No withdrawal, no war, and no neutrality

The government's strategy towards Bosnia is becoming clear, and it is motivated by laudable politics
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The Independent Online
The smoke isn't clearing in Bosnia, but it is clearing around the British government. Yesterday's debate in Parliament and the briefings that surrounded it have given us the first unambiguous picture of just what John Major and the Ministry of Defence are up to. We are going deeper in.

There had been a suspicion that the decision to send thousands more troops was cover for withdrawal. Some unforeseen disaster may cause that to happen, but the Prime Minister could not have made his hostility to the idea starker. Having summoned Parliament back, he made the strategic and moral case for the UN operation with welcome simplicity: "Many people who would have died are alive today because of that effort. And we should understand this: many alive today would die if that effort ended.'' Not everything about this crisis is complicated.

Major reminded us that in 1992, when the troops first went in, Bosnia stood on the brink of genocide. Withdrawal would mean those dangers returning, followed possibly by a full Balkan war which would involve Britain financially and militarily: "Could the West stand idly by and let such actions take place in south-eastern Europe? I doubt it. I truly doubt it.''

British and French warnings about the possibility of withdrawal are only prudent and are partly intended as a warning to the Bosnian government against restarting its own offensives. But no one could have left the Commons thinking that this was what Major expected or desired.

So what does he expect? That the Bosnian Serb Army won't quickly give up its hostages. That the 5,000-strong Air Mobile Brigade will be sent. That it will help to secure and concentrate the UN forces around Sarajevo and the enclaves - something which may mean fighting. And that, in consequence of the hostage-taking, the Serbs will find themselves facing far more Western troops, whose commanders have much greater freedom of action against them.

On an optimistic reading, this means the Bosnian Serbs will see that their hopes of a military victory over the government forces are nil. There will be a stalemate, during which they will be isolated and outcast, by Belgrade and the Russians as well as the West. With no way out, they will eventually return to serious negotiations.

This is what I understand Government strategy to be. We are not at war with the Bosnian Serbs, but we are not at peace with them, either. Nor - and here is the crux of the matter - are we neutral. Our fundamental lack of neutrality is the answer to the paradox raised vividly by Tony Benn in the Commons yesterday, when he asked how it was possible for there to be UN peacekeepers in blue berets on the ground, while above them pilots in blue helmets were busy bombing.

It was the key question of the anti-involvement party in Parliament, an ad hoc alliance of Labour leftwingers like Benn, Tory rightwingers who feel no British interests are involved, Sir Edward Heath, and Lord Owen. It's a pretty mixed collection, and few of them would enjoy the company of the others. But since Tony Blair was as eloquently hostile to withdrawal as Major, and Paddy Ashdown has been ahead of both, these rightists, leftists and grandees comprise the de facto Opposition party, against the united front benches.

This opposition group takes the view that we are either at war in Bosnia, or we are not. Since we don't want to go to war, we should either pull out or rigorously limit the UN operation to humanitarian work, without the slightest hint of military threat. Tony Benn suggested that the UN needed to be more like the Red Cross which, ever since being formed after the Battle of Solferino in 1859, has never needed air support to aid its humanitarian mission.

This is a distinguished opposition. But where they have got it badly wrong is to think of the original engagement of UN forces in Bosnia as humanitarian, and nothing more. Whatever the blather from politicians, it never was. It was an intensely political and engaged act, driven by political motives of the best sort. Neutrality implies that we don't mind which side wins. Yet British troops went to Bosnia in the first place because of what the thug-soldiers of Greater Serbia were up to; the genocide Major referred to yesterday was their genocide.

The troops went to take food supplies and in a "humanitarian capacity'', but the mere fact of their being there, establishing so-called safe havens, interposing their camps and vehicles, being interviewed, watching and reporting, prevented the Bosnian Serbs from overwhelming the mainly Muslim forces and concluding their bloody war of conquest.

What was neutral about that? The anger of the Bosnian government about the West's refusal to go further tended to hide the basic bias towards that government. So, later, did the aggression of the Bosnian forces. But the bias was there from the start and was, and is, virtuous. It has been suggested that the West was dragged in by the television cameras, but this is not so. We were dragged in by what the television cameras were pointing at. It is not possible to be neutral as between the rapist and the raped, or the fist and the smashed face.

So when Benn asked how it was possible to combine a humanitarian role with a military role, then the proper answer was that this is what the West has been doing all along. It's just that the "military'' role has so far been an unfamiliar one; the passive use of active firepower - infantry protected by their bright white lack of camouflage - tanks behaving gently. Far from being mobile and nifty, the UN troops' main job has been to hang around getting in the way.

And, until the last three weeks, it sort of worked. This almost surreal stand-off had successfully damped down the conflict. It solved nothing; but a condition of neither-peace-nor-war is better than a condition of unequivocal war. Some British commentators have suggested that it isn't; that it would be better to get out and let the thing run its natural course. I suspect that if you are sitting in Tuzla it doesn't feel that way.

Now we are going further, pouring in troops and equipment to clog up the possible battlefields, surrounding the targets, so freezing the conflict more firmly and (for the Serbs) hopelessly than before. This is dangerous for us, obviously; but it is dangerous for the Bosnian Serbs, too.

They also have a difficult choice. They could execute the hostages in full view of the television cameras and attack the UN forces. But that would so outrage British and French opinion that this would cease to be a virtual conflict and would become a bloody and swift war of revenge by Nato.

That doesn't seem a happy prospect for the Bosnian Serb Army. Yet the only other obvious option, to accept the stronger, longer-term UN presence, ends their dreams of territorial conquest and takes them back to the negotiating table they so fear. This is a horrible and perilous business. But it is not yet, as so many eminent MPs seem to think, a hopeless one.

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