Only the infantry can relieve the Balkans' pain

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK the Washington Post asked the 'hardest of the hard questions' of the US presidential candidates: 'how to enforce international law and human rights without occupying the country with infantry on the ground, as no government is prepared to do'.

Tricky, this one, because the answer is that it can't be done. For any system of laws and basic values to be respected, it must be enforced. Of course, some regimes can be embarrassed or cajoled into respecting individual and group rights that they would otherwise prefer to ignore, while others take care not to upset those upon whom their finance and trade depends. But in extreme cases enforcement only becomes possible if backed by credible threats of force.

In the case of Serbia and Montenegro most of the non-violent alternatives have been tried: condemnation at the UN, diplomatic isolation, sports boycotts, expulsion from regional institutions, arms and then general trade embargoes. They have not worked because the costs and inconvenience they impose do not begin to match the high stakes for which such conflicts are fought, especially when the economic situation has already become dire and the political culture brutalised.

The target of political and economic sanctions is a central government, but when lines of authority are weak and societies are breaking down it is doubtful whether obnoxious behaviour can be readily turned on and off at will. Should central government be seen to 'sell out' to the international community there are local zealots to continue the fight, as long as the regular army does not oppose them.

In short, gestures that have no direct impact on the fighting merely confirm a reluctance to get too involved.

Take the naval force in the Adriatic that has been set up to monitor the UN embargo against Serbia and Montenegro. This is not policing the main route by which the embargo is being broken: supplies are coming in by land. Even if smuggling is discovered it can only be reported: ships may not be stopped or diverted. Hence, the embargo is not even being properly enforced.

Moreover, the whole exercise so far has been shaped by irrelevant considerations. To bring the US in, it would have had to be a Nato operation, but this was too much for the French, who wished these matters to be handled by a 'European' organisation.

Therefore this is notionally a joint Nato-Western European Union operation. But the WEU in military terms is no more than a subset of Nato, without the latter's command and control structures, so in order to contrive this symbolic co-operation Nato forces, and personnel, are masquerading as WEU forces.

Current proposals for air strikes invoke military force but in practice avoid the issue. Air power is a poor way to try to exert control over such a messy conflict, involving numerous ragged militias as well as an organised army. What would be appropriate targets for punitive strikes? And with how much confidence could they be identified without compounding the tragedy by inflicting accidental attacks on civilians? After the air strikes, who would protect the minority community from retaliatory acts of vengeance?

The only way to be sure of enforcing rules is through an imposing physical presence on the ground. This was true when it came to expelling Iraq from Kuwait, and later in protecting the Kurds. Armed UN guards have been deployed, out of necessity, in Sarajevo. The current doctrine is that one only dare insert the infantry, when it is safe to do so,

as peace-keepers - not peace- makers.

Western leaders are all too well aware that enforcement through infantry is neither straightforward nor guaranteed to succeed: it is as likely to lead to an indefinite external commitment as a lasting internal settlement. In the Bosnian case it would be a daunting military task, requiring a substantial multinational force.

Western governments contemplate this with an understandable lack of enthusiasm. They hope that the conflict will settle down, through either the exhaustion of the combatants or one side's victory - though such an outcome would have precious little to do with either international law or human rights. But the conflict might never settle down. While waiting for this elusive moment the disorder might spread to the point where it impinged on the direct interests as well as the consciences of Western Europe.

For now, the case for intervention is being made on the basis of international obligation. In the bad old days of the Cold War, internationalists spoke out against military preparedness as provocative, a waste of resources better spent on development aid and far less appropriate than political and economic measures for transcending the East-West divide.

Yet those who are moved by the pain of others, who cannot bear to ignore the desperate pleas of persecuted minorities, and who believe the advanced industrial states have a special responsibility, must recognise that this means supporting the hard choice of committing infantry to sort out other peoples' quarrels.