Leading Article: The dangers of inaction

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THE Prime Minister has said it again. Urged by Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, to support the use of United Nations air power in Bosnia, he replied yesterday: 'All the advice I have tells me that we cannot use force as you propose without disproportionate risk to the lives of civilians and our armed forces.' He gave a similar reply to a similar plea a few days ago from Lord (David) Owen. Neither had suggested that British forces should be committed on the ground other than as part of a UN force - or that UN forces should physically separate the combatants in Bosnia.

When John Major refers to 'all the advice I have', he is speaking of the collective wisdom of the armed services as funnelled through the Chief of Defence Staff. It is not surprising that the military should counsel against heavy intervention. They can see that the public is not marching in the streets for intervention in Bosnia; and that the Cabinet has little stomach for it. It is hard for military strategists to give a positive assessment of potential gains from the use of force when there is no detectable political will, no clear military or political objective and no surviving boundary between the warring parties.

There are parallels with Argentina's invasion of the Falklands. Given the length of communication lines for the British forces, the risks of defeat were very high. The military were cautious in the extreme, and justifiably: in the end, with ammunition running out, it was a close-run thing. But the political motivation was there in superabundance, while the Navy saw an opportunity to justify itself and fight off drastic cuts. The chances of disaster were higher in the Falklands campaign than they would be in even a full-scale UN peace-making operation in Bosnia, let alone in mere air strikes.

For political leaders to overrule military misgivings, there has to be a strong political imperative. In the case of the Falklands, there was. In the case of Bosnia, it appears not to exist - though a few more stories like the one we print on page one today must increase the pressure. Yet when assessing the advisability of using force in a new situation, politicians, strategists and commentators tend to fall victim to a set of preconceived notions. Where Bosnia is concerned, these include assumptions about the terrain, the quality of the opposition and the historical precedents. Nobody denies that the wooded hills of Bosnia are 'great guerrilla country', or that the Serbs offered fierce resistance to the Germans in the Second World War. But there is no evidence that the irregulars who have been bombarding and mortaring defenceless towns and picking off unarmed civilians would prove especially redoubtable when faced with a much better armed and organised UN or Nato force.

Callous and ruthless they are; but anecdotal evidence suggests they are often drunk and ill-disciplined, too. The Second World War analogy is also misleading. Lord Carrington has reminded us that the Yugoslav resistance fought on for four years against 36 German divisions. He did not mention the Germans' earlier demolition of the Yugoslav air force and army. It is long guerrilla wars - like those in Algeria and Vietnam - that people remember.

As Margaret Thatcher has implied in her calls for action, a safer approach would be to suspend the UN's embargo on arms to the former Yugoslav republics and give Bosnia's Muslims the means to defend themselves: since the Serbs control the remains of the Yugoslav army as well as major arms factories, the embargo cripples their adversaries. Against the fears of politicians and the scepticism of generals must be set the likely fruits of inaction: that the conflict will spread south to Kosovo and Macedonia, bringing in neighbouring countries, with results yet more dreadful than those seen so far.