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The Times,
London, March 11, 1998

by Simon Jenkins

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 whirred. As 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 doddle.

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 diplomacy.

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 sophisticated lips, 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 . . .

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History of the Balkans

Big powers and civil wars in Yugoslavia
(How was Yugoslavia dismantled and why.)

Proxies at work
(Muslims, Croats and Albanians alike were only proxies of the big powers)

The Aftermath

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Last revised: June 29, 1998