Can the UN ever act again as a peace-keeper in Bosnia? Its own senior civil servants doubt it. Can it fight a proper war? Every general sent to Bosnia denies the possibility. Can it get out in one piece? Maybe, but even if the troops emerge intact, the Western alliance will be dreadfully damaged.
There is fierce resentment against Washington among the top ranks of UN operations in the former Yugoslavia. Senior officials claim the US administration, backed by Germany, has pushed the UN into acting as the intervention force which Washington always wanted in Bosnia, but dared not deploy. "This is a fight against the Serbs by the US and Germany," says a senior figure bitterly.
Last week's air strikes took place after heavy American pressure on the UN secretary-general, Boutros Boutros Ghali. He received telephone calls or visits from President Clinton, Vice-President Al Gore, Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and UN ambassador Madeleine Albright.
Yet the UN did not pull out its observers from Serbian areas before the warplanes went in - because, UN sources claim, the US vigorously opposed any withdrawal of personnel.
The UN sent troops to Bosnia in 1992 to act as peace-keepers and deliver humanitarian aid. But a series of Security Council resolutions drew the soldiers into "enforcement" as all sides remained impervious to diplomacy. Nor was the UN force given any of the military assets needed to take on armies that had inherited Tito's arsenals.
In Yugoslavia itself, meanwhile, the quagmire got deeper and deeper. UN sources say the US and Germany, supporting Muslims and Croats respectively, pushed its representatives to operate as mediators but in reality wanted them to oppose the Serbs. In the end, that condemned the UN to paralysis and accusations of bias from all sides.
Consider the generals pilloried for their conduct of this mission impossible - Mackenzie, Morillon, Nambiar, Wahlgren, Briquemont, Rose and and Smith. Can they all be the Serbian sympathisers depicted by hostile propaganda? Or does the mission itself, by upholding the status quo, intrinsically serve to entrench Serbian gains?
Most UN military men readily admit that arguments existed for intervention to halt Serbian aggression early in the Bosnian campaign. But that moment passed and the moral arguments for the Bosnian government cause became blurred by the treacherous cruelties of ethnic war. Two out of three recent French fatalities in Sarajevo fell victim to Bosnian government snipers, French ministers say. Arguments over which side shelled certain civilian targets will go on as long as the debate over who burnt down the Reichstag.
More to the point, not a single Western government was prepared to dispatch its sons and daughters to fight a Balkan war. The UN force was a substitute - a gigantic political bluff to palliate uneasy consciences at home and persuade Serbs, Muslims and Croats that international pressure might compel them to end their vendettas.
Sooner or later, the bluff was certain to be called. The UN cannot fight a war as a peace-keeping force. But if it cannot keep the peace, then logic argues it should go. But if it goes, then south-eastern Europe could face a disaster.
The events of the last week pose in the starkest terms this irreconcilable dilemma, which Douglas Hurd and his colleagues in the foreign ministries of Western Europe have sought for so long to postpone. The Foreign Secretary is meeting fellow Nato ministers this morning to wrestle with the consequences of this multinational folly. But perhaps their main priority will be to repair the damage to transatlantic relations.
Mr Hurd and his fellow ministers are far too urbane to let the mask of cordiality slip. Britain and France remain shakily committed to retaining their UN troops in the field, hoping against hope for a face-saving diplomatic solution involving President Milosevic of Serbia. But among officials in London and Paris, contempt is building up for US policy - "frivolous", "naive", "driven by the last person Clinton talked to".
Couple to this division an assertive Russia, which wants prestige in the Balkans, and an ambiguous Germany, which would like its own historic sphere of influence restored, and subtract from the equation the ideological straitjacket of the Cold War and the result is a free-floating collection of states pursuing advantage in disinterested chaos. It is more like the late 19th century in the Balkans than the eve of the 21st.
The fate of the peace-keeper hostages and the fighting around Sarajevo are, of course, top of this week's agenda. But there is a wider danger looming, greater than the intangible perils of appeasing aggression or rewarding the ethnic cleanser; not a moral dilemma but a crude risk.
The risk is that Russia and America will become ranged on opposing sides in a war in south-eastern Europe. Last week, it was mainly American warplanes that bombed the Serbs. The Russian president, using Serbian hostage-taking as his cue, has effectively vetoed another raid.
The US has quietly strengthened its diplomatic representation and military resources throughout the southern Balkan peninsula. Russia continues to lend moral sustenance to its orthodox Serbian brethren, who fear encirclement. Pushed by far-off lobbies serving a nationalist dogma or an electoral timetable, simple solutions in the Balkans have an allure to the uninitiated that rarely survives close inspection. But they can be addictive.
Mr Hurd warned of the danger of a Russian-American proxy war in a speech to Parliament earlier this month. It would pose America's allies with yet another series of choices they would prefer not to make. Expect a UN plan to pull out of the Bosnian Muslim enclaves.
This is an inglorious end to another hapless UN adventure. Lord Owen, the EU mediator in Yugoslavia, recently said that "the whole question is whether the UN Charter will ever again be used in support of a humanitarian intervention". Another question might be whether the US can ever again summon its allies under the UN banner to fight for common values. The most urgent question of all for Europe is how to prevent a new east-west schism on the continent. "The danger is of taking us back to before 1989," says a long-standing diplomatic observer of the Yugoslav war, "and in my opinion Bosnia is not worth that."Reuse content