We must fight to save Europe: Does anyone believe Serbian irregulars would ambush aid convoys accompanied by helicopter gunships? Principle and interest both dictate that Britain should intervene, argues Godfrey Hodgson

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The United Nations resolution allowing armed intervention to protect humanitarian activities in Bosnia is not the end but the beginning of a great debate. The question is how the world in general, and the European Community in particular, should respond to the attempt to build a Greater Serbia on the ruins of Yugoslavia.

The issue has already turned upside down all the safe assumptions about foreign policy, not only in Britain but in the United States as well. It has made strange bedfellows. Baroness Thatcher's trumpet calls for intervention are echoed by the Guardian; the Times, in counselling restraint, finds itself in the same corner as the Morning Star. There is a sharp contrast between the way political forces are aligning themselves on Bosnia and the way they were drawn up, so short a time ago, on the Gulf.

The lines are not drawn with parade ground precision. In general, however, where on the Gulf the conservatives were for action and the liberals on both sides of the Atlantic urged caution, now it is Lord Owen and Paddy Ashdown in Britain, and Bill Clinton and the Democrats in the US, who are for intervention. John Major and Douglas Hurd, President George Bush and his Secretary of State, James Baker, hesitate to act - Mr Major even more markedly than Mr Bush. Those who were for intervention in Vietnam and in the Gulf oppose it in Bosnia, and vice versa.

This alignment, if surprising, has its historical precedents. It was the Liberal leader William Gladstone who thundered, in his 1876 pamphlet on the Bulgarian atrocities, that the Turks 'carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely by carrying off themselves'; and the Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli who held back. In Abyssinia (1935) and in Spain (1936), British liberals and the Labour Party, which inherited many of their instincts in foreign policy, clamoured for intervention, while Tories


In part, no doubt, this reflects a traditional difference of approach. Tories have tended instinctively to base their foreign policy on interests, Liberals on principles. The distinction, however, has rarely been clear cut, and is not so over Bosnia today. To delve no further back into history, the case for intervention in the Gulf was based both on interest and on principle.

Both principle and interest dictate that, in spite of formidable difficulties, Britain should now stand ready to intervene actively, with military force if necessary. Nor is this a matter only of saving lives by protecting aid convoys. The task must be to dissuade the Serbian leadership - the last Communist dictatorship left in Europe - from pressing ahead with its policies of aggrandisement and 'ethnic cleansing': a euphemism for an assault on the rights of man and minimal decencies of human society of a kind that has not been seen in Europe since Hitler died in his bunker and Stalin died in his bed. The fact that to a limited degree Croats and Muslims may, in the course of the civil war that the Serbs started, have committed atrocities similar to those the Serbs have carried out wholesale, only adds to the heavy account of Belgrade's


The arguments against effective intervention to stop the carnage have been fully aired. All parties are equally to blame, it is said. But that is not true. Croats and Muslims have been defending themselves against a calculated campaign of territorial seizure. Yugoslavia, say the very pundits who thought nothing of flying three-quarters of a million men and five armoured divisions to the Arabian desert, is a quagmire, like Milton's 'Serbonian bog . . . Where armies whole have sunk'. Memories of Vietnam and Northern Ireland are freely invoked. Military historians recite how many German divisions were tied down in Bosnia by Tito's partisans, and a general is trotted out in the Daily Mail to give his professional estimate that it would take 800,000 men to keep the peace. That might even be true - if the intention were to hold territory village by village and street by street.

That is not what ought to be intended, however. Does anyone imagine that Serbian gunners would have continued to shell Sarajevo from the surrounding heights if modern fighter aircraft had been flying missions against them? Does anyone fear that Serbian irregulars would ambush aid convoys accompanied by helicopter gunships? Resolute military action, especially but not exclusively from the air, could already have saved much suffering.

The threat of military action, credible because it was coming in the name of the UN and delivered by Nato, would soon teach Slobodan Milosevic that there is a world community willing and able to punish his calculated use of frightfulness in pursuit of nationalist aims. Many Serbs are horrified by his policies; the prospect of facing overwhelming military superiority would both encourage his enemies and powerfully concentrate his own mind.

The snag is, of course, that the proposition has only to be put in those terms for it to be painfully clear how far we are from having attained the requisite unity of purpose. Bonn first pressed ahead with the decisions, correct in themselves, to recognise Slovenia and Croatia, without bringing Europe along; then called for military action with the enthusiasm cynics might expect from a country whose constitution forbids it to take part. Paris apparently first yearned to revive its pre-war dream of a Little Entente of Eastern European countries to counterbalance Germany, and thereafter seemed more intent on keeping the US out of whatever was done, than on doing it.

London waited reflectively to see what Washington wanted, and when that turned out to mean action, shrank from the political - and perhaps also financial - implications. No one could believe that whatever President Bush did or did not do was motivated by anything other than the desire to reduce the Democrats' lead in the opinion polls. And the Secretary-General of the UN seemed more anxious to score anti-colonial debating points, by asking why the Europeans were more favourable to action in Bosnia than Somalia, than to organise action in either place.

You can disagree with every one of those formulations; you can hardly deny that the concerted political will for effective action in Yugoslavia has been depressingly absent.

The danger of further tragedies if the world is seen as powerless to intervene is obvious - in Kosovo and Macedonia, not to mention Slovakia, Transylvania, Moldova, the Crimea and other parts of the former Soviet Union. But the decisive argument for intervention is one that

has scarcely surfaced. It is the European argument.

'If I want to speak to Europe,' Henry Kissinger is said to have quipped, 'whom do I call?' If the EC cannot act to prevent a small-time Communist dictator using massacre, famine and torture to gain his ends a day's drive from Munich, what is the point of talking about political union and common foreign policies, of building institutions or widening the membership of the Community?

If Serbia gets away with defying Europe, then Europe truly will be what Metternich called Italy - 'a geographical expression'. But if Europe can intervene to save Bosnia as impressively as the US acted to defend Kuwait, then and only then can it hope to realise the bright future that seemed to lie ahead when the Soviet Union collapsed.

That means putting together the political, diplomatic and, if necessary, military resources that Europe indisputably possesses, and using them, under the aegis of the UN and in partnership with the US, to make it plain that Saddamism is no more permissible in the Balkans than it is at the other end of the former Ottoman empire.

The fundamental purpose of building a European community, after all, was not to lower customs barriers or manipulate the price of milk. It was to end war in Europe and to ensure that a holocaust, of the kind that now threatens Bosnia and could spread to most of south-eastern Europe, could never happen again. It was a community, not a customs union, that the French, the Germans and those who had been implicated in their earlier quarrels set out to build 45 years ago, and Britain solemnly committed itself to joining them more than 20 years ago. The minimum condition of community is a common will to common action when survival is at stake - and nothing less than the survival of Europe as a political concept is at stake today in the ruins of Yugoslavia.

(Photograph omitted)