Have the Tories finally found Mr Blair's Achilles' heel?

The Prime Minister has emerged as the hawk of the Alliance. But he is a hawk without wings
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WHEN THE war is over, how will we see Tony Blair - as a noble crusader for the values of civilisation in an imperfect world, or as a self-aggrandising naif who blundered into an adventure at America's side without checking the small print of President Clinton's commitment first?

Leaders rarely emerge from any major military conflict as they went into them. The gains and cost to reputation are difficult to calculate or control. Gladstone, the great Liberal who is Mr Blair's closest historical model as an interventionist, profited from his impassioned demands that Disraeli oppose the Ottoman Turk's slaughter of Christians in their empire in Bulgaria. When Gladstone began his campaign in 1876, it was dismissed by Disraeli as "coffee house babble". The babble proved loud and insistent enough to help drive Disraeli from office in 1880.

Those sceptical of Nato's involvement in the Balkans today are far more likely to point out the parallels with Suez, where an already weak Eden was disgraced after overestimating the might of the imperial alliance and finally left in the lurch by his American allies. More recently, the Iron Lady emerged Teflon-coated after the Falklands triumph that transformed her from domestic battle-axe into international figure. Her war was straightforward. This one, conducted solely by bombing, is far more difficult to win. Indeed, it is impossible to win without causing justified public anguish about the incidental casualties.

Already, the outline of the postwar political attack on Blair is emerging. His detractors paint him as a well-meaning boy-soldier, so eager to create a new and better world order that he launched himself precociously into a campaign without clear objectives or strategy. Listen to the head-shakers and you would imagine that intervening to halt murderous dictators was one of those dodgy ideas dreamt up by young men in black polo necks in an obscure think-tank.

Yet the argument about our responsibility for atrocities in far-off places is an old, indeed an eternal one in politics. Today, we might find Gladstone's rhetoric on the need to "raise a voice for justice [and] mitigate the sorrows and misfortunes of mankind" a touch excessive. But the moral imperative remains the same.

Those who prosecute humanitarian campaigns should be aware, however, that unlike wars of geo-political interest, those which aim to liberate the oppressed do not admit half solutions. Unless Mr Blair can achieve his bravely stated aim of returning the refugees to their homeland, there is a grave danger that the results of the Kosovo engagement will not match the rhetoric.

The brighter Tories have woken up to this. They anticipate laying their first glove on the Prime Minister's greatest asset: his invulnerability. Mr Blair continues to inspire such a level of confidence among voters because so far, when it matters, he has always got what he wants. Accidents may happen, colleagues fall by the wayside, but no one can doubt that Mr Blair remains implacably in control. In the matter of Kosovo, alas, he is not in control: the Americans are, and with President Clinton's foreign policy record, that is a very mixed blessing indeed.

Whoever succeeds Michael Howard as shadow foreign secretary will have one main function - to do as much damage as possible to Mr Blair and his Government in the run-up to the election, using the miscalculations of the war as ammunition. Iain Duncan Smith, the engaging Tory right-winger who also happens to be a former army officer critical of Nato's strategy, is angling for the post.

He may or may not be helped by a letter reputedly sent from Lady Thatcher to Mr Hague recommending him for the job: an insecure leader loath to obey the recommendations of a noisy predecessor. But the Tories are surely aware that concentrating on Mr Blair's war record is a chance they cannot afford to miss. A strong performer will be appointed in the next reshuffle to hound Mr Blair. Mr Duncan Smith is the best they have.

This is one of the rare cases - indeed the only one I can recall since Labour came to power - where Mr Hague has an advantage over the Prime Minister. A Government involved in a war takes the rap when anything goes wrong. Oppositions are judged by far less exacting standards. The Tories have had an inconsistent war. They backed the Nato bombings at the start only to call in the next cynical breath for the Government to avoid a ground war. They accused Mr Blair of irresponsibility in ruling out this option. Now they are complaining that bombing alone is costing too many casualties and is not achieving enough. Outrage is cheap.

Mr Blair feels embattled in the wake of the Chinese embassy bombing - that much was evident in the defensive tetchiness of his comments afterwards. The British leader is now the only senior Nato figure whose comments on the war point unambiguously towards an independent Kosovo. President Clinton has spoken of the need to continue bombing, while not revealing to us what kind of Kosovo he is bombing for. Mr Blair is left exposed by Mr Clinton's vagueness.

One can understand the fury of Robin Cook confronted in the House on Monday by Mr Howard pointing out, in that lovable manner of his, that all the CIA had to do was look at the Belgrade A to Z to see where the embassy was. Really, it is not the fault of Mr Cook or Mr Blair that this terrible error occurred, although to listen to Mr Howard, you would have thought that the Foreign Secretary had personally given the wrong co-ordinates to the pilot.

Neither is it Mr Blair's fault that there is still no ground troop offensive underway, since he has lobbied assiduously for this. The one serious mishandling is in the elevation of the Prime Minister by his stage managers into a war leader when the leading - or lack of it - is done elsewhere. True, he has emerged as the real hawk of the Alliance. But he is a hawk without wings. The Americans provide 100 per cent of the air lift and 80 per cent of command and control in this mission. They decide how the war ends.

If it does end with Milosevic still in power, a messy partitioning deal done between Washington, Moscow and Bonn and most refugees still unable or unwilling to return home, Mr Blair would have to rely on the excuse that he was just a soul whose intentions were good, but ultimately someone unable to persuade the Americans to take a harder line.

How much will it matter? To Kosovo and the future of the Balkans, a lot. To Mr Blair's domestic position, not so much as to cancel out his other strengths with the electorate, but enough to hurt him and to damage the Anglo-American alliance. The price of failure is high. The price of partial success is not much lower.