Leading Article: Bold thoughts on Bosnia

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The Independent Online
MARGARET THATCHER's scorching criticisms of Western policies in Bosnia should not have been dismissed by Malcolm Rifkind, Secretary of State for Defence, as 'emotional nonsense'. She was articulating the deep sense of collective shame that is building up among the people of this country as they watch the atrocities in Bosnia unfold. As in her better days in office, she can still tap currents of popular opinion and express them with forthright simplicity: 'We cannot just let things go on like this. It is evil.'

The Government, to its credit, has begun to offer a reasoned response, pointing out the cogent reasons against following her advice to arm Bosnian Muslims and support them with air strikes. Sending arms to one side might intensify and prolong the conflict, expose British troops to retaliation, perhaps draw the Russians into arming the Serbs, curtail or end the aid effort, and take time to implement - allowing the Serbs a period in which to redouble their efforts. Air strikes would even more directly transform the United Nations forces from mediators and aid workers into combatants, thereby also exposing British troops to attack and probably ending the aid convoys. Both policies might encounter a Russian veto in the Security Council, so Nato would have to decide whether to act on its own. And neither could be guaranteed to end the conflict.

It is also true that the Government has done rather more than it has been given credit for, providing humanitarian aid worth pounds 92.5m and 2,500 troops. Although much of the food aid has been hijacked by the Serbs, it has helped to avert the starvation that was expected to kill more people than fighting over the winter.

Nevertheless, the bleak facts remain that the course of the war has been scarcely altered and that the Serbs have learnt they can safely ignore international opinion. Worse than that, as believers in force they have developed deep contempt for the West's inability to assert itself. This is dangerous, since their ambitions for Greater Serbia are far from satiated.

Western hopes are now pinned on gaining Russian support for much tighter sanctions on Serbia as soon as Mr Yeltsin's referendum is over - assuming he survives. These could cripple Serbia's already tottering economy. But it is not too early to consider other contingency plans, especially for the real possibility that the Vance-Owen plan may collapse and sanctions fail.

One of Lady Thatcher's virtues is that when she sees what needs to be done she can brush aside the cautious calculations of realists. Many military experts told her that it was madness to attempt to recapture the Falklands. Today's experts are equally cautious about Bosnia. They cannot be ignored, but they can be told to give more thought to achieving the political objectives that armed forces are supposed to serve.

Nobody can be sure how the Serbs would react to being bombed but there are at least good odds that it would concentrate their minds on the implications of defying a more determined Western alliance. Contingency planning along these lines is already under way. It should be pursued with more vigour.