Sarajevo need not have waited so long for the shelling to stop

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The Independent Online
THERE IS a wonderful passage in the late A J P Taylor's English History: 1914-1945 about going off the gold standard in 1931. In one of his favourite phrases, 'men thought' that the entire economy would collapse if they abandoned gold. A tremendous flight from sterling was going on. The government believed, wrongly, that this was because the budget was unbalanced. They cut everything, including public sector pay, finally provoking the naval mutiny at Invergordon. The haemorrhage continued.

At last, in despair, they abandoned the gold standard. Mentally, they fled to the bunkers and waited for the world to crash about their ears. It did not. Sterling devalued itself internationally by 25 per cent, but life and trade in Britain went on much as before. The crisis was over. Lord Passfield, husband of Beatrice Webb, looked around in disbelief. He said: 'Nobody told us we could do this]'

This is the West's reaction to what has happened at Sarajevo. After two unspeakable years of siege, the Nato partners decided to try force. They did not have to drop bombs. The decision itself was enough: the Serbian bombardment stopped. The Russian involvement was not the cause of this, but part of the result; it followed instantly on Nato's ultimatum. It seems to have prevented a situation in which the Serbs would have wriggled and Western governments might have quarrelled among themselves about how much force to use. But essentially the ultimatum silenced the guns.

'Nobody told us we could do this.' Strictly, this is untrue. Many voices had been saying since the beginning of the Bosnian tragedy that they could do this. But - as in 1931 - the ruling orthodoxy was that action would make everything worse. All through the two years, the Europeans played a squalid game of pass-the-parcel; one government would take its turn to suggest that a credible threat of force might frighten off the Serbs, while the rest went into their routine about impossible terrain, the dangers to humanitarian aid and UN troops on the ground, and the reaction of Western voters to the first body-bags.

Now there is a question to answer. If it can be done now, could it have been done two years ago? Could the bombardment of Sarajevo have been halted in 1992 by such an ultimatum, when it began? And could a threat of force which all parties took seriously have halted or prevented the incursion of Serbian irregulars across the Drina which began the great land-grab and brought Bosnia into the war? Even further back, could it have strangled the Serb-Croat conflict before it became all-out war?

The answer to the first two questions, at least, is almost certainly yes. The only military change of significance in the last two years is that the Bosnian Serb forces have grown stronger and more confident. It follows that it would actually have been easier to halt them by force or the threat of force in 1992 than it was in 1994. Mark Thompson, in the 1992 edition of his book A Paper House, was savagely dismissive about Bosnian Serb military capacity: 'Killing or expelling unarmed peasants is one thing; taking cities in order to expel non-Serbs is quite another. The aggressors' only method is to blockade a town, set up their artillery on the surrounding hills . . . and unload shells on the defenceless citizens day after day, month after month.'

So, if it could have been done, why wasn't it? That is a gloomy discussion and, as governments do not learn from their mistakes, a fairly unprofitable one. There was a degree of general cowardice and callousness, of course. But there were more particular factors. Understandably, the Germans declined to offer leadership on the matter of using armed force. Equally understandably, the Americans wanted to show the Europeans that from now on they had to solve their own problems; the times when they could automatically pass the buck to the armed strength and superpower diplomacy of the United States were over. Understandable - but mistaken. German reluctance has done Germany's European relationships no good. American reluctance gave time for the whole post-Yugoslav morass to grow so deep that both the US and Russia have finally slithered into it.

And if it wasn't done then, why was it done now? The easy answer is the slaughter on 5 February: the mortar bomb which landed in the Sarajevo market and killed 68 people. The real answer, I suspect, is more complicated. The carnage of that Saturday jerked forward a process that was already under way, an unwilling feeling that Western policy on Bosnia was not just dead but beginning to smell. For months, American pressure on Europe to do something had been building up. Some governments, such as our own, resisted this pressure more strongly than others. But the change was secretly under way. There is a great deal still to come out: a job for journalists.

We can have some confidence that the Sarajevo lesson could successfully be applied to Mostar, Bihac, Tuzla or Srebrenica. And the effects could reach much further than stopping local bombardments. Thompson wrote that 'if such action merely interrupted the turkey-shoot of Bosnian cities and citizens, or redressed the drastic military imbalance, it should be taken. In fact, there is good reason to suppose that it would achieve much more, transforming the conflict and so infusing the peace process with new plausibility'.

But now the Russians are involved. It would be a bitter irony if they decreed that the Sarajevo ultimatum must never be repeated. On the other hand, Russia may be able to achieve what the West has been unable to do: to stop the guns by politics alone.

There are two ways of interpreting the return of Russian power to the Balkans. The first is grim: that archaic imperial instinct is pushing Russia to stake out once more a position as protector of the Orthodox Slavs. Is President Boris Yeltsin trying to create a 'sphere of influence', fortified against both the US and Islam, to replace the lost empire in north-east Europe?

But the second view is that hopes frustrated during the Cold War might now be fulfilled. The Bosnian crisis is at last dragging in the great powers (and, on military grounds, Russia remains one). Where Russian diplomacy begins to operate, there the Americans must eventually move in and be present, too.

Bosnia would be 'Berlinised'. But that does not have to mean confrontation. It may mean collaboration. It may mean a revival of Cold War patterns without the hostility, as the two countries recognise that they alone have enough fire-engines to put the flames out: Russia hosing the Serbs, America the Croats and the Bosnian government.

If Russia and the United States are still doomed either to fight over the globe or to share responsibility for it, then the outlines of a coarse new world order appear. It would be not so different from the previous order in one way: that small countries pay its price. Bosnia, crushed, partitioned and occupied, would have peace - but nothing more.