Leading Article: Doing the right thing, cautiously

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The Independent Online
THE BRITISH government seems at last to have realised that it must reinforce its troops in Bosnia. The welcome change of attitude was reflected in yesterday's more positive statements by John Major and Malcolm Rifkind. Instead of looking for a way out of Bosnia they now convey the impression, albeit only half convincingly, that they are seeking a way in by pressing others to join them in sending more troops.

The change has not been voluntary or happy, and it does not yet extend to sending troops unilaterally, but it shows that the Government is slowly facing reality. At home it would face bitter recriminations if it were to leave a successful British general in the lurch and British soldiers so vulnerable and thinly stretched. Internationally, it would have a lot of explaining to do if, after such a string of failures and misjudgements, it missed the fragile window of opportunity for peace that has now opened up in Bosnia. It may not be enthusiastic but at least it is doing the right thing.

The fighting continues but ceasefires are holding in several areas and may gradually be extended. The combatants are weary and the intervention of the Americans and Russians has increased pressure on them to settle. There is a chance that military stability can open the way for diplomacy to end the war.

The window will not stay open long. The Muslims still want the return of conquered areas and have been emboldened by American support. The Serbs have periodically offered partial withdrawals but not enough to satisfy the Muslims. So the temptation to resume fighting as soon as the spring arrives remains strong. It is therefore important to put in more UN troops quickly to police the ceasefire lines.

There is also another reason for speed. At the moment the Russians are using their influence on the Serbs to promote a settlement. Indeed, they have reportedly been quite firm. But Moscow is so politically unstable that it cannot be relied on to remain in this frame of mind indefinitely. Now is the time to make the most of Russian co-operation.

In these circumstances it is foolish to pretend, as the Americans do, that there is a clear distinction between peace-making and peace-keeping. If the Americans were to acknowledge this and send in their own troops, the chances of peace would be enormously enhanced. Unfortunately the troubled Clinton administration lacks the courage to take this step, so others will have to face much higher risks. But if they also duck the challenge, the costs and risks will eventually be higher still.