Leading Article: An uneasy calm in Sarajevo

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The Independent Online
THE Prime Minister's visit to Sarajevo offers one of those rare moments when a political leader comes face to face with the real facts and human beings affected by his decisions. It is an experience already afforded to Francois Mitterrand, who showed characteristic elan by flying into that martyred city at an early stage of its calvary. At the time, British officials murmured about rhetorical Gallic gestures, while the French preached unblushingly of moral principles in foreign affairs.

Now Britain and France have given proof through their unequalled contributions to the United Nations force that British pragmatism and French instinct can occasionally combine to a useful end. It is now necessary to commit the extra troops requested by Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose to underpin the peace and to convert a hitherto ambiguous role into a firm peacekeeping mandate.

Indeed, when meeting General Rose, the Prime Minister may have cause to reflect upon those qualities of decisiveness, flair and purpose so convincingly displayed by the general, so lamentably absent from the Government's day-to-day conduct of its affairs.

What, then, awaits Mr Major on his heavily guarded and brief excursion to a city that will stand for a generation as a symbol for Europe's shame? It is a place where modern life came to a halt two summers ago. Its people suffered through the ambitions and selfishness of all the warring factions. They were betrayed by European foreign ministers, who at first failed to grasp what was happening to former Yugoslavia, next permitted a catastrophe to occur, then pronounced it too late to intervene. Mr Major is unlikely to receive a hero's welcome.

There is cause for pride in the good work done by British troops and the selfless efforts of British aid workers. But there is none to be derived from the uneasy calm that has fallen upon Sarajevo. It took American and Russian intervention to supply the political muscle that all of Western Europe failed to muster. That is the price for dithering at home and half-hearted engagement in Europe. It is all very well to talk of 'punching above your weight' - but you have to enter the ring first.

It would be unkind to compare John Major to John Kennedy. But he might usefully paraphrase the late president's words in divided Berlin more than three decades ago. There are those who say we can live with the new nationalists, that compromise is always better than confrontation, that far-off places are none of our affair; there are those, even now, who say it is better to placate a bully than stand up to him. Let them come to Sarajevo.