Britain's fatal foreign policy
by Noel Malcolm
Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia by Brendan Simms, Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, London 2001, £18.99, 462 pp
Have you ever had one of those dreams in which you can see that something terrible is about to happen, and are powerless to stop it? Or in which you try to talk to people, but find that some enormous glass wall has descended between you and them? Or, most frustrating of all, one in which you are surrounded by people who solemnly insist - as in The Lady Vanishes - that something is not happening or has not happened, when you know perfectly well that it has?
For anyone who was reasonably well-informed about Bosnia, life in this country was one long dream of that variety from the spring of 1992 to the final months of 1995. An official doctrine reigned supreme. It was promulgated at the highest levels of government, never challenged by the opposition, and accepted by pundits, newspaper editors and leader writers throughout the land. Those who did criticize it were dismissed as unreliable or extreme. And yet every element of it was simply and obviously false.
The key tenets of this Official Version were as follows. The war in Bosnia was an incomprehensibly complex ‘ethnic’ war, of a sort that had raged there for centuries. (This was false both about the causes of the war, and about Bosnia's long-term history.) All sides were equally guilty; there were no ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’. (In fact there were clear aggressors, the Serb forces who started the war and committed 90 per cent of the atrocities.) The wisest policy was to ‘damp down’ the conflict
by maintaining an arms embargo. (In fact the people doing most of the killing, the Serb forces, had huge quantities of arms; the embargo merely made things easier for them, as it prevented the victims from defending themselves.) Any talk of NATO air strikes was irresponsible nonsense; air strikes would be completely ineffective without troops on the ground, and no such troops would ever be available. (There were plenty of troops on the ground - the Bosnian army - and when their actions were finally combined with air strikes in 1995 the war was ended in three weeks.) The Serbs were highly resilient guerrilla fighters who could never be defeated. (In fact they were the precise opposite of a guerrilla army: they depended on artillery, fixed positions, control of main roads, and so on.) And the British government was therefore wisely pursuing a hands-off policy of ‘non-intervention’.
Of all these bogus claims, the last was the most insidiously misleading. The Royal Navy was intervening round the clock to prevent arms from going to the victims. The British military presence in Bosnia was being used for a variety of interventionist purposes. MI6 officers such as the pseudonymous ‘Kenneth Roberts’ were given the task of undermining the Bosnian government by persuading political leaders in other parts of Bosnia to throw off its authority. And British diplomacy was energetically intervening all over the place, blocking American initiatives which might have ended the war and always using the fact that Britain had ‘troops on the ground’ as its trump card when it did so.
For anyone who felt frustrated at the time by the way in which our public life was gripped by these dream-like distortions, reading Brendan Simms's book, Unfinest Hour: Britain and the Destruction of Bosnia, will come as a liberating and exhilarating experience. Here is an academic historian, scrupulous in his handling of evidence and his attention to detail, who has seen through every one of the standard illusions. His marvellously lucid study of the formation and conduct of British policy on Bosnia is an object-lesson in how false analysis and bad policy-making go hand in hand. Every Foreign Office official, every MP and every media pundit should be obliged to read it.
The relationship between the analysis and the policy was, as Simms points out, incestuously intimate. This was a ‘closed system’, in which policy-makers sought out the type of advice they wanted (for example, the ludicrous claim that even if the Bosnians were given tanks, it would take them 18 months to learn how to drive them), and then ensured that it became the basis of authoritative Ministry of Defence briefings, to be treated as reliable inside information by journalists.
Not all journalists required such guidance, however; some were quite capable of getting things wildly wrong by themselves. The section on the media here singles out Misha Glenny, listing page after page of his errors and false predictions; this section is entertaining but, alas, too short.
If the policy was ever questioned, the trump card was always the ‘men on the ground’ - not just the fact that British soldiers were there, but the extraordinarily cock-eyed analysis of the situation that came back from their military commanders. Perhaps the most devastating chapter of this book is the one devoted to General Sir Michael Rose, whose view of the essential nature of the war (Serbs reacting in self-defence against evil ‘Muslim’ provocations) led him into a position which he himself
has described as an ‘unholy alliance with the Russians against NATO’.
And yet, in that respect, Rose's position was merely a more extreme version of that of his masters in London. Though much of the paint has now peeled off Douglas Hurd's reputation as a statesman, the extent of the damage he caused to Britain's relationship with the Americans has not
been fully appreciated until now. When, in the middle of the Bosnian war, I wrote that Hurd's policy had caused the worst breach in Anglo-American relations since Suez, I was chided by a newspaper editor for ‘absurd exaggeration’. Now I see, from Simms's interviews with a series of
senior State Department officials, that virtually the whole of Washington shared my view.
Simms is outstandingly good on the ‘how’ of this sorry story: how the policy developed and mutated, and how each part of the closed system reinforced the other parts' prejudices and mistakes. He says rather less about the ‘why’. His main explanation for the British policy is that it was just bungled would-be Realpolitik: Hurd assumed early on that the Serbs would win the war, and thought the only realistic thing to do was to force the Bosnian government to accept defeat.
I suspect that there was more to it than that: Hurd was engaged in a sort of fantasy-geopolitics, fixated on the idea of a new relationship with Russia in the post-Cold War, post-Gulf War era, and saw Bosnia as merely a pawn on a larger chessboard.
But I cannot be sure about that. What I am certain of, so far as any hypothetical statement in history can be certainly known to be true, is that if a different policy had been followed - the ‘lift and strike’
policy proposed by the Americans and repeatedly blocked by Britain - the war would have ended sooner, the financial cost to the British taxpayer would have been lower, the damage to British interests would have been far slighter, and many, many thousands of people whose bones now moulder in Bosnian soil would still be alive today.
This review appeared in The Sunday Telegraph (London), 9 December 2001