LEADING ARTICLE : The United Nations in chains

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The Independent Online
Tired people often daydream. When you are really tired, it is hard to see clearly the consequences of what you do. You imagine that if only you could do something drastic, the drama would solve your problem more quickly. Tired diplomats are just like the rest of us. Unfortunately, making a drama tends to prolong, not conclude, a crisis - think of your last family row. If drastic measures do force a settlement, it would often have been better to leave things to smoulder.

Think back before the IRA ceasefires, and before the Arab-Israeli peace accords. Western publics, tired of the gory headlines, sometimes imagined that if all-out war were let rip, then a war-crazed generation might sicken of killing more quickly, leading to peace. Along with this fantasy runs the idea that there is something more honest about unrestrained conflict - as if that were a kind of virtue. Some tired people in the West, and many even more tired politicians, are thinking this way about Bosnia. It is dangerous and has led to the desperate spectacle of UN peacekeepers chained to lamp-posts, functioning as a human shield for their Bosnian Serb captors.

The headline-fatigued fall into two groups. There are those who say "pull out the UN troops now, and let them fight it out to the finish", and those who say "hit the Serbs hard; never mind about taking sides; let's force a military solution".

Pulling out would certainly be dramatic. It would also be difficult to carry out and would not end the West's involvement. Many Bosnian civilians would probably attempt physically to prevent the blue helmets from leaving, and either army might open fire on the retreating forces. In feeding almost 3 million Bosnians, delivering 2,000 tonnes of aid daily, and maintaining the Muslim-Croat ceasefire, the UN operation is doing more good than harm. In the event of all-out war, the enclaves of Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde would fall to the Serbs, Sarajevo would be partitioned, there would be perhaps hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the West would have to intervene at some level.

Neither could the West stand by and watch ethnic cleansing on the scale that all-out war would bring. The US Congress would be likely to insist on breaking the arms embargo and openly arming the Muslims. Escalating Nato strikes could test Russia's patience, perhaps even jeopardising negotiations over Nato enlargement, conventional arms reduction and nuclear trade with Iran. When you hear that Mr Chirac or Mr Boutros Ghali are flirting with pulling out, you know they are too tired of the issue to think clearly.

Those who hope that this week's air strikes are the start of a major programme of such attacks on the Bosnian Serbs are also tired and muddled. The Bosnian Serbs have been mildly inconvenienced in losing some ammunition - a commodity of which they are not short, having inherited many of the former Yugoslavia's old arms factories. Because the UN troops are so vulnerable, and because the UN needs some leaders to talk to in Pale, Nato cannot strike at the heart of the Bosnian Serb war machine. Yet even the pinpricks have led to brutal Serb retaliation, which has left 71 people dead in refugee-swollen Tuzla. And for what? Diplomatically, the strikes may well have made new difficulties for the talks in which the West is trying to persuade President Milosevic of Serbia to recognise Bosnia. The Russians are nervous, perhaps seeing these attacks as a Nato attempt to consolidate its role in a region over which they expect at least joint supervision. The credibility of the UN and Nato ultimatum has not been reinforced with Mr Karadjic and General Mladic, because they have again been reminded how weak the Western position is. Whatever these strikes do, they won't force a military solution, and it is folly to encourage the Bosnian Muslim fantasy that we might ever be able or willing to do that.

Sometimes tired people must recognise that they would be better to soldier on. As Lt-Gen Rose, who for so long resisted the sort of action his successor agreed to this week, has remarked: "The parties must accept that it is to their long-term advantage that the UN stays." The West must pace itself, get back on track as early as it can in the talks with Mr Milosevic, and stop taking appalling and unnecessary risks by daydreaming of drama. The Bosnian conflict needs less, not more, adrenaline.