The Times, London, 3/11/98
The Foreign Secretary's imperialist recipe may make the Balkan cauldron boil over
Kosovo: too many cooks
As IRA mortars were being moved into firing position round Armagh police station on
Monday, the mind of the British Foreign Secretary was far away. Under the gilt and stucco
ceiling of Lancaster House in London, Robin Cook was "demanding" that the
Serb-led Yugoslav Government get its guns out of a Balkan mountain province called Kosovo.
As he toyed with his canapés, he sampled an economic sanction or two. He sipped an arms
embargo and practised to himself a "disgraceful" and a "wholly
unacceptable". He then declared that "we cannot support the violent repression
of the non-violent expression of political views". It sounded good. The cameras
he and his Contact Group partners later settled into their limousines, they must have
wondered why their other politicians find domestic policy so hard. Foreign policy is a
The British Government's Kosovo policy is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
Does new Labour demand full autonomy for Kosovo, or regional devolution,
or partial self-government, or just the withdrawal of undisciplined army units? Is the
might of the British State being marshalled behind the militant Jashari clan of Drenica or
the moderates under Ibrahim Rugova? Where does it stand on the single transferable vote
for the Pristina assembly? The value of using economic sanctions against the Serb leader,
Slobodan Milosevic, is even more opaque. Mr Cook wanted on Monday to stop subsidising
Belgrade's privatisation programme, since it merely enriches Mr Milosevic's friends. If
that is the case, why are British taxpayers subsidising it at all?
Mr Cook's American opposite number, Madeleine Albright, was scarcely more explicit. She
indicated on Monday that the United Nations charter respecting the internal
sovereignty of states is no longer recognised by America. Belgrade's handling of dissent
was "an affront to the universal standards of human rights we are pledged to
uphold". To Mr Cook, his "shock, dismay and concern" was reason enough for
"demanding" of Mr Milosevic a policy shift, as yet unspecified.
Mr Cook's interventionism does not respect a government's legitimacy. Mr Milosevic may be
corrupt, a thug and a nationalist bully, but he is a constitutional ruler who won a
sort-of contested election and half-tolerates opposition parties. He appears to have the
support of most Serbs. But having once entered Washington demonology, he might as well be
President Saddam Hussein. He is simply bad. The chief thing he and Saddam have in common
is that they are rendered near impregnable by the ineptitude of British and American
The politics of sub-national separatism have always been fiendish. Britain of all
countries should know that. When the rod of communism was lifted from Central and Eastern
Europe, disparate groups were bound to seek autonomy, and central governments bound to
stop them. So it has proved. I carry no brief for Mr Milosevic or his methods of
suppressing the Kosovo Liberation Army and its clans in their villages at the weekend. The
methods seem par for the Balkans over the past decade, indeed the past millennium. But
what business is this of ours?
When Yugoslavia began to break up, most foreign nations sent humanitarian relief. This
honoured the traditional obligation of charity the world over. Yet the British Government
could not stop there. It was and is still in imperial mode, albeit under the wing of the
US State Department. No party, creed nor incident is too distant for ministers not to have
"a view". Britain opposed Bosnian separatism, then supported it. Britain opposed
the Bosnian Serb republic, but now appears to have accepted it. This week Mr Cook appeared
to support a Kosovan republic, or at least to oppose Mr Milosevic's efforts to forestall
one. But then he . . . er . . . does not want the further fragmentation of the Balkans.
That is an A-level question and he is still at GCSE.
Of course Mr Cook and Ms Albright will assert that it is not the politics that worries
them, but the violence. The Jashari clan, whose surviving members may yet enjoy cult
status at Washington dinners, should presumably not have been killed outright but brought
into talks about talks. Yet America has no compunction about killing civilians to achieve
political goals, as the citizens of Lebanon, Somalia, Panama and Iraq know to their cost.
Neither Mr Cook nor Ms Albright believe in lecturing the world without a gun in their
pockets. Thus Ms Albright said she would not "rule out" the "severest
consequences" if the Serbs fail to reach the unspecified political settlement.
"Severest consequences" is the new euphemism for bombing. The phrase is beloved
not just of Mr Cook and Ms Albright but of Tony Blair, Kofi Annan, Bill Clinton, even the
new UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mary Robinson. Since bombing sounds indelicate on
some other word must be found. "Severest consequences" is ethical diplomacy's
version of the Cold War's "terminate with extreme prejudice", one more
sanitisation of authorised violence.
Lancaster House on Monday saw a monumental hypocrisy. It may be no more than historical
coincidence that this month America finally honoured two soldiers who tried to stop
colleagues massacring 109 civilians at My Lai during the Vietnam War, to raise their
"body count". Anyone who thought the habit had died will remember the helicopter
gunship that "hosed" a marketplace crowd during the recent American occupation
of Somalia. Meanwhile, a British Government has at last ordered an inquiry into the 1972
Bloody Sunday massacre, when paratroops shot 13 men during a civil rights march in
Northern Ireland. Such atrocities occur even in the best ordered democracies. They are not
excusable, merely ubiquitous when politics collapses into rule by the gun. A report from
Kosovo yesterday said the Albanians were so oppressed that the Serb police had to patrol
in flak-jackets. Who last visited Belfast?
Had Yugoslavia, indeed had anyone, "demanded reforms" and sent a
"mediator" to Northern Ireland after Bloody Sunday, the British Government would
have thought it an intolerable impertinence. Yet then and since, British politicians and
officials have argued privately for killing IRA leaders and interning their families.
American operations in Latin America in the 1980s were as much an "affront to
universal standards of human rights" as those of Mr Milosevic. No nation's hands are
so pure it can, in Dickens's phrase, tot up the world's ills on a slate and dry its tears
with a rag.
We are told everything has changed since the Cold War. The great powers have been
liberated from self-defence to "do good". In Ms Albright's words, they have
pledged themselves to defend human rights wherever they are threatened. For civis
Britannicus sum read civis orbis sum. Dial 999, cry help and jets will scream to your aid,
so long as safe passage is guaranteed to news media. (Tough luck Azerbaijan, Afghanistan,
Tibet and Timor: no Lancaster House histrionics in your cause.)
This is boutique foreign policy at its worst. It offers every separatist the hope of a
lottery jackpot, sponsorship by the world's most powerful nations. It is a cruel hope. It
was offered to the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina in their attempt to set up a state to
defy Serbia. Thirty thousand British and other Nato troops are now trapped indefinitely
into policing a partition that would be more secure had it been left to police itself,
like that between Serbia and Croatia. Now Mr Cook and Ms Albright are blatantly hinting
that, provided the Albanians of Kosovo kick up a sufficiently photogenic stink, they too
may win autonomy from Serbia under the protection of Nato guns. What else is meant by
imposing sanctions "to send a message to Milosevic"? What else is meant by
"severest consequences or else"?
The only way to stop Serbia doing as it chooses in Kosovo is to invade it. All else is hot
air. You do not bluff Slobodan Milosevic. I find it hard to believe that the British
Cabinet seriously intends to garrison Kosovo against a Serbian army. This would imply the
enforced dismembering of a sovereign, European state. But why else rattle sabres? Is that
all there is to the Government's Kosovo policy: playing tease with foreigners?
Meanwhile, back in Armagh . . .