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Leading Article: Nato should stick to military targets

THE STORMING of the Bastille, 210 years on. That is the name given by disrespectful Belgraders to the headquarters building of Serbian television, which Nato bombed early yesterday morning. Slobodan Milosevic's broadcasting outfit is undoubtedly a loathsome instrument of racist Serb propaganda, but this choice of target leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It seems to have been part of a sequence of questionable targets in recent days: first the headquarters of Milosevic's socialist party, then the dictator's house, defined by Nato as a "command and control centre", presumably on the basis that it had a telephone.

All these attacks are clearly aimed at the leadership of the regime which is responsible for "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. But the idea that they will destroy the morale of Milosevic and his commanders is unconvincing. To argue that these targets are all symbols of the Milosevic regime cuts both ways. The symbolism ensures that Serb nationalists will be strengthened in their conviction that Nato is at war with their nation, and their resolve hardened by a sense of aggrieved adversity. Doubting members of the Nato alliance, such as Greece and Italy, will be alarmed by the bombing of targets which are explicitly not military. The idea that chemicals plants, transport facilities and even food supplies might potentially support the Serb killing machine has been accepted, however reluctantly. Bombing a television station is different. Milosevic's propaganda, aimed at his armed forces and the Serb population generally, will find a way, with or without the seven o'clock news.

The attack seems to have been peculiarly ill directed. It has not taken Serb television off the air, but it has killed civilian staff such as cleaners and make-up assistants - partly because they assumed that Nato bombers might hit the transmitters, but not the office. Which only raises the question: why didn't they?

It has to be emphasised once again that a war fought by democratic nations for a just cause must be fought by limited, morally justifiable means. Simply labelling Serb television "the ministry of lies" is not enough. That means Nato is bombing people because we do not like what they say. What they say is indeed odious, proclaiming the racial superiority of Slavs and justifying the expulsion of Muslims from "Serb" soil, but bombing is not refutation. Nato spokesmen should pause, too, to reflect that they hardly served the cause of truth in their accounts of the bombing of the refugee convoys.

The Prime Minister's speech in Chicago on Thursday night was an admirable attempt to set out a new doctrine of international statesmanship, something which could genuinely be called an ethical foreign policy. The "Blair doctrine" justifies intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states in cases of crimes against humanity, provided certain basic conditions are met. This cause could be a great step forward in the post-Cold War world. But it must be taken with care.

It is not wrong to try to undermine the confidence of Milosevic's power elite, but fighting a limited war from the air requires a greater degree of certainty about the outcome. If we could not be sure that the broadcasts would be knocked out, it would have been better to have kept to strictly military targets. This week's choice of targets contains another unfortunate implication, which is that Nato cannot find enough purely military objectives that it can hit with certainty. The case for deploying ground forces grows stronger and stronger.