Pressure in Britain mounts not to repeat '30s-era appeasement in Bosnia

April 23, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- It was only a poster tacked up on a newspaper kiosk down by Ludgate Circus, but it had an eerie resonance to a more troubled time.

"Europe Heads For War!" it screamed.

It seemed contrived to stir memories among those able to recall the days when posters similar to it flourished here, in the late 1930s when the Germans were on the march in Eastern Europe. In 1940 bombs would rain down on London, annihilating treasured edifices within a few yards of that very kiosk.

Today the poster alludes to the aggression of the Serbs. And though nobody expects the war in the Balkans to arrive here the way Hitler's war did, fears are growing that Britain might have to go there in greater strength, wade into currents of ethnic and religious hatred, suppressed for decades but once again in full flood.

The debate among Britons on intervention in the Balkans has heated up. It is stoked by the vivid and melodramatic descriptions of suffering among the Bosnian Muslims, the atrocities of the Serbs and their determination to expand the frontiers of Greater Serbia by seizing the lands of their neighbors.

The debate has presented the country and its leadership with two lessons from history, contradictory lessons, though equally valid. Together they constitute a dilemma.

Which one should they heed -- the lesson of Vietnam or the lesson of Munich?

The memory of Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at their meeting in Munich in 1938 is a strong impetus for action today. It says, stop the Serbs now or it will be harder to do it in the future. It is already harder to do now than it would have been 18 months ago.

But from the beginning Britain has stood strong against intervention; it still does. Prime Minister John Major and his foreign minister, Douglas Hurd, have fastened on the other lesson, that of Vietnam, as the one to take instruction from: Don't get bogged down in a civil war; avoid the quagmire at all costs.

This is the message Mr. Major has been pouring into the ear of President Clinton, with some success. The president's initial reflex to punish the Serbs with air strikes, or help the Bosnian Muslims by effecting a partial lifting of the arms embargo, has been suppressed -- for the moment.

But pressure for some definitive action, some plan of rescue for the Bosnian Muslims, is mounting. It has become harder for Mr. Major and Mr. Hurd to continue to recommend a policy they define as reasonable and sensible when many people of stature and judgment seem to be moving away from them, seem more attentive to the lesson of Munich than that of Vietnam. Men like David Owen, for instance.

Lord Owen is one of the two peacemakers in the Bosnian conflict. The other was Cyrus R. Vance. They were designated by the European Community and the United Nations, respectively. Having seen their plan to divide Bosnia into self-governing enclaves of Muslims, Croats and Serbs rejected by the latter, Lord Owen has come round to favoring punitive air strikes against the Serbs.

This in turn has stimulated Manfred Woerner, NATO's secretary-general, to suggest similar "more decisive actions." Specifically, air strikes.

The leaders of both Labor and the Liberal Democrats, the opposition parties in the Parliament, advocate more military pressure on the Serbs.

John Smith, the Labor Party leader, joined Lord Owen and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in calling for air strikes.

Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who doesn't favor air strikes, said, however, that the number of U.N. troops -- which include British soldiers -- in Bosnia should be doubled to 35,000. He told the House of Commons: "It's got to the stage where it's double or quits. Either we are going to do it or we aren't. If we are not we should get out."

Also, popular feeling in Britain seems to be running counter to the government's view of the right way to proceed.

A Gallup poll found in March that only 38 percent of those queried favored the government's policy in Bosnia, while 43 percent were either "somewhat dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with it. The rest had no opinion.

Among others polled in early April, 72 percent approved the use of British troops in Bosnia to protect humanitarian aid convoys, while only 20 percent disapproved.

Also, 47 percent of those asked believed that an international United Nations force would be able to enforce a peace settlement in Bosnia and only 30 percent felt it couldn't be done; 47 percent thought such a force was necessary even if it were to suffer heavy casualties; and a majority of 58 percent supported the use of such a force knowing it would have to remain in Bosnia for several years.

If the polls are correct, they suggest that the British people, if not their government, favor the lesson of Munich over that of Vietnam.

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