Aims fuzzied by the hatred

November 2, 2001

Tim Garden finds an attack on UK policy in Bosnia too simplistic.

As Britain takes the diplomatic lead in trying to sort out conflict and bad governance in Afghanistan, it is a salutary exercise to read a deeply scathing criticism of the United Kingdom's role in Bosnia as we tried to bring order to another lawless region. The flyleaf warns the reader that this is "the first full exposition of the hypocrisy and incompetence of British policy towards Bosnia". Brendan Simms's Unfinest Hour is an angry book, which leaves the reader unable to judge whether there are other conclusions that might have been drawn. The memoirs that have emerged from the main players of the period, it must be said, are equally partisan. It is as though anyone who touched the crisis is forever forced to justify their interpretation of events.

As the cold war ended, many of the Central and Eastern European states were able to make the transition peacefully from communist governments to new democratic market economies. Some moved faster than others. The tensions between the different communities in Yugoslavia had been ruthlessly suppressed in the days of communist government, and neither the Soviet Union nor the West had wanted to stir up confrontation over the way the Balkans were run. When a new freedom of expression was emerging everywhere in Europe, the effect on the pressure cooker of Yugoslavia was underestimated by the West. The Gulf war of 1991 was seen as much more of a strategic concern. As the allies massed for action against Iraq, there was little spare diplomatic, military or political capacity to attend to what appeared to be a small conflict in Croatia, a province of Yugoslavia. In June of that year, fighting broke out when both the parliaments of Slovenia and Croatia voted for independence. The Serbian nationalists wanted to prevent the loss of these regions. By early 1992, Yugoslavia was falling apart.

The book opens with a perspective from 1999 after the publication of the United Nations report into the massacre at Srebrenica some four years earlier. That report is an honest appraisal of the shortcomings of the UN approach at the time. The international community had to learn the lessons from the limits on its capabilities in the immediate post-cold-war period. Declaring safe havens without the necessary military defensive capabilities to protect them was a recipe for disaster. The Security Council, and the wider UN membership, is wiser after the experience not just of the Balkans but also of Rwanda. There is much still to be done to improve the conflict-prevention mechanisms available to the UN. But in Simms's view, the criticism should be directed at senior British politicians. The charge he makes is that "right from the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis, Britain sought to sabotage any kind of international political - and later military - intervention to curb Serb aggression and ethnic cleansing". He puts the responsibility for this policy on Malcolm Rifkind and Douglas Hurd. The reader will find it difficult to follow the argument in this opening chapter as events jump back and forth across the decade of the 1990s. Quotes from every leading British politician of the time are wheeled out to support the argument that UK government policy towards Bosnia was deliberately pro-Serb, pro-Croat and anti-Muslim.

The second chapter is titled "Britain stifles America, 1991-93". The thesis for this period is that John Major's government failed to heed the advice of Margaret Thatcher to dispatch soldiers for peace enforcement in Bosnia as the crisis developed. But governments were then struggling to find the appropriate response to a growing humanitarian disaster. By 1999, the international community had gained much more experience as to which political, economic, diplomatic and military levers could help in such situations of internal conflict. In 1991, the break-up of Yugoslavia was a new experience and international views were very divided. The UN needed to operate with the agreement of the permanent members of the Security Council. Russia felt affinity for the Serbs. China as always feared the setting of a precedent for the intervention by the international community in its own internal affairs. It was the atrocities by the Serbs against the Muslim communities in 1992 that made the pressure for international action sufficient to get some agreement. The UN could agree economic sanctions against Belgrade to bring pressure to bear. When its peacekeeping force, Unprofor, was sent to Yugoslavia to ensure that humanitarian relief could get to the population, it was neither configured nor equipped to engage in a war on the ground.

