LEADING ARTICLE : Bloody mark of failure

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The Independent Online
NOW WE ALL feel better. The generals have zapped Charlie Serb. We have seen a firework display on our television screens; we have heard the military press spokesmen assure us that it was all clean and surgical and precise. But nobody should dare predict the consequences of last week's Nato bombing raids on Bosnian Serb positions. The Yugoslav wars have taken many unpredictable turns, notably the Croatian invasion of Serb-held areas last month. What seems unlikely is that the raids will do anything to secure an early peace, anything to make the Balkans more stable, anything to reduce the ever-mounting casualties. It cannot be said too often that wars end when none of the main combatants sees advantage in continuing to fight. The Nato bombings give all sorts of people all sorts of reasons to calculate that the Serbs are now on the defensive and that they should, therefore, prolong the present conflict or, indeed, provoke new ones. The Bosnian Muslims may reckon that they can regain land that would not be on offer under the present US-sponsored peace plan. The Croatians, despite their assurances to the contrary, may consider recapturing eastern Slavonia. The Albanians in Yugoslavia may believe that this is the moment for insurrection. What, then, may be the reaction of the unsettled minorities in Romania or Bulgaria or Greece? Or would their governments or their majority communities take some pre-emptive action?

To play this grisly game of consequences is not to argue that such outcomes are certain, or even probable. It is merely to demonstrate that the Balkan wars are complex and unstable and that the UN and Nato involvement adds a further element of complexity and instability. Western military and political leaders may, as our reporters explain on page 17, think they have cracked the secret of how to intervene in such conflicts. But what makes sense in the control room often makes none on the ground. As Dr Norman Dixon observed in his classic work, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, military leaders tend to lack the imagination and empathy that would enable them to forecast how enemy forces might react to events. We may think the Bosnian Serbs capricious and unpredictable; they may think the West hardly less so. It is not easily explained why 200 planes should undertake bombing raids after the murder of 37 people in Sarajevo when, less than four months ago, nearly twice as many people died in Tuzla without any response whatever. The more cynical may note that television cameras were present to film the former atrocity but not the latter. They may also note that America is approaching a presidential election year; President Clinton would like to bury his reputation for timidity and dither but he will not want to be embroiled in the perils of a shooting war when he is actually on the hustings. Some of the Yugoslav combatants may calculate that last week's bombing was a prelude to withdrawal, rather as Nixon's fiercest raids in Cambodia were a prelude to American withdrawal from the country. But the considerations behind Western democratic politics are as complex as...well, Balkan politics.

If the West has a strategic interest in Bosnia, it is hard to discern what it is. Still less is it possible to understand what wider vision the West has for the former Yugoslavia. We were told that aggression must not pay, that ethnic cleansing must not be tolerated. Yet the American peace plan apparently allows both the Serbs and the Croatians to retain vast areas of conquered land which will be among the most ethnically cleansed in Europe, if not in the world. That is a measure of how the West has failed in Bosnia. The bombings are taken as a sign that the West has finally shown that it can assert its authority, that it has "found its soul", as one Clinton official put it last week. The reality is that they are a mark of failure; in the Balkans, a good bombing plays the same role as a good thrashing in an unruly school. Western politicians would have done best to stay out from the beginning; it is hardly conceivable that the outcome could have been any worse for the Muslims in particular, or for the former Yugoslavia in general. We must now hope and pray, and so must the war-weary people of the region, that the bombings do not set the West on a course of deeper involvement.

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