Let us be more than bandits in the night

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The Independent Online
THIS morning, if all goes according to plan, Douglas Hurd will be jolting along the tortuous mountain road from the Adriatic to Vitez, the Coldstream Guards' base in Bosnia. It will be a largely symbolic visit, a personal gesture to show the soldiers they are not forgotten. But much of the West's involvement in Bosnia has been a matter of symbols as well as humanitarian feeling. And those symbols are now turning dark.

The aid convoys are delivering rather less than half the food and medicine needed. They have saved a lot of lives, but perhaps only saved people to be slaughtered later. They have been a symbol of the determination of the United Nations, the European Union and Nato to do something, anything, short of fighting - a symbol that we care. As Douglas Hurd to the British troops, so the troops to the Bosnians.

But those symbols are mocked every day. They are mocked by the fighting that swirls unconcernedly round the West's impotent hardware. They are mocked directly by thuggish guerrillas, lying warlords and by the unarmed locals who routinely stop heavily armed convoys and make them turn tail. The troops who once told Bosnians 'the world cares', and told British and French citizens watching television that they could be proud of their governments' role in confronting evil, now remind the angry victims of the war of how little outsiders will do. Nor are the pictures of nonplussed, frustrated soldiers doing much for national pride back home. Outside forces in the Balkans are still partly doing a symbolic job. But they are now by and large symbols of the wrong things.

None of that matters too much if we are convinced that they are saving lives, doing more good than harm. Half the aid is better than none at all. But there are those who think that the aid convoys are simply prolonging the war, allowing young male fighters to carry on killing one another, while their old and sick are fed by the outside world.

On that analysis we should get out, and soon. For the wretched of Bosnia, the intolerable suffering will become even worse. But the defeat of the Bosnian army would come more quickly. Some might even argue that a clear-cut Western withdrawal now would be an act of moral courage, an open admission of the limits of political will, a frank facing of unpleasant realities. (This is, I suspect, precisely the reason Western politicians shrink from it. It is too potent a symbol of failure.)

Going and staying are now both bad choices and the road backwards through better, lost ones is well- known. There was the winter of 1991-92, when European leaders were concentrating on Iraq and the run-up to the Maastricht treaty, and failed to reserve recognition for the new republics until boundaries had been agreed and the new governments had authority over their territory. Then there were the numerous later openings for military intervention, notably when Serb aggression was at its height.

But John Major, like other leaders, decided that the lives of servicemen outweighed any other consideration. From time to time ministers explained the decision not to intervene militarily by saying somebody else wouldn't stand for it - the Commons wouldn't, or the voters wouldn't, or the soldiers wouldn't. In reality, without any attempt by national leaders to lead or direct an interventionist policy, we will never know what would have been acceptable to whom. The politicians closed off the question.

So now they are left with the consequences of past mistakes. To stay, with no end in sight, mocked, in peril and performing only an ambiguous service? Or to flee - for British military withdrawal would be a dangerous and humiliating business, best accomplished, in the phrase of Larry Hollingsworth, field officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 'like bandits in the night'? Fleeing might hasten the murder of Bosnia but might also incite further conflicts elsewhere.

Mr Hurd, on his way to Vitez, will be wondering which is the lesser of the two evils. In spite of gossip about a British withdrawal in April, the Foreign Office insists no decision has been taken. For my money, leaving would be worse than staying. While some people are being saved, it is a job worth doing. To abandon them as an act of policy would be a shameful admission that the cost in money and political embarrassment was now considered too high by the British government. Nor can we sanely juggle the likely numbers of dead and raped in different developments of a war: things might end more quickly, or we might see strings of new concentration camps.

But even that choice assumes that the power to go or stay lies securely in the hands of the politicians. This power may be draining away. They cannot forever continue a policy that has spread such despair and disillusion among those who must carry it out. Lord Owen is clearly dejected. In an earlier incarnation he would surely have called the politicians' attitude to Bosnia fudge and mudge. Now he struggles wearily to fulfil a toothless mandate.

The UN people on the ground are disillusioned and angry. So are aid workers and many soldiers, including former commanders. The electorates, given no political lead and no sign of hope, are turning off and away from Bosnian news. Most MPs don't care.

Unless people such as Mr Hurd can find grounds for some hope, rebuild some policy, explain why it is right to stay, then the time may come - and quite soon - when Western withdrawal just happens; the result less of political decision than a general collapse of political will, a feeling of pointlessness and disgust that spreads and thickens until the thought of staying on becomes somehow impossible. Whatever that would mean for Bosnia, it would be a bloody awful day for Britain. Loudly we'd say: 'We did what we could.' But we would know that we did not.