LEADING ARTICLE : Peacekeeping all the way to catastrophe

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YUGOSLAVIA was always the futurologists' favourite trigger for the Third World War. An extraordinary diversity of ethnic and religious backgrounds, uneasily balanced between East and West; a long history of unsettled scores; a position of great strategic importance. No less a personage than General Sir John Hackett, once Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of the Rhine, later Principal of King's College, London, wrote a vivid account of how Yugoslav conflict led to an exchange of nuclear attacks between Birmingham and Minsk. The world held its breath when Tito died; by what then seemed good fortune, the inevitable fragmentation of an artificial state was delayed until the Cold War was over. But is it now possible that we have started down a familiar road, that, for a second time in a century, shots fired in Sarajevo will lead an unsuspecting world into catastrophe? Surely this is fantasy; this faraway and largely incomprehensible dispute cannot lead to all-out war. So they thought in 1914. It is when nations think they are assured of peace, when their leaders neglect to consider the wider implications of their every move, that peace is most endangered.

Consider the sequence of events that led to the present crisis, a sequence that began only 13 days ago. Bosnian Serb forces seized UN weapons and began firing on Sarajevo. The Muslim-led Bosnian government forces fired back. The UN issued ultimatums to both sides. The Serbs partially disobeyed. Nato air strikes ensued. All that was perfectly logical. What is the point of the UN peacekeeping role in Bosnia if it does not tell people to stop shooting? What is the point of an ultimatum if no penalty follows when it is ignored? Neither the UN nor Nato has acted so speedily or decisively during the entire Bosnian conflict. As a result, that conflict - or at least the Western involvement in it - came to its gravest crisis, with 71, mostly civilian, dead in Tuzla and more than 300 UN soldiers taken hostage. So further troops are sent: not, Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, insisted, to wage war, but to protect those who are supposed to be protecting the Bosnian people. But at what point do the British and French troops themselves become belligerents? When the number of hostages reaches some critical threshold? When they are killed or mistreated? And if the Bosnian Serbs are attacked, how long before Belgrade comes to their aid? Or Moscow?

Fantasy again, perhaps. Western troops would surely pull out long before any such perils became reality. But if we can reach a crisis of these proportions within 13 days, what could happen in 13 weeks or 13 months? Already, the arguments for withdrawal are being met, not so much with a clear case for continued intervention, but with versions of the principle of unripe time. When there is relative quiet in Bosnia, we are told that it would be irresponsible to disturb the situation. When a crisis of the present dimensions erupts, we are told that withdrawal would be too undignified and cowardly, that we would seem to be giving in to blackmail.

In other words, Western politicians are allowing events to dictate their actions, as their predecessors did before the First World War. The UN has no clear objectives in Bosnia, no consistent vision of how it believes the conflict can and should be resolved. Peacekeeping is a misnomer. There is no peace to keep in Bosnia and there will not be until one side or the other emerges victorious and/or until they have fought each other to a standstill. Nations have peace when wars end; and wars end in scenes like the Berlin bunker in 1945 or the helicopters evacuating Saigon in 1975 or the white flags flying over Port Stanley in 1982. They do not usually end in smiles and handshakes and everybody agreeing to be reasonable chaps.

It is argued that, even if it cannot stop the war, the international community should stay in Bosnia to prevent the war spreading. The truth is almost the opposite. The UN has prolonged the war: it has unwittingly provided weapons and food for soldiers of both sides, it has given the Muslims protected areas from which they can launch raids into Serb-held territory, it has prevented the Serbian triumph that would have brought the war to an end. And the longer the war goes on, the greater the risk of its spreading. A strong Serbia, in any case, is the best guarantor of a lasting peace in the Balkans. If, on the other hand, we truly want to help the Bosnian Muslims, we shall do so not by flapping around in the middle of a complex and bitter war but by arming them. Quite why the British and American governments, which are entirely happy to sell arms to all manner of unsavoury regimes, should be so fastidious about selling them in Bosnia is one of those mysteries that can probably only be answered by Douglas Hurd at his most elliptically patrician. It is a peculiar kind of morality that allows the sale of weapons, but only to those who have no immediate use for them.

For politicians to acknowledge any of this, however, is to admit failure, to admit that they cannot control events, to admit that the new world order is a dream. This is why political leaders of all shades - Major, Blair, Ashdown, Chirac, Clinton - tend to favour staying in Bosnia while their followers tend to prefer withdrawal. No leader, even in opposition, wants to admit that the powers of governments are limited. This is particularly true of British politicians, desperate to continue presenting themselves as significant actors on the world scene. It is true, too, of generals. With no wars left to fight, and with the Ulster ceasefire looking as if it might turn into a permanent peace, international peacekeeping is the only role that remains to the British armed forces. If it is admitted that peacekeeping is a waste of time, how can the spending of pounds 25bn a year on keeping 250,000 people under arms be justified?

Bosnia has demonstrated the limitations of international politicians. The period between 1945 and 1989, it now seems in retrospect, was the high noon of politics, when world leaders, at a few well-planned summits, could decide the fate of nations just as they then decided the fate of currencies. We have returned to an older and more perilous world. The politicians' continuing belief that they are still in control only makes it more dangerous.