Leading Article: Saving Nato, or people?

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The Independent Online
NOBODY in the British government has tried to argue that air strikes in Bosnia will do anything to relieve the misery of its people. But Nato has huffed and puffed and bluffed too long. As Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College, London, has put it, the shell that killed 68 people in a Sarajevo market moved Nato's humiliation at Serbian hands from 'low-level' to 'high-level'. Following its ultimatum, it will lose all credibility if it fails to enforce its will in Sarajevo. Military action is necessary, in Douglas Hurd's words, to preserve 'the strength and solidarity of Nato'. If the bombers take off from Italy next week, it will be for the survival of the Nato alliance, not for the survival of a Bosnian city.

Should Nato ever have been involved in Bosnia? False parallels are often drawn with appeasement in the 1930s. Press and public opinion demands no repeat of Neville Chamberlain's errors. We shall not fail to resist bullying and aggression. We shall not abandon, in Chamberlain's notorious words, faraway people of whom we know little. But the late A J P Taylor was fond of pointing out that the Czechs, whom we failed to 'save' in 1938, suffered just a few thousand deaths during the war. The Poles, who were 'saved' in 1939, lost millions.

This is not to say that Chamberlain was right; it is merely to observe that saving people is not nearly so straightforward as we think. If Chamberlain was wrong, it was because he misjudged the national interest. Neither he nor his contemporaries thought there was any other criterion for international policy. Now, statesmen quite cheerfully allow policy to be formed by the weekend television news footage, even though Mr Hurd himself has frequently warned against exactly this. 'Market shelling the last straw,' the Foreign Secretary wrote in notes for Tory MPs, reported by the Daily Telegraph yesterday. 'Shocked the world afresh. The balance tipped.' But what balance? The Serbs are no more or less of a threat than they were two weeks ago. In Sarajevo alone, 10,000 civilians have been killed in the past 22 months. Is Nato action somehow triggered because the total has reached five figures? Once, the balance of power was what counted; now, it is the balance of the public mind which, politicians apparently fear, will be unhinged by mass slaughter on its television screens.

It is not callous or inhumane to say that Western policy in the former Yugoslavia should be determined by something more than what the Americans call the 'feelgood factor'. Western television has instinctively sided with the Muslims, identifying them as the underdogs. But intervention on behalf of an underdog may only prolong a war, particularly if the concern is with 'balance'. Bombing the Serbian artillery out of the hills above Sarajevo may increase the pressure on Muslims in eastern Bosnia. Will Nato help them, too? Will it also assist the Muslims besieged by Croatians in Mostar? Such questions can be answered properly only if the West has some policy for Bosnia's future. It can support partition and put pressure on all sides to accept appropriate boundaries. Or it can support a united Bosnia and throw its weight wholly behind the Bosnian government. Most diplomatic effort is directed towards the first end; the repeated threat of direct military intervention against the Serbs suggests a preference for the second. We seem to say to the Serbs: carry on fighting, but do not kill too many people while we are looking. And to the Muslims: carry on fighting also, because we may eventually be on your side. Is this really a humanitarian policy?

It is entirely natural that our hearts go out to the suffering people of Sarajevo. But the duty of politicians is to consider how we can help, if at all, and to what end. The awful truth is that they have no idea what to do. Successful wars are fought for clear and achievable aims: to get Iraq out of Kuwait, or Argentina out of the Falklands. The West is muddled about its aims in Bosnia because it is also muddled about its true interests in the Balkans and still more muddled about Nato's future role. Is the alliance prepared to fight invasion of territory anywhere in the European landmass? For the Baltic states or for Ukraine if they face Russian aggression, ostensibly on behalf of Russian minorities? For Macedonia, which has Slav and Albanian minorities, if the Yugoslav conflict spreads there? These are the questions that should preoccupy Western politicians, not the degree of horror that we feel, quite understandably, at last weekend's carnage in a Sarajevo market.