Leading Article: We should not abandon Bosnia

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THE EVENTS in Gorazde are a tragedy for its people, a devastating blow to the confidence of the Muslims and probably the worst of the many defeats in this war that the Western powers have inflicted on themselves.

It could have been avoided. When the moment of truth came in a confrontation between the Serbs and the United Nations, it was the UN that blinked. General Rose was denied both ground troops and air cover to defend a town that was nominally under UN protection. As so often in the past, the Serbs bought time by pretending to negotiate and then proceeded to take what they wanted.

All through the Bosnian war, outside powers have underestimated the rationality and diplomatic skills of the Serbs while overestimating their military prowess. The Serbs have seldom taken risks or fought noticeably well. They have pounded helpless towns, slaughtered civilians but hesitated when confronted. Behind their bluster are nervous conscripts, a tottering economy and worried politicians. Had they been confronted at Gorazde they would almost certainly have held back. Instead, they weighed up the discordant voices in Washington, observed the lack of support for General Rose, tested the ground in negotiations, and then decided it was safe to walk in.

As Paddy Ashdown observed yesterday, they have played on the international community like a violin. They have not needed to fight seriously because they have understood so well how to exploit the credulity of Western politicians and the hesitancy, ineptitude and disunity of Western governments. As a result, Western policies will be examined in history textbooks as examples of how not to conduct international operations. Malcolm Rifkind made a fool of himself on BBC Radio yesterday by pretending otherwise.

The shame and despair evoked by Western policies make it difficult to see into the future. Since the Serbs now have more territory than they want and most of the strategic points, they may soon turn a smiling face to the world and offer to negotiate a seemingly magnanimous settlement designed to lift the sanctions against them.

If that happens, it will confront the Western powers with further choices. They would be wrong to pull out altogether, as some voices in Washington are suggesting, since this would mean further humiliation and abandoning those Bosnians who are still being fed and protected by the UN.

They would be equally foolish to lift the sanctions on Serbia without gaining substantial concessions in return. The sanctions still provide useful leverage. As a first step it would be worth trying to mend fences with the Russians, who are in a difficult mood but share an interest in ending the conflict, provided they are accorded some credit. There is, however, no substitute for realistic common aims backed by determination to achieve them. Whether, at this late stage, there is any chance of finding them is another matter.