Leading Article: Time to show our anger

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ONE SIMPLE thought should be at the centre of the debate over intervention in Bosnia. It is that if the Serbs are allowed to get away with what they are doing, they will kill more people, extend their conquests and destroy what little remains of the credibility of the Western alliance. Calculation of the possible price of intervening must, therefore, be balanced against the certain high cost of not doing so.

Serbian leaders have learnt they can afford to regard Nato, the European Community and the United Nations with contempt. Lord Owen described them yesterday as 'confident and cocky'. So they should be. They have run rings around Western diplomats and politicians. They have kept up the illusion of negotiation while continuing their conquests, signed countless ceasefires they had no intention of keeping, circumvented sanctions with contemptuous ease, broken almost every rule of war with impunity, flouted every standard of civilised behaviour and manipulated their own media so that they still enjoy the support of their people.

Since these achievements owe more to Western ineptitude than Serbian skill, the long-term consequences should be causing Western policy-makers as much concern as the immediate sufferings of the people of Bosnia. History tends to show that the humiliation of major powers exacts a high price at some later stage. So does failure to stop aggression. This is why the issue is about realpolitik as well as humanitarianism.

Among the long list of mistakes made by the Western alliance, the most basic was to assume that the Serbs could be dissuaded from their declared aims by anything other than force. It was foolish to set policy aims without first mustering the will and the means to achieve them. The will is now growing, and some kind of more active intervention is starting to look likely. If it comes, it will be more costly than it would have been in the early stages of the war.

Arming the Muslims is tempting but dangerous, although there may be a case for turning a blind eye to modest amounts of unofficial help from friendly countries. More badly needed is a demonstration of Western determination. The stiffer sanctions now agreed by the UN Security Council could go some way towards meeting that need if they are enforced with sufficient vigour. The Serbian economy is ill-equipped to face real isolation. At some point, however, it will become necessary to fire a shot in anger, since mere threats to do so no longer carry any weight.

Where and by whom this shot is fired is largely a matter for military judgement, but bombing supply lines to Serb forces in Bosnia looks the most promising option. Serbia is clearly guilty of aggression in so far as it supports and supplies the Bosnian Serbs across an internationally recognised frontier. The risks to aid convoys and troops on the ground are obvious if Western forces become belligerents, but it should not be beyond the ability of military commanders to minimise them. Even if fighting cannot be wholly stopped, the Bosnian Serbs can be slowed by cutting their links with Serbia. The Serbian leadership must be given a reason to revise its hitherto justified contempt for the West.