Leading Article: Hurd is failing the Bosnian test

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The Independent Online
DOUGLAS HURD is too intelligent not to appreciate that his handling of the Bosnian crisis is one of the most crucial tests of his period in office. Almost certainly the war will turn out to be more important than the Maastricht treaty in its implications for European security, because it will shape the context in which the treaty operates - or fails. As Europe's senior foreign minister, he could have expected to make his mark. Instead he has been confined by a timid and unimaginative government within a divided alliance that is unable to rise to new tasks.

President Clinton is new in office and still searching for policies. Germany has been politically inept in former Yugoslavia, excluding itself from military influence. France ploughs its own furrow and Italy is in crisis. Maastricht has distracted everyone. Even if Mr Hurd were a statesman of great stature, he would have a hard job achieving much in these circumstances.

Against this background, his statement to the Commons yesterday was neither more nor less than could be expected. He offered a stolid defence of policies so far, yet admitted they had failed and that new measures were necessary. The principal one on which hopes are now pinned is sanctions. Following the UN Security Council resolution at the weekend, these are supposed to impose a virtual blockade on Serbia if the Vance-Owen plan is not accepted by 26 April. Access to Serbia is to be tightly controlled, as is the provision of financial services, in the hope that the Serbs will see reason.

If enforcement works - and the task is extremely complicated - Serbia will certainly suffer. It is a small and vulnerable country with few resources and is already on the brink of collapse. But if its policies change as a result, it will provide the world with the first example of successful economic sanctions. Past experience suggests that sanctions can actually strengthen a government that fosters a siege mentality. The Serbs see themselves a victims, misunderstood by all the world except Russia.

Sanctions will reinforce their view.

Almost certainly, therefore, other forms of pressure will be necessary. Mr Hurd appeared to admit this when he indicated that the possibility of bombing the routes by which Serbia supplies its friends in Bosnia was still under review. The typically negative military advice that reaches him is that bombs will be of little value without support from ground forces. But the Bosnian Serbs are heavily dependent on supplies from Serbia, so anything that interferes with this link should reduce their ability to fight. The danger is not that bombs will be ineffective, but that their use will expose British forces to high risks.

Mr Hurd is more complex than his political persona. The worries and doubts over Bosnia that have filtered into his recent fictional writing are necessarily suppressed in his official pronouncements. His natural caution, reinforced by the political context in which he finds himself, has further restrained him from making the mark on history of which he might otherwise have been capable. He has wasted his talents on petty wrangles over Maastricht at a time when Europe is crying out for a statesman of courage and vision to shape its response to the new environment emerging from the rubble of Communism. The Bosnian war is the first major test of that response. If Mr Hurd leaves office with the crisis unresolved, he will have failed the most important challenge of his career. He deserves a better political epitaph.