gently outwards from blue helmets.

Every step we take now must start from the assumption that we have knowingly limited our ability to influence the wars. What this means in practice is that the selective use of force, such as the UN-authorised Nato air strikes on Bosnian-Serb ammunition dumps last week, is ineffective and dangerous. It raises public expectations in the West that we are finally doing something to end the war, when in reality we are not. It salves our consciences, but actually gives rise to even more intractable problems. It is supposed to bolster the credibility of the UN and the Western alliance, but it actually raises doubts about their clarity of purpose and provokes damaging quarrels with Russia.

In late July, the French intend to stop replacing units when they have finished their tour of duty in Bosnia. They sense, quite rightly, that for all the humanitarian features of the UN operation, one fatal side- effect has been to prolong the war by allowing both sides to exploit the UN for their own purposes. Aid convoys are pillaged and weapons stolen. The Bosnian Serbs use the UN to freeze in place their territorial gains, while the Muslim-led government uses the "safe areas" as bases to launch offensives.

Now, the British government must face the hard choices. At the very least, it should press for the UN mandate to be redefined so that the peacekeepers are not put in the impossible position of trying to be neutral on the ground while Nato is bombing from above. The bolder step is to follow the French and pull out our UN troops. That could well lead to a disaster for vulnerable Muslim populations in Sarajevo and eastern Bosnia, an outcome that, given the growing commercial and political importance of Islamic countries, may be too horrendous to contemplate diplomatically as well as morally. But the awful truth is that the quickest way to end wars, short of piling in on one side or the other, is to stand by and let the victors take their spoils. If British and other Western troops are to stay in Bosnia, they need to be much clearer about why they are doing so and what they can achieve.