Nightmares that haunt diplomats and soldiers

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The Independent Online
EUROPE's future will be shaped more by what happens in Sarajevo over the next few weeks than by what happens at Westminster tonight. Nato's military command, at least, realises that a European Community with more than 2 million men under arms but unable to deal with a savage war of aggression on its doorstep is an ill-led, weak Europe. Treaties don't change that.

European weakness hurts Nato in particular, because it is one Brussels-based institution which relies on non-Europeans, and it feels the chill of the world's disapproval with special force. Hence the growing evidence of dissatisfaction inside Nato about the lack of political leadership.

Anything that undermines America's enthusiasm for its European allies by definition also undermines Nato. And, hardly surprisingly, senior Nato staff think that the failure of European leaders to stop the Bosnian war has played badly among Washington's strategic thinkers. Even some of the most anti-isolationist Americans on the defence and diplomatic circuit have been making their feelings plain.

Bosnia has, no question, made it clear that European governments are unwilling to shoulder their local security burden. Washington wonders if, after decades of American protection, its European allies are becoming flabby and unreliable nations. If they are going soft, for how long will the US want to stand beside them in a post-Cold-War military alliance? These may be nightmares. But they are the nightmares that disturb the sleep of diplomats and soldiers.

Part of the anguish at Nato headquarters, therefore, centres on the organisation's own future. A variety of sources confirms that the level of distress is pretty serious there, as indeed it is among some British diplomats. Why are messages being smuggled out from Nato? We can assume the usual mix of motives - moral concern about Bosnia, worry about the organisation's standing and perhaps some defensiveness about critics who ask what all that kit is for.

Things look rather different inside the British and French governments, where the first concern has been to avoid becoming embroiled in a war that could produce unacceptable political and financial strains. This difference in priorities has resulted in a deadeningly circular argument.

It goes like this. We cannot intervene, say the politicians, because the public would not support it. Why not? Because such intervention, even to police a deal on the ground, would involve intolerable casualties and costs. Who says so? Our military advisers.

But what if Nato leaders, like Field Marshall Sir Richard Vincent, are as horrified by non-intervention as the television-watching public? What if they cannot speak out either, because they are the servants of the politicians, and their masters find such views inconvenient? And irrelevant, the politicians would say, because the public would not support the use of ground troops. Why not? Because the military advice. . .

And so the argument could go forever, like 'Michael Finnegan' - except that eventually even the Serbs might sicken of their diet of slaughter.

Is this too hard on the Serbs? After all, the Croats are joining in the butchery and the dispossessed Muslim army in central Bosnia hardly plays by the Queensberry rules. But the Serb agenda is rather more threatening than Croatian opportunism or Bosnian self-defence. I heard one account last week of a Belgrade minister boasting at a conference in Greece of his people's mission to rid the Balkans of both Muslims and Roman Catholics. A nutter? Even some of the hardliners in his audience thought so. But he remains a nutter in power.

The specific Serbian problem has less to do with race or religion than with the politics of Belgrade, where Western appeasement and nationalist fervour have stiffened the logic of dictatorship. To survive, Slobodan Milosevic needs war, a spirit of national sacrifice and an excuse for suppressing dissent. A peaceful year, when inflation at 50 per cent a day became the big issue, might do for him.

So whatever happens in Bosnia, we would be foolish to expect things to stop there. If Milosevic survives, he will need to keep the war going. He will then look south. Kosovo? Macedonia? We had better hope not. As the Independent reported yesterday, tensions are already running high between Greece and Albania; surplus Nato arms are pouring into Greece and its old rival, Turkey. Each lurch forward changes the political and military judgements: the situation becomes more threatening, but intervention becomes more dangerous, too.

Let ministers who believe that holding the line against intervention at all costs is an act of high statesmanship focus on this dilemma. John Major's government has seemed keener to justify inaction than to find ways to act. Its judgement has been that the eager Nato generals and the outraged public had to be protected from one another; that, left to their own devices, they would plunge into a war that they would later regret . . . and blame the Government for.

That is quite possible. But non-intervention doesn't produce non-war. It can spread the conflict, increase the dangers. And we have not heard enough of the dangers of allowing the Balkan war to gather pace? We have seen no sign of political or military planning for such a contingency. Politicians have had other things on their minds. It is hard to avoid the thought that if half the political ingenuity and grit needed to get the Maastricht treaty through had been devoted to the Balkan war, Europe would be a safer and better place.

Politicians let down Nato, page 10