The West rattles a toy sabre

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FUNNY things, ultimatums. Especially when they turn out not to be ultimatums, as seems likely with the Nato one last week on Sarajevo, due to expire on Sunday night.

Lord Owen, with his unerring eye for the inessential, declared this week that this is not an ultimatum but a deadline. An ultimatum is a deadline, but one with certain specific characteristics. Those who issue an ultimatum, as distinct from an ordinary deadline, are telling those addressed that if they have not complied with a specified course of action, by a specified date, they will be subject to specified penalties on the date in question.

In this case, the Serbs were told that if they did not withdraw their weaponry to a specified distance from their positions around Sarajevo, air strikes would be launched against those positions as from a specified date and time: midnight, Sunday. The Serbs are not withdrawing, and Nato seems at the time of writing unlikely to launch air strikes on Monday. This is an ultimatum all right, but probably a dud one.

I believe air strikes in Bosnia would be a serious mistake, leading to an intensification of hostilities and putting UN forces on the ground at high risk. It was a mistake to threaten a course of action that would make things worse. But to threaten such a course and then back away from it is another way of making things worse. For the ultimatum to be a dud would be the most serious blow to the credibility of the West since the end of the Cold War.

Many commentators have been arguing, with some passion, that the West's 'failure' to avert or stop the civil war in Bosnia in itself undermines the West's credibility. But failure to achieve the impossible does not undermine the credibility of any group or person. What does undermine it is to behave in an irresolute, inconsequential and discreditable manner over a matter that is fully within your control, such as whether to launch air strikes in a specified place, at a specified time, under specified conditions.

If the ultimatum turns out to be a dud, this would be symptomatic of a pathological condition in the decision-making processes of the West. The affair as it has unrolled so far sheds a disquieting light on the working of these processes in two areas of huge importance, far outweighing anything directly at stake in Bosnia. The first area is the relation between Western governments and the military forces that are, or should be, responsible to those governments. The second is that of the relationship of the West to post-Cold War Russia. For both those areas to be in trouble at the same time suggests the serious possibility of an inadvertent drift into a major war.

Take the first area. No government, and no group of governments, should launch an ultimatum - a policy declaration having military consequences - unless their military advisers assure them that such a course is both practicable and desirable. It is reasonably clear that this condition was not met in the present instance. The military - beginning with the Pentagon - does not favour air strikes in Bosnia, and therefore not the threat of air strikes. Of course, if governments overrule their advisers and issue an ultimatum the military must prepare to enforce it. But in ostensibly preparing to enforce it they may in fact undermine it.

In this case military spokesmen, though with somewhat conflicting voices, seemed this week to be finding that it is not actually necessary for the Serbs to withdraw from these positions physically, which was what the ultimatum, on the face of it, seemed to require. The object of the ultimatum, statements suggested, would be attained if the Serbs, while remaining where they are, allowed their positions to be monitored by the UN, using sophisticated technology suddenly discovered to be at its disposal. The Serbs, understandably, found this to be a rather charming idea. If that is how it is, they can maintain the siege of Sarajevo - but just a bit more quietly for now.

The ultimatum might not have been allowed to crumble away through military interpretation had there been a political will for its enforcement. But it seems the political will has crumbled away, too, and the military interpretation looks like being welcome as a face-saver for the politicians as they back away from their lamentable ultimatum.

The reason the politicians feel the need to back away is their sudden realisation of the strength of Russian opposition to Nato air strikes in Bosnia. It is certainly right that Western governments should be reluctant to run the risk of some kind of proxy war with Russia in Bosnia. Russian 'volunteers' in the Balkans - as currently advocated by Vladimir Zhirinovsky - have been seen before, on the eve of the First World War, and are among a number of dire possibilities for the future. But why did the Western powers not see the Russian danger before they issued that ultimatum?

It was known that Russia opposed coercing the Serbs. Presumably it was because the West knew that Russia would not agree that it acted through Nato rather than the UN, where Russia, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, possesses what is vulgarly called a 'veto'. By recourse to Nato the West bypassed the Russian veto, as it thought. Presumably it calculated - if calculation it can be called - that while Boris Yeltsin would be obliged by pressure of Russian public opinion to vote against air strikes on Serbian positions if the matter came specifically before the Security Council, he would not really mind if the thing was done through Nato without his having to impart his personal blessing.

This was inherently a silly idea. President Yeltsin is no more in a position to risk charges of collusion with Nato against the Serbs than he is to vote against Serbia in the Security Council.

Diplomats are always having silly ideas, so that is nothing new. The most disquieting thing about this one, though, is that it was not eliminated at the hypothesis stage by finding out what President Yeltsin thought and felt before the ultimatum was launched. I suspect that US diplomats, instead of finding out what he thought, got the reactions of Russian diplomatists who, in present conditions, tend to tell their Western opposite numbers whatever it is that they want to hear.

The ultimatum is a bad idea, whether it is enforced in the teeth of Russian objections or allowed to be a dud. In the latter event, it might serve a useful purpose if it led to a serious overhaul of the West's decision-making processes. But I doubt whether this will happen. The minds that framed that ultimatum and then dithered over it are still the decision-makers.