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Hidden agenda

Joan Phillips exposes what's behind the West's diplomatic circus over Bosnia

Western politicians have spent the past two years threatening increasingly punitive action to stop the war in the former Yugoslavia. Yet every time an air-strike against the Serbs has seemed to be in the offing they have pulled back from the brink, and another round of diplomatic wrangling has begun. Why?

The explanation is simple enough. All of the Western powers want to use the Yugoslav conflict to establish their authority. But none has any desire to get bogged down in a war in the Balkans.

Yugoslavia is not like Somalia, where the US marines can just about manage to go in and out without things getting out of hand. A concerted Western military intervention in the Balkans would not only destabilise an entire region which borders on the EC, it could also destabilise the entire world order.

Experts have often cited logist-ical and military impediments to a full-scale Western engagement in Bosnia. But these arguments have always been overstated. Geopolitical factors carry far more weight with politicians debating whether or not they should intervene. What has acted as a deterrent for them is the fear that all-out military intervention in the Balkans could create a global crisis, accelerating the breakdown in the international order and bringing to the surface underlying conflicts among the great powers.

Nevertheless, despite these fears intervention has acquired its own momentum, which means that by the time you read this the Western powers may yet have launched air-strikes in Bosnia.

Western diplomacy over Bosnia has been a deadly game. Each new initiative is put forward to make a Western politician appear resolute, but without committing his government to a major intervention. The problem with this, however, is that every initiative further inflames the war and so increases the pressure on Western governments to intervene even more to sort out the mess they created. The other problem is that each time a Western politician initiates action it provokes a rival to do likewise, leading inexorably to an escalation of intervention.

Since the start of the conflict in June 1991, there have been literally dozens of Western initiatives, all designed to boost the authority of the state which is sponsoring them. The initiative which sparked all others was Germany's decision, from the summer of 1991, to bully the rest of the EC into granting diplomatic recognition to Slovenia and Croatia, signalling Bonn's arrival as an international power.

Most of the subsequent initiatives have come from America, which has intervened to restore its authority as the global policeman. On 10 March 1992, the USA issued a joint statement with the EC which marked the start of a more active role in the conflict for America. After this there was no stopping the Americans. They took the initiative in recognising Bosnia-Herzegovina; in imposing sanctions against Serbia; in pressing for a war crimes tribunal; in enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia; in policing the Danube against sanctions-busting by the Serbs; in organising air-drops of aid to eastern Bosnia; in demanding changes to the Vance-Owen plan; in appointing their own special envoy to the negotiating process; and in insisting on a bigger role for the Russians. The USA has also led the debate about lifting the arms embargo against the Muslims and bombing the Serbs.

The Europeans have occasionally tried to seize back the initiative from the Americans, by launching their own diplomatic forays in Bosnia. In June 1992, Francois Mitterrand flew into Sarajevo and started the humanitarian relief effort. The French president had breakfasted with other Western leaders on the morning of his visit, but had told nobody of his plans, so concerned was he to take all the glory for leading the relief effort to the Bosnian capital. In January 1993, the French foreign minister, Roland Dumas, threatened to use force to liberate prisoners from detention camps in Bosnia. In February, the French sponsored a UN resolution allowing for the greater use of force by UN troops in Bosnia and Croatia. In March, the French commander of UN forces in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, became the hero of the hour by holing up in the besieged town of Srebrenica.

As the war has progressed, the diplomatic manoeuvring of the Western powers has become increasingly frenetic. From establishing a naval blockade against Serbia in the Adriatic (July 1992) and expelling Serbia from the UN (September 1992), to enforc-ing the no-fly zone over Bosnia (March 1993) and establishing safe havens for Muslims (May 1993), the UN has been pushed by permanent members of the security council into taking more and more actions in the former Yugoslavia. Yet each time, the West has dug its heels in and stopped short of all-out military intervention.

The diplomatic circus has been about establishing the authority of Western governments, and the pecking order among the great powers, and not about solving the problems of people in the former Yugoslavia. This has been confirmed by the increasingly public fracturing of the Western alliance as the conflicts over what to do and who should do it have grown more intense.

In May, while the UN and the USA were arguing over who should be in charge of forces policing the Vance-Owen plan in Bosnia, it came to light that America and France had both drawn up rival plans for their own forces to 'liberate' Sarajevo. So cynical are the Western powers about using the plight of Bosnia to raise their profiles that the French had even been practising the 'liberation' in a town in France which resembles the Bosnian capital.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 56, June 1993

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