The shabbiest performance by a government minister this week – and, like most weeks recently, it has been filled with shabby performances – was provided by Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, on television last Sunday.
Questioned by Brian Walden about the government's policy on Bosnia, he accepted that the war there was the worst thing to have happened in Europe since the Nazi Holocaust. But, he opined blithely, there really was no point in trying to do anything serious about it. Military intervention to support "safe havens" for the besieged Bosnians like those provided for the Iraqi Kurds was out of the question.
On one hand, the situation in former Yugoslavia was a "civil war” and there was no precedent for United Nations military intervention in civil wars. On the other, any military intervention would involve the "probability, if not the certainty, of very large casualties". "We might very well be there for many years," he said. "I do not think it would bring the fighting to an end."
Mr Rifkind, in other words, has no regrets about the obvious failure of the west's Bosnia policy in the past year and the government has no intention of changing tack now. The desperate plight of the Bosnian Muslims as winter takes its grip, the rising tide of refugees and the unchanging Serb policy of territorial aggrandisement and ethnic cleansing nuke not a blind bit of difference. All we can do is give a little protection to humanitarian relief convoys, maintain ineffectual sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro – and wring our hands.
The message is one that will confirm the Bosnians’ sense of hopelessness and isolation while giving the Serbian aggressors yet another fillip as they pursue their bloody goal. What Bosnia needs, what Bosnia has always needed, is the means to loosen the aggressors' stranglehold.
Militarily enforced "safe havens" at this stage are not as good as international military guarantees of Bosnian borders would have been six or nine months ago. But they are the least that the international community should be insisting upon. Not to insist upon them (as a minimum measure) is to give up on Bosnia. That would be disastrous for the Bosnians, disastrous for the Kosovans and Macedonians who are next in line for Serbian ethnic cleansing and disastrous for the principle of self-determination of sovereign peoples, a cornerstone of democracy.
With notable exceptions, Labour has unfortunately still not recognised this. After a summer when the front bench wittered on about the complexity of the situation when it should have been pressing for military intervention, it has treated the war as little more than a refugee issue.
Of course, the refugees are important, and the government's refusal to take in more is despicable. But the refugee crisis will not be solved unless Serbian aggression is stopped. Unless the world acts now it will be too late. Labour should come out now both for the United Nations to create adequately defended safe havens in Bosnia and for an end to the arms embargo against Bosnia. If that means more deployments of troops and air power, so be it: the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.