New Light on Owen
by By Noel Malcolm
On 30 July 1992 Lord Owen wrote a letter to John Major demanding military action
against Serbian aggression in Bosnia. "Satellite and air reconnaissance could
pinpoint any unauthorized military activity", he wrote, "and retaliatory
airstrikes could be mounted from Nato airfields". A few days later, in early
August, The Times published an article by him, outlining the same arguments,
under the title: "When it is Right to Fight". So when the decision was
announced at the end of that month to appoint Lord Owen as EEC negotiator on
ex-Yugoslavia, it was seen as a clear warning that Europe was prepared to get
tough with Serbia.
And yet, within weeks, Lord Owen had changed his tune. By 12 September 1992 he
was arguing against tightening sanctions on Belgrade, and urging the world to
give the "Yugoslav" government what he called "the benefit of the doubt". Of
course he continued to insist that "we have to convince the Muslims that they
are not going to be the victims of Realpolitik". But at Geneva during the
summer of 1993 Lord Owen's main aim was indeed to convince "the Muslims" of
precisely that - and to warn them that if they did not accept whatever
Realpolitik was offering them now, they would be offered even less in future.
What thought processes, arguments or assumptions produced this change of
approach? Two recent speeches he has made, in Dublin on 16 November and in
London on 25 November, shed some important new light on his thinking.
The first common theme to emerge from these speeches is a highly questionable
form of Great Power Realpolitik. "As Yugoslavia began to break up in 1991, the
Western democracies saw their first challenge to ensure that the Russian
Federation was not turned away from democratic and economic reforms because of
the West's handling of the Serbs, Russia's traditional ally" (London speech).
So Bosnia was sacrificed as a pawn for fear of offending the former Red Queen.
The idea that the Russian government would have stopped its "democratic and
economic reforms" out of pique if Serbian aggression had been checked in Bosnia
is of course absurd, not least because Mr Yeltsin was begging the West for $40
billion at the time. But the fear of doing anything that might in any way
"polarise the Security Council" (Dublin speech) was felt particularly strongly
in the British Foreign Office. On this point, Lord Owen seems to have swallowed
the line from London.
"To end a war", Lord Owen began his London speech. "you have to try and
understand its origins". Listeners might have expected him to go on to describe
the policies of Milosevic from 1987, his handling of Kosova and Serbian
nationalism, his attempts to control and/or dismantle the Yugoslav federal
constitution, and so on. But Lord Owen mentioned none of this. Most of his
speech was about fighting in Yugoslavia during World War II.
He characterised the present fighting as "revenge" for what happened then, and
talked about "ethnic violence" repeating itself in two great "cycles" in the
1940s and the 1990s. On this point, Lord Owen seems to have swallowed the line
from Belgrade and Pale - which says that what has been done in Bosnia was caused
not by the politicians and gunmen who did it, but by impersonal and inevitable
forces of history.
It is only a short step from seeing something as inevitable to regarding it as
ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ¸unstoppable. The most extraordinary section of Owen's Dublin speech compared
the war to a disease which must be allowed to run its course. "As physicians
and surgeons we have long been aware of the dangers of simply responding to the
cry to "do something". All too often we know that an illness has to work its
way through the system. As a protective mechanism the medical profession has
developed the skill of masterly inactivity . . . Politicians need some of the
The question-begging and complacency of these remarks are startling enough. And
yet later in the same speech Owen makes a suggestion which, translated into his
medical metaphor, implies that you can stop the disease after all by starving
the patient to death. He suggests stopping all aid in the spring to ensure that
"we will at least not fuel with food" a continuation of the war. So much for
The final statement from this Dublin speech must also be recorded: "In a strict
interpretation of the facts I have on a number of occasions facilitated ethnic
cleansing". But the admission here is not as large as it could be. He is
referring only to the transporting of refugees: he is not admitting what Tadeusz
Mazowiecki pointed out in May 1993, which is that the Vance Owen plan was itself
a cause of ethnic cleansing. Nor does he realise, perhaps, just how far he has
facilitated the destruction of Bosnia by becoming little more than a mouthpiece
for the misinformation which emanates from London, Pale and Belgrade.