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Play the game, point the finger

ON BOTH sides of the Atlantic this week, the warning cry of 'Suez]' was heard. The connection was inevitable, for the international line-up on the reported discussions between the allies over Bosnia is identical with that over Suez in October/ November 1956: the United States on one side versus Britain and France on the other.

There is a further striking point of similarity, in the willingness of the European powers to use their vetoes in the United Nations Security Council to quash a resolution proposed by the Americans. In the Suez case, Britain and France actually used the veto, on 30 October 1956, to put down a US resolution asking for 'immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli forces behind the (1948) armistice lines'. Britain and France were, of course, in collusion with the Israelis, although pretending this was not the case.

Possession and use of the veto did Britain and France absolutely no good. On that occasion the US simply took its resolution to the General Assembly, which immediately carried it by an enormous majority. It thereby demonstrated the international isolation of the invaders of Egypt far more convincingly than a vote by the much smaller Security Council could have done.

In the Bosnian case, Britain and France have not had occasion to veto President Clinton's suggestion that the Security Council embargo on the supply of arms to former Yugoslavia be relaxed for the benefit of the Muslims. Mr Clinton tried to persuade Britain and France to agree to this, but when they declined he did not take the matter to the Security Council, and is unlikely to do so. He was facing at least an implied threat of veto, which may well have been explicit in private conversations. And the threat of a veto, over the arms embargo, is much more credible than the veto used over Suez.

In the case of Suez, the Security Council had been unable to reach agreement. In such an eventuality, there was a Korean precedent, hallowed in American eyes, for taking the matter to the General Assembly. But the arms embargo represents a decision already reached by the Security Council, and can be amended only by the council itself. Resort to the General Assembly in such circumstances is not a remedy available under the Charter, and the Clinton administration will not wish to be seen in blatant violation of a document that so many Americans still regard with vague veneration. So, if Britain and France hold to their positions, as is likely, the international arms embargo will not be relaxed.

There is, then, a 'Suez precedent', which is of some interest, especially as regards the United Nations aspects. But it would be misleading to speak of any 'Suez analogy'. The circumstances of the two cases are too widely different. Over Suez, the governments of Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet had gone berserk. They had treated President Eisenhower, the leader of the Western Alliance, with open contempt. They had taken the decision to invade Egypt without notice to him and they had compounded their offence by offering a cover story ('separating the combatants') which was an insult to his intelligence as well as that of everybody else.

To cap all, they timed their exploit to coincide with the eve of Eisenhower's re-election. They calculated, with imbecile cunning, that Eisenhower would be deterred, by fear of losing the Jewish vote in New York, from exposing or opposing their collusive enterprise with Israel. Eisenhower was not deterred.

There is nothing in the present, rather low-key, imbroglio that resembles that extravaganza of 30 years ago. Nor is the present apparent transatlantic divergence of interest and policy nearly as substantial as it was being made to seem, in some quarters, and particularly by governmental hints, this week.

In reality the Clinton administration, like the governments of Britain and France, very sensibly wants to stop well short of sending combat troops to former Yugoslavia. All three, however, are under considerable pressure to move in that general direction, by apparently innocuous but insidious stages, and they have yielded to that pressure to an extent they know to be dangerous.

In order not to drift any nearer the weir, both the Americans and the Europeans have been trying to deflect the domestic pressure away from themselves by suggesting that it is their partners who are really at fault. This manoeuvre is more obvious in the case of the Americans; the Europeans are playing the same game rather more subtly.

The Clinton administration, through leaks, suggests that the reason the President has been unable to live up to his campaign promises to bring peace to former Yugoslavia is that the European countries are dragging their feet instead of cleaning up their own backyard. Privately, Clinton people are glad that Europeans are behaving this way and that they can be blamed for it.

Similarly, the British and French reproach the Americans for being unwilling to commit themselves fully to the Vance-Owen plan, and specifically to the policing thereof. Privately - and symmetrically - British and French officials are pleased both about the US resistance to Vance-Owen and about the fact that the Americans can be blamed for this. The officials know that 'policing Vance-Owen' would be the slippery slope to full-scale military intervention. To keep up that slope, and still look good, blame the Americans.

I recognise here the kind of evasive and rather disreputable rituals to which human beings resort when they are trying to keep out of a war to which their past rhetoric might condemn them. In the circumstances, I am glad that these rituals are being used. But we should not take too seriously the divergences which they express (and which are, in any case, beginning to be played down). Underneath, there is a convergence of interest. The substance is not at all like Suez.

In conclusion, a brief word about Senator Joseph Biden, the hawk who has been screaming the loudest against the Europeans, seen as guilty of 'moral rape' and so on. Joe Biden is best-known hitherto for his exotic (and presidentially ruinous) addiction to copying the speeches of Neil Kinnock and pretending they were his own. By now, Mr Biden seems to have kicked this habit. His wild tirade in the Senate this week had the marks of being all Joe's own work.

(Photograph omitted)