Leading Article: A deadly gamble, but we are right to strike at Milosevic

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The Independent Culture
WAR IS never easy, and all the high technology in the world will never make it so. Nato's new military toughness in Yugoslavia constitutes a deadly gamble with many lives, and may become painful and unpopular. But it remains necessary, in spite of all the final reservations that accompany the fateful step of attacking a fellow sovereign state in Europe.

Our first instinct is to welcome military action against a regime that has systematically attacked the rights of the people of Kosovo. This century has witnessed too many betrayals of small and defenceless peoples in Europe, and it is to be hoped that the action in Kosovo marks an end to that sad and shameful record.

It is President Milosevic who has forced the predominantly Albanian population of that province into desperate resistance. His government has denied them legitimate cultural expression and legislative autonomy, discriminated against the Albanian language and most Kosovars' Muslim faith, and finally adopted the same techniques of "ethnic cleansing" that he mobilised in Bosnia. For years we forced our troops in the Balkans to scuttle around in armoured personnel carriers, dealing out charity rather than tackling the root cause of conflict: Serb aggression. Now that humiliation may be over.

But we must go further than emotional spasm. Nato's actions are not the end of the struggle with Milosevic. In fact, they herald a new level of conflict with this tough and cunning operator whose capacity to trick, delay and dissemble will not be ended by military action alone. On the contrary: military action raises the stakes, creating new situations for the Belgrade strongman to exploit, and forcing the Western allies to concentrate every step of the way. Only a strategy for the whole course of this new and more intense confrontation can hope to isolate and contain such initiatives.

There is a need for such clear thinking over every aspect of this new and dangerous conflagration. Having escalated the crisis, we must face the consequences, building strategies for dealing with the results of our actions.

Diplomacy must remain to the fore, for in this field Nato's position is far from secure. Russia and China oppose military action, a stance Serbia will attempt to take advantage of. Without unanimous international support or UN authorisation, Nato must not give the impression of go-it- alone warmongering. The diplomatic situation may get worse, as the conflict could spread to Macedonia, Albania, and beyond. The political and military groundwork must be laid to deal with that eventuality. That means extra troops if necessary, and security agreements with countries who share a border with Serbia.

But there are technical and operational problems on a similar scale. Serbia is no Iraq. With well-equipped air defences and a trained, tested and committed army, she will be no military pushover. The lives of Nato personnel may be lost, perhaps in large numbers. Alliance troops are strung out across Bosnia and Macedonia, and will need protecting. For that there must be a plan, for ultimate extraction or deeper and more forceful involvement. Provision must be made for refugees streaming across the border into Macedonia and northern Greece. Once war is launched, there can be no half-measures.

There will be no quick or bloodless victory; in the Balkans, there never are any simple solutions. But Milosevic has torn up every agreement he has made in the last six months, and his ability to defy sense and diplomacy must now be brought to an end. Nato should stand firm for the stark principles that necessitate action. The credibility of the Western alliance, the Kosovar right to self-determination and democracy, and the security of Europe itself are at stake.