The case for trying to bully the bullies

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The Independent Online
WHEN every excuse has crumbled away, when every hope has been mocked, it is time to say we were wrong.

Those of us who argued for extreme caution about the threat of outside force in Bosnia did so because we believed talks with the Serbs offered a chance of peace in the Balkans - a peace not of smoking, silent villages, but one that might last. A peace, as someone put it once, with honour.

It is becoming impossible to think such a peace can be won by reason and goodwill.

What has changed? The mood in New York about the Bosnian Serbs ever signing up to the Vance-Owen plan has become extremely gloomy. The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, has not stamped away, but he is close to doing so. The negotiators needed nine signatures: one Croat, one Serbian, one Muslim on each of three documents they had prepared. They have seven: the Muslims and the Serbs refuse to sign the third paper, a map of cantonised Bosnia. Short by two trickles of ink, but short by centuries of hatred, too.

Diplomats think the Muslims can be won round, but now fear Mr Karadzic is merely buying time for the patriotic Christian murderers back home.

Meanwhile, it becomes steadily clearer that their work, around the ancient borderline between Ottoman and Christian Europe, may have wider meanings for the continent. The anti-Muslim fervour of Serbia's latter-day crusaders is widely supported in other countries, such as Greece, as well as by extremists in Western Europe.

Belgrade television carries endless interviews with Russian politicians, in town to support their brother Slavs. The Russian pan-Slavists and nationalists, who changed their icons some time back, are apparently a little confused about the religious aspect of the Serbian cause. But they know friends when they see them.

In Belgrade, too, the Greater Serbs are following with fascination and delight the political assault on the traitor Yeltsin. And, in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin's enemies can stroll through an exhibition of anti- Serbian atrocities in the atrium of the Russian parliament building. It is impossible just now to predict the consequences of these imperfect symmetries. But consequences there will surely be.

What does this mean for Western attitudes? First, it means we should not regard Serbia as a tiny little place lacking any friends. Last month I argued: 'The (Bosnian) Serbs are war-weary. They are short of troops; sanctions are having some effect; and they are overextended. The Croats and Muslims, by contrast, are on the offensive.' And that if the war intensified, it would probably be the Muslims who were responsible.

As duff predictions go, that was a pretty spectacular one. At the time the airwaves and newspapers were full of reports of a bold new Muslim attack about to be launched from near Sarajevo. I was not the only person who believed it: so did the United Nations. But it has not happened. One colleague who was there thinks the phantom offensive was pure Serbian propaganda from start to finish.

So we cannot pin our hopes on the peace talks, nor on the Muslim fighters, nor on the exhaustion and isolation of the Serbs. Convoys of aid still get through, but not to the places they are most needed.

Even the most doveish of British ministers recognise that we are crossing a river. The most likely outcome of the latest diplomatic activity linking New York, Washington and (Yeltsin's) Moscow is that the United Nations will shortly pass a resolution enforcing the no-fly zone, but with a 14-day delay before any shooting can take place.

Britain had been hostile to this, but a Serbian Biggles changed minds in London. An attack by Bosnian Serb aircraft involved a biplane and a couple of rusty monoplanes lobbing hand grenades over the side, First World War-style. But it was a clear V-sign to the pathetic Westerners.

It is easy to see how all this could lead to anti-UN violence. A Serbian helicopter is shot down, or a Serbian airfield is put out of action. A French or British helicopter is shot down in retaliation. An aid convoy is fired on. Then would come the last substantial decision the UN could take about Bosnia - the moment the road forked for ever.

Ignore all the stuff about a 'really tough' arms embargo, indeed a blockade, and diplomatic explusions. Embargoes don't work - as Saddam Hussein will no doubt confirm if you care to write to him and ask. Nor could anyone give two shakes of a bloodstained bayonet for the closure of diplomatic missions.

No, the real question is whether Britain, France, America and the others simply withdraw their aid convoys and soldiers when attacked and walk away (as we plan to do), or whether we hit back.

What would 'hitting back' mean? If it means the arrival of an expeditionary force of tens of thousands of non-Balkan soldiers in Bosnia armed with tanks, helicopter gunships and artillery and prepared to fight their way to Belgrade if necessary, the question is barely worth discussing.

The political elites in France and Britain think their voters would not tolerate a Balkan war. So far as I can tell, there is not a single member of the British Cabinet who would give the idea a moment's consideration.

Some Bosnians and Croats think it is immoral to admit this in public, that the very assertion of the flabbiness of the democracies gives succour to the Serbs. So, no doubt, it does. But pretending that you are prepared to do something that everyone knows you have no intention of doing is an absurd strategy. Open democracies are simply not able to carry out a convincing bluff on that scale. It is a weakness, but one we cherish.

It need not equal appeasement, however. The nearer the Vance-Owen plan seems to collapse, the louder are the American voices calling for a return to the previous Clinton policy - air strikes against the Bosnian Serb army and armaments for their enemies, above all for the Muslims.

Interestingly, British and French diplomats are worried that this recidivism might win Washington round, and intense lobbying is going on to stop it. The fault-line seems to run between President Clinton's hawkish National Security Council and the much more cautious Pentagon.

The 'let's punch their noses' policy is certainly emotionally attractive. But would it work? It, too, would be partly bluff, since air strikes cannot win a ground war. If the Serbs were prepared to sit them out, and then carry on attacking Muslim villages, they would probably still win. On the other hand, they might pull back when confronted by the use of serious force.

Bullies can often be bullied. In this case, who knows? But it is about the only possible tactic that has not been tried. If the peace talks collapse, it should be.