There is no doubt that the United States, which declined to contribute troops to Unprofor, had great reservations about the European approach to stabilising the situation in the Balkans. The US had provided encouragement to the Croatians to opt for independence, and this bid had led to the conflict within Croatia. Neither Serbs nor Croats took much notice of the UN peacekeepers. Inevitably, the involvement of European troops on the ground led to a different perspective from that advocated by the Americans. Simms captures well the growing gap in thinking across the Atlantic during this period as the calls for air strikes and a selective lifting of the arms embargo became the US preference. Given the thrust of his argument, he inevitably categorises the British as the main obstacle to a change in policy. Yet as he admits, the Russians, Chinese and French were all in tune with the UK view that a complete arms embargo was appropriate.

Simms is very clear that Britain was remarkably influential. As pressure grows for the use of Nato air power in Bosnia, he accuses the British of forming an unholy alliance with the French against the Americans. He deplores this as "anything that involved the French was likely to be militarily backward, and politically frivolous". This is despite the significant contribution that both the French and the UK were making on the ground in Bosnia. Meanwhile there was a growing conviction in Europe that the US was facilitating the supply of arms and other assistance to the Bosnians. The divergence in policy thinking concerned whether arming one side was more likely to bring a peaceful settlement than trying to keep peace on the ground.

Britain was a key player in the various attempts to broker peace deals in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The changing situation on the ground, the complex hostile relations between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, and a history of killing made such deals difficult to arrange and more difficult to enforce. David Owen gets a mixed report for his part in the Vance-Owen peace plan of 1993, which Simms calls "a valiant attempt to square the circle". It fell apart for many reasons, but a Bosnian expectation that US military assistance might allow them achieve a better deal did not help. In the end, the Serbs vetoed it. This episode is a good example of how all the different players on the international scene were groping for solutions, and how the politics of the Balkans would undermine them at every turn.

If the political leaders and diplomats could not agree on the best approach to the problems of the Balkans, we should perhaps pity the soldiers who were despatched to carry out the rather fuzzy aims of the UN. However, Simms saves his greatest criticism for General Sir Michael Rose, the Unprofor commander. Rose is portrayed as a soldier who respected the Serb military and despised the Bosnian army. He is alleged to have been responsible for obstructing the Americans from getting their way over the use of air strikes and is accused of spinning his reports to make the Bosnians and the Serbs seem equally culpable.

There is no doubt that many disagreed with both the style and substance of General Rose's leadership of Unprofor. At the same time, he was caught in a transatlantic power struggle over policy, which was above his pay grade. He interpreted his mission as being the provision of humanitarian aid, and deployed his forces accordingly. He had no remit to take sides, and that shaped his operational philosophy. In retrospect, there may have been a better way. As opinions in America, Europe, Nato and the UN hardened, Rose was a natural target for those who opposed the British approach.

The UK academic strategic-studies community also gets a roasting from Simms for its unwillingness to contemplate the early use of force. He suggests that academic institutions compromise their objectivity because they accept contractual relationships with government. But those of us who have operated from both inside and outside government know that objectivity is what the academics are being paid for. In the chapter that catalogues the shortcomings of named academics, Misha Glenny is singled out for particular criticism. Yet a reading of Glenny's work on the Balkans allows the reader to reach at least some understanding of the history that underpins the problem. No such analysis is evident in this book.

If any conclusion emerges from the long and wearisome process of reading Unfinest Hour , it is that we need some sympathy for the many people who tried their best to solve difficult, even intractable problems. Simple military solutions to near-term problems carry dangers of worsening long-term prospects of peace. With the benefits of experience in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, choosing the best policy options in Afghanistan may now be a little easier.

Yet nation-building among implacable enemies remains fraught with difficulty. Whether the early use of air strikes will make the establishment of good governance in Afghanistan easier, only time will tell. As to the truth about the British role in Bosnia, we shall have to wait for a less emotional review of the policy options than Unfinest Hour.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is visiting professor, Centre of Defence Studies, King's College London. He had no role in Bosnia policy or operations during his military career.

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