Leading Article: The slippery slope to war

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The Independent Online
AMERICAN airdrops over Bosnia may have cost more lives than they saved. The response of Serb forces in the area was to mow down people trying to reach the packages and to launch a ferocious assault on Cerska, reportedly massacring large numbers of its inhabitants. Thus is the humanitarian impulse rewarded. The Americans now join the Europeans in experiencing the humiliation of being mocked by people who have abandoned all vestiges of civilised behaviour. But Europeans must share responsibility because they were instrumental in restraining President Clinton from more active intervention.

If there is any benefit, apart from feeding a few lucky ones, it is that the credibility of the United States is now as much at stake as that of the Europeans and the United Nations. All are slowly learning the main lesson of the conflict in former Yugoslavia: that outsiders will gain neither respect nor attention until they are ready to fire a shot in anger. The Serbs have clear aims and armed forces to achieve them. They have no interest in what the international community thinks, what values it preaches, what resolutions it passes or what proposals it endorses as long as they can pursue their conquests.

Nor do they care what horror their methods provoke in more civilised parts of the world. Even if their leaders can be persuaded to sign up for the Vance-Owen plan, their forces on the ground are unlikely to stop short of their goals or retreat behind new boundaries unless compelled to do so. Experience so far tells them that no one is going to lay a finger on them.

The crisis has, therefore, reached a particularly dangerous point. Outside powers must soon decide whether to acknowledge their powerlessness and accept humiliation or demonstrate that they are prepared to use force. If they accept defeat, they invite the war to spread to Kosovo, Macedonia and beyond. If they decide to assert themselves, they might bring the conflict to a rapid end, but risk being drawn into prolonged and very messy military action.

Their efforts at the moment are devoted to persuading the Serbs and Muslims to join the Croats in signing the Vance-Owen plan for new cantonal arrangements. The Americans, after wavering, have swung strongly behind the plan and are committed to taking part in its implementation, even to the extent of using military force. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, secretary-general of the UN, also accepts that force may be needed.

But these commitments all presuppose signature, and this still looks distant. Although the Serbian leaders are aware that they are overstretched, while the Muslims are slowly getting the message that the Americans will not come to their rescue, both leaderships are weak and afraid to sign. Both believe they are being asked to give up too much. Neither is in full control of its forces.

Hence there is a strong possibility that the negotiations will drag on while the atrocities continue - atrocities by all sides, but it is the Serbs who are trying to change the map. If that looks likely, and if the outside powers decide the price of not getting a settlement is too high, they will have to confront the prospect of using force to impose agreement. The Vance-Owen plan has at least the advantage that it provides something to fight for that does not involve formally taking sides.