Magazine article The Spectator

Hawks Save Lives; Doves Don't

Magazine article The Spectator

Hawks Save Lives; Doves Don't

Article excerpt

FOR some time after their election victory in 1997 it was fashionable to sneer at Labour's `ethical foreign policy'. No longer. Serb ethnic cleansing in Kosovo was speedily reversed without the loss of a single British life. The Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic - once disastrously courted by London - is now facing trial before the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Sierra Leone, though far from perfect, is a much better place than it was before the British went in. Civil war in Macedonia has been contained for the time being. So far, these two operations have between them claimed the lives of two servicemen. There is still, of course, a lot that can go wrong in Afghanistan, but it seems clear that the Taleban have been smashed, and Osama bin Laden is on the verge of capture or death. Relations with the United States of George W. Bush, once confidently predicted to be on the verge of collapse, are at an all-time high.

The contrast with the peculiar, hapless awfulness of the Major administration could not be greater. It is only some six years ago that the Conservative mishandling of the Bosnian crisis of 1992-95 brought this country to the brink of a calamitous transatlantic split that almost wrecked the Nato alliance. During that period the internationally recognised multiethnic state of Bosnia-Herzegovina was abandoned to partition and ethnic cleansing at the hands of Serb separatists sponsored by Belgrade. Tens of thousands were murdered; more than a million were expelled, deported or fled in fear of their lives. An unknown number were raped, humiliated and traumatised. The number of victims attributable to British policy is unknowable, but certainly substantial.

Britain played a particularly disastrous role throughout the war, more so even than France. Her political leaders became afflicted by an especially disabling form of conservative pessimism, which disposed them not only to reject military intervention for themselves, but also to prevent anybody else, particularly the Americans, from intervening either. A one-sided arms embargo, which severely disadvantaged the Bosnian government, was maintained to the bitter end; the use of sustained Nato air power was resisted for three long years at the United Nations Security Council in New York and the North Atlantic Council in Brussels. British mediators deferred to the Serbs, bullied the Bosnians and did all they could to sabotage US plans for military intervention. To that extent, the recent claim by Milosevic's lawyers that Lords Hurd, Carrington and Owen gave him a `green light' comes as no surprise.

And yet the chief instigators of this dire policy were neither fools nor knaves. The foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, was a decent man of liberal and humane instincts whose inner torment at the violence in Bosnia was palpable; the defence secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, was a figure of undoubted intellectual brilliance and forensic skill. Neither man was an Islamophobe or a racist, and there is no reason to believe that their stance on Bosnia was seriously influenced by any base pecuniary considerations. In short, Hurd and Rifkind's Bosnian policy reflected a failure not of morality but of judgment.

Nor is it sufficient merely to dismiss them as 'appeasers', though that is what they became. Underpinning British policy was not an ethical void or generic spinelessness, but a profoundly conservative pessimistic 'realism' in international affairs. James Rubin, who dealt with many British diplomats and statesmen throughout the Bosnian crisis, saw them as `hyper-realists' of `the traditional British kind'. Hurd and Rifkind were as sceptical of American Wilsonian' internationalism as they were of Margaret Thatcher's Gladstonian universalism. They rejected talk of a `new world order' and even - in Douglas Hurd's case - the very idea of an `international community'. As members of a generation that had retreated from empire and become embroiled in Northern Ireland, Hurd and Rifkind were profoundly limited not only in their view of what Britain could do, but also of what she should do. …

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