Democracies are prone to do bad things for good reasons

However upsetting the conduct of this war, at a basic level it remains the right thing to do
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NOTICE A familiar pattern? An autocratic trouble-maker starts to have an unsettling effect on his neighbourhood. Western democracies are alarmed by the bad behaviour but also by the implications of having to do something about it. They try reason and conciliatory diplomacy, bolstered with vague threats of force.

As the situation worsens the threats becomes more urgent, until a point is reached when they must be implemented. Unfortunately the democracies have made inadequate preparations and so the initial impact is lamentable. Military action appears to aggravate matters rather than to rectify them.

There may be good reasons to be disappointed by the fact that Nato has managed to get itself caught up in a lengthy confrontation with Slobodan Milosevic's regime over Kosovo, but no reason to be surprised. Western democracies prefer not to go to war, and do so only when they face a political challenge so stark that they can ignore it no longer. As a result their wars normally start badly.

They went to war 60 years ago on behalf of a country - Poland - that they then failed to save. Even when the war was over, and it had lost a third of its population, Poland became the property of Stalinism. Before the war there had been intimations enough of the Holocaust, but the Nazi drive to the "final solution" of the Jewish problem began while it was under way. As the end drew closer, the extermination camps worked overtime.

Because the war had begun with a succession of defeats, for a while there was no way of getting back at Germany except by aerial bombardment. There were no precision bombing campaigns in those days. "Inaccuracy of bomb aim leads to inhumanity of war aim," observed the strategist Basil Liddell Hart as air raids devastated German cities to what was later discovered to be marginal strategic benefit.

In the preparations for the Normandy landings, French citizens were often the victims of Allied bombs. Moreover, by refusing to negotiate terms other than unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, the military task was made even harder and the immediate suffering was extended.

And yet the Second World War was, as AJP Taylor put it, a "good war" that we still remember with pride and relief that it was won. The terrible things that were often done in its name, the even more terrible things that it failed to prevent and may have provoked, do not invalidate the conclusion. In the end the battering that civilised life received had to be set against the far greater catastrophe that would have been the triumph of German Nazism and Japanese militarism.

More recently, the 1991 Gulf war took place after the international community had worked for more than five months to get Iraqi forces out of occupied Kuwait through a combination of economic pressure and active diplomacy. Commentators worried throughout those months, as they do now, that democratic political leaders were no match for a tricky and unscrupulous dictator, and that their strategic concepts were nonsensical and risked intolerable casualties.

The immediate result of the Iraqi action in August 1990 had been a stunning refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of people fled Kuwait. By the time the international coalition got itself organised, over 1,000 Kuwaitis had been killed by execution and torture, and the country was plundered.

In order to keep casualties to a minimum, the coalition did not rush into a ground war but instead relied initially on an air campaign. This went through its phases, just as now, starting with air defences, taking time to get round to Iraqi forces in Kuwait, and putting as much effort into attacking Iraqi power supplies, fuel dumps and communications. In the process innocent Iraqi civilians died; more than 300 were killed in one incident when what was thought to have been a command bunker turned out to be an air-raid shelter.

As the coalition armies moved in to liberate Kuwait the Iraqis fired all the oil wells, the very asset that gave the emirate its "strategic" value, and so the battle was fought in thick smoke.

This time there was no attempt to crush the political force that had created the problem. Finishing the job by marching on Baghdad was seen to be a risk too far (and one that would split the coalition). The Allies hoped that no leader, even one of the proven ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein, could survive such a dramatic failure of his grand ambitions. In the event Saddam was able to struggle on, a constant irritant.

In Bosnia it took three years, countless Security Council resolutions and hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties before Nato steeled itself to coerce the Serbs into serious negotiations at Dayton. Yet as this war came to its denouement in July 1995, with the resurgent Muslim and Croat armies pressing in on the Serbs, UN forces regrouping into a serious fighting force and Nato preparing an air campaign, the bloodiest single massacre of the war took place at Srebrenica, with international observers close at hand.

To get the peace, Western negotiators elevated Slobodan Milosevic, whose vicious brand of nationalism had caused the problem in the first place, into a statesmanlike figure, and decided not to make a big issue of Kosovo, despite the growing tension in the province.

So it was that when the Kosovo war began, Nato appeared disoriented by a tactically shrewd opponent. The Alliance campaign began as a low-gear attempt to stop the Serbian drive to expel a whole people from their homeland - which was by then moving into top gear. Nato was reluctant to risk even a single casualty, and so had few options other than a high-altitude air campaign.

Even on an astonishingly low margin of error, this has caused numerous civilian deaths as bombs have gone astray, or been sent to the wrong targets, or caused unexpected damage. The basic deficiency - a lack of plans for a land war - is only belatedly being corrected. The Allies are focused on the reversal of "ethnic cleansing" but have no clear strategy for dealing with the sources of this great crime in Belgrade, even though those responsible have now been indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal.

And yet, however exasperating and upsetting the conduct of this war, at a basic level it remains the right thing to do. It is quite usual for democratic societies to lose the initiative as they decide to go to war because they habitually underestimate their opponents - who then, in turn, underestimate the democracies' determination. Fortunately, for that reason, it is also quite usual for the democracies to win in the end.