Leading Article: Prosecute the war, but hold back the bombing for tonight

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"THE PRESIDENT believed military intervention was morally justified, but he fretted privately that he was being forced to act at the worst possible moment: `I can't believe they got me into this. How did this happen? We should have waited until after the elections.'" Some will say that this account of Bill Clinton's decision to invade Haiti by George Stephanopoulos, his former press officer, does not serve the presidency well. Mr Stephanopoulos's candid memoir, All Too Human, exposes the White House war machine as a rickety, opinion-poll-driven, make-it-up-as-you- go-along contraption.

The accounts of how President Clinton made decisions on Haiti, Bosnia and Iraq hardly inspire confidence that the right decisions are now being made for the right reasons on Kosovo.

Except for one thing. What comes through clearly is the dramatic shift in American policy from that of defending "vital" national interests to one of altruism. Following the end of the Cold War, President Clinton's obsession with opinion-polling reinforced the shift. In none of his foreign adventures, even in the debacle of Somalia, have US trade or defence interests been directly threatened. In the case of Haiti at least, Mr Stephanopoulos says White House polling showed that the American people were "more willing to use our power to protect innocent civilians from torture and terror" than to protect national self-interest.

This should stand as a rebuke to those who accuse Tony Blair of blindly following the US, or who portray Nato as an instrument of US imperialism. The bottom line in the Balkans is that Nato's intervention is morally justified. For all the criticism of Mr Clinton and Mr Blair for their dependence on focus groups, a just war should be able to command public support, and can be fought with greater force if it does so.

The ends of returning the people of Kosovo to their homes and of ending Slobodan Milosevic's criminal campaign of ethnic terror are just. But the means by which they are pursued must also be just, and it is right that, in broad terms, they should be constrained by public opinion. Nato's leaders are wise to restrict the military strikes on Serbia so tightly in order to minimise civilian casualties, even if it means a longer war.

They would also be advised to halt the bombing for tonight, the night of the Orthodox Easter vigil, not so much to avoid the mentality of persecution among the Serbs (it is too late for that), but to assure public opinion back home that the war is being prosecuted with a tender conscience.

However, public opinion in western Europe is running ahead of the politicians in its preparedness to commit ground troops. It is possible that our leaders have not yet caught up with the changes in popular attitudes to wars fought for "humanitarian" ends described by Mr Stephanopoulos. But in this case, in the case of crimes against humanity committed in the European Union's waiting room, it is not up to President Clinton to give a lead. If ground troops are going to have to be deployed - and it is hard to see how they cannot be - the countries of the EU will have to shoulder the moral burden. Step forward Mr Blair, armed with opinion polls.