Even when the violence began in earnest in Croatia in 1991, there was something faintly absurd about Serbia's leader. Early that year, I attended a dinner in Belgrade given by the government. Mr Milosevic looked and talked like a copy-book Eastern European Marxist-Leninist lecturer - socially insecure, ham-fisted but stubbornly bullish about his beliefs under pressure. When he tired of too much pre-prandial questioning about his intentions, he announced sharply: "Let's attack the soup." I remember that this hawkishness, applied to the dinner, seemed rather comical. Not so funny now, after Vukovar, Srebrenica and Racak.
Milosevic has outlasted Mikhail Gorbachev, George Bush, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and John Major. The end game falls to Clinton and Blair. When people complain that the aim of the Nato mission against Serbia is unclear, they are wrong. There is one clear goal, without which peace is impossible: to create a situation in which Milosevic falls from power and the distorted, rapacious Serbia he has created is humiliated. Unless Milosevic rouses himself from the nightmare of his own making in the next few days, this is the course on which Nato will embark : the most serious engagement in Europe since the Second World War.
There is no institutional or legal case for military action against a sovereign power that has committed atrocities on its own territory. We must rely on the more subjective assessments of realpolitik and on the ethical imperative for reasons to act. Yesterday in his Commons statement, Tony Blair entwined the two in a proposition that can be summarised as: "Not acting is more dangerous than acting; and, anyway, it is right to intervene because of the suffering imposed by Milosevic on Kosovo."
This is sound. But the mission is going to be a long and bloody affair, its price and its outcome uncertain. The Prime Minister will need to work harder in the weeks and months ahead to convince people that Britain's involvement is justified. When he contemplated the post of Prime Minister, it is unlikely that the consensual Mr Blair imagined himself as a war leader. But high office is unpredictable and this is what he may well be called upon to become.
Nato's role in Kosovo will be an even more difficult war to sell than the last Gulf skirmish - and that was far from being Mr Blair's most convincing piece of salesmanship. Bombing the Serbs on behalf of Kosovo is as near as damn it to a recognition of Kosovan independence. It may well be that in order to seal the strategic gains of a bombing campaign, we will have to commit troops onto this territory against the will of Milosevic - indeed this is the outcome he dreads, because it guarantees his disgrace and downfall. But its political and human cost would be high.
Among William Hague's warm waffle of support yesterday was a nasty opportunistic bit in which he said that the Opposition will support the incursion of ground troops not to fight for the peace, but only to uphold a diplomatically agreed peace. This opens up a chink between government and opposition at a time when custom and decency dictate that they should hold together.
Mr Hague knows full well that air power alone may not be enough. The brutal truth is that without the option of committing ground troops, Nato may well not be able to forge peace in Kosovo.
But it is the Prime Minister who will take the strain and he needs to prepare his rhetorical as well as his political battle. At such times, even a nation cynical about politicians listens closely to what its leader says. Given his strong commitment to European institutions, Mr Blair was a surprisingly reticent European when it came to laying out the single binding reason why we are obliged to take in the risks of a long conflict in Kosovo: it is a part of Europe. The alternative to Western intervention is to accept that the Western ideals of basic human rights and freedom from persecution by the state do not apply to Yugoslavia. I do not believe that Europe should tolerate such ethical exclusion zones.
A favourite argument of opponents of bombing is that since the West is neither able nor willing to use force to tackle injustice everywhere in the world, it should not do so in Yugoslavia. But Europe is the point: the Continent's future is our future. If we are not to fight a brutal aggressor after a delay similar to that which allowed the carnage of Bosnia, where would we fight?
One of the baleful consequences of the dominance of the single currency in Western Europe's priorities has been the downgrading of a wider sense of what it means to be a European, as bestowing some basic values and duties of care for one another. Into this vacuum floods the kind of petty selfishness manifested by the renowned Second World War historian Correlli Barnett in a baffling and perverse newspaper article in which he compared the prospect of Nato ground troops in Kosovo with an "army of occupation". Technically , this may be a correct description. But Kosovo is not the Sudetenland.
The overwhelmingly Albanian population sees Nato as a redeemer, not an invader. Barnett then worries about the risk of Kosovo distracting our armed forces from some other pressing threat to British interests. But what interest can be more pressing than peace in Europe? Much of the global- reach doctrine of our armed forces has outlived its usefulness. Forging and maintaining the peace in Europe and on its borders will be task enough for the next century.
There is no such thing as a "far off corner of the Balkans" in a Europe that has a new Nato member in Hungary, bordering on Serbia and in which refugees spill across open borders. The Iron Curtain is no longer there to shield us from unpleasantness.
Barnett and the rest of the new British isolationists might like to cut Britain off from the security interests of Europe. But it is neither possible nor desirable to do so. Nonetheless, a creeping "I'm all right Jack-ism" is shared by the sections of the left and right. They are intent on forming a coalition of apathy and will fight for nothing and no one beyond their own garden fence. It is to these latter-day appeasers that the Prime Minister needs to address himself more forcefully if he is to become a great statesman, as well as great politician.Reuse content