Weakness devoured by the Serbian tiger

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HOWEVER brave your soldiers, however good your kit, you cannot fight without the political will. For Bosnia, neither the Clinton administration nor John Major's government has been ready to use force to stop or limit the fighting. Force was acceptable on three conditions only - that it should be too little, should be deployed too late, and should then be hurriedly withdrawn.

As Andrew Marshall pointed out in the Independent yesterday, the Western countries - 'powers' seems too flattering a term - have not been serious. They willed, in a vague and inconsistent way, the ends, but ruled out any possible means. The Serbs have been serious about their endgame and have been prepared to use any level of barbarity to achieve it. The reputation of General Sir Michael Rose and the swaggering white armoury of Unprofor cannot disguise the fact that the skirmishing between the UN and the Serbs has been a contest between a lady missionary and a tiger.

That being so, what happened at Gorazde has not vindicated the 'After you, Claude' attitude of Western ministers, so much as confirmed its futility. Malcolm Rifkind's comments about the failure of air power had an almost gleeful 'I told you so' tone about them. Well, so he had. But the odd bombing run over a small enclave, carried out against the inclinations of politicians back home, cannot change the course of a war. The weakness was not military or tactical, it was political.

Tellingly, the 'armchair commentators' who urged bolder military action earlier seem to have irritated ministers more than the Bosnian Serb army itself. Maybe one day everyone involved will sit round and play a happy, futile game of 'what if?' More to the point now is a summing-up of where this leaves the policy as it has actually developed - and those who did the developing.

It is worth recalling that recent Sarajevo ceasefire - you remember, the brief gleam of optimism, bright enough to bring Mr Major into town. Why did the tiger show self-restraint then? The truth is that, far from being worried by the international meddlers, the Serbs find the United Nations useful, perhaps even essential. As soon as they have burnt the boundaries of their new state on the soil, they will require the UN and all its attendant host of ministers and negotatiors, to clear up the diplomatic and human mess for them.

The UN will, the Serbs assume, look after and feed the refugees; prevent anarchy in the unviable Rorschach blot of territory left to the Muslims; even, no doubt, create a grand international occasion with flags and smiles and handshakes to ratify the results of ethnic cleansing. And if, 10 years after that, young Bosnian men are leaving their UN camps to sneak into Serbia with suitcases of Semtex, why then the Belgrade government will formally protest and bluster in injured terms about 'the responsibilities of the international community'. Is this too much, just bitter hyperbole? I fear not. Yesterday the Clintonians were already muttering about lifting the embargo on Serbia.

Without the UN, its maps, its diplomats, its aid convoys, the Serb land-grabbers would be in a much trickier position today, facing a more heavily-armed enemy, international pariahs with no prospect of final peace and with years of guerrilla war ahead. This is a new concept, the UN as warfare facilitator. In a way, as some Tory backbenchers urged, it would be more honest for the UN now to get out, to scuttle home defeated. But such honesty would be too humiliating and too brutal; it is a truth too far.

It is easy, and reasonable, to criticise Britain's role in this unhappy outcome. Our ministers were resolved not to intervene, and argued for caution when our partners appeared bolder; then, as the savagery created political pressures at home and within Nato, they agreed to intervene - just a little. When General Rose decided to take the initiative himself, ministers rejected his plea for more troops. When he seemed to be getting somewhere, ministers were quick to share the credit. But now things are going badly, ministers pat themselves on the back for their original foresight. The London conference process was talked up, then, as it failed, the negotiators were left to languish in the shadows.

If there is one consolation for Tory nationalists, it is that the European Union was even more risible. Maximum moralising, minimum leadership. After Bosnia, there will be plenty of talking about a common foreign and defence policy, but nobody, least of all Europe's potential enemies, will take it too seriously. Apart from anything else, there is a clear problem about an alliance whose biggest member, Germany, is so self-limited as a military power.

Yet the most important failure has not been British or European, but American. For all the meticulous rewriting of grand strategy papers at the State Department, the Clinton administration has no policy on intervention worth the name. In, out, shake it all about. There is no discernable philosophy to replace the crumbled New World Order, no predictable behaviour for America's allies to latch on to in future. The President, still basking in high poll ratings in spite of Whitewater, has tried Abroad, but Abroad hasn't worked well for him. So far as the rest of us are concerned, the last remaining superpower has a short attention span.

We are left largely leaderless, surrounded by strained alliances, and topped by a UN with all the moral authority of the League of Nations after Mussolini had finished with Abyssinia. A small war in the Balkans, which has seen immense courage on the part of Western aid- workers and soldiers, has rammed home the old message that international strength comes not from possessing force, but from being prepared to use it to uphold an idea. Our idea, which we have not upheld, was international law. A world where that is mocked is a more dangerous one, and not only for Bosnians.