Leading Article: Why the Lady is not for following

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The Independent Online
FIRST SEE the awful pictures - children wounded by Serbian shrapnel, moaning on stretchers. Now hear the impassioned speech - enough is enough, something must be done. Baroness Thatcher touched a nerve of popular and political conscience last week when she urged the West to help the Bosnian Muslims arm themselves against Serbian aggression and its pitiful consequences, and no wonder. Suffering on this scale has not been seen in Europe since the 1940s. Today Srebrenica threatens to become a place- name on the scale of Guernica or Halabja - somewhere previously harmless and obscure which becomes infamous because it has witnessed dreadful human cruelty. No Western power has yet gone as far as Lady Thatcher - arm the Muslims - but in the days since she spoke, attitudes have changed. The Serbs need to be stopped and nothing, it seems (we can't be sure; the signals are confused), can be ruled out as a means of stopping them.

It is easy in this situation to ridicule the policies of the British government and the French and, to some extent, the American. Easy to be impatient with nodding heads on television who say it is very complicated; easy to believe once again in the 'surgical' accuracy of bombing raids. But, alas, it is very complicated. The Bosnian war is not a struggle in which pure good is ranged against pure evil, but a war in which many small conflicts are rolled into one, and which has the potential, if the West gets it wrong, to set off numerous other explosions in the Balkans and beyond. Conscience intervenes, prodding us to seek a short cut to moral simplicity; and Lady Thatcher, like few other British leaders, knows how to paint things black and white.

But the television interviews last Tuesday in which she condemned her successors in government, and most of the Western world, were notable for two other reasons. First, they illustrated that a politician out of power can express moral indignation without worrying about practical consequences. Second, they demonstrated that Lady Thatcher does not know enough about the Balkans.

Suppose the West tried to follow her advice. How, in fact, would we lift the arms embargo that has been imposed on all six former Yugoslav republics since 1991? It would have to be lifted not simply against the Bosnian Muslims but against Bosnian government forces as a whole. These include Bosnian Croat armies who are in nominal alliance with the Muslims but who, in practice, have shown that their main concern is to annex western Herzegovina to Croatia. In the name of preserving Bosnia's unity, the West would encourage precisely the opposite result.

The Bosnian Croat forces are, in essence, an instrument of the Croatian government, and one can be quite sure that the lifting of the arms embargo would result in large quantities of weapons flowing into Croatia. This guarantees a return to full-scale war in Croatia, where the Croats want to recapture lands lost to the Serbs in 1991. The West wishes to restore Croatia's territorial integrity; but this approach would fan another Balkan war, with more dead, more maimed?

A further objection is that the arms embargo could not be lifted for Muslim and Croat benefit alone. Russia, where much popular sentiment favours the Serbs, would veto any such resolution in the UN Security Council. Would the West, then, seek to arm the Bosnian government without the council's authorisation? That would place the final nail in the coffin of the 'new world order', of which the Security Council was supposed to be the embodiment.

There is no simple way out of the Bosnian quagmire. And Western leaders would do well to remember that, in the past two years, they have persistently misjudged Balkan politics and must bear part of the responsibility for the present carnage. First, they supported holding Yugoslavia together, thus encouraging the Serbs to believe they could use force to keep the Slovenes and Croats in. Then the West recognised Croatia without grasping why that republic's Serbian minority was so opposed to living in an independent Croatian state. That decision also triggered the Bosnian war, because it forced the Bosnian Muslims and Croats to push for independence rather than live in a Serbian-dominated rump of Yugoslavia. But an independent Bosnia made the Serbs a minority there too, which led to the Bosnian Serb revolt.

At present the West, in the shape of the Vance-Owen plan, stands for a united Bosnian state with guarantees for the rights of minorities. This is the proper aspiration. To adjust Bosnia's borders in response to Serbian and Croatian territorial ambitions would set a disastrous precedent for dozens of disputes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But to intervene militarily or arm selectively would set a precedent. Are we to be involved in a conflict between Ukraine and Russia? Does anyone, even Lady Thatcher, think we should intervene in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan? Our consciences are stirred selectively, according to the presence of television cameras and the geographical proximity of death and horror.

So what can and should we do? Western governments can implement the UN economic sanctions against Serbia more effectively and agree even tighter ones. Sanctions are not the stuff of television sound-bites but, for all their flaws, they have already wrought serious damage on the Serbian economy. The West should also keep enforcing the no-fly zone in Bosnia. Perhaps also it should consider, as Lord Owen has advocated, air strikes against Serbian supply routes from Serbia into Bosnia. But can we be sure that these, too, will not lead to death and injury? They would, in any case, need the UN Security Council's blessing, with Russian acquiescence.

The war in Bosnia war is not an isolated conflict, but part of a general breakdown of ethnic relations, political systems, law and order, and social psychology in the Balkans. So far, Western leaders have told us almost nothing about what kind of Balkans they wish to see in the future. Let us hear them describe their vision rather than calling for more petrol to be thrown on the blaze.