Leading Article: We must not balk at the prospect of a long campaign

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THERE ARE only two objections to the bombing of Serbia that should be taken seriously. One is the legitimacy of Nato's action - there being no precedent in international law for intervening in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. The other is the problem of where we may end up: namely in a long land war by which a combined force of American, British and other troops attempts to defend a Kosovar protectorate from enraged Serbia. All the rest is sentiment. It is bad and sad that lives will be lost, but Kosovar lives were being lost in massacres and the West was doing nothing to stop it.

Tony Benn should be listened to when he talks about the rule of international law and the problem of defining war aims. But when he starts off on American imperialism and civilian casualties he should be asked the question he could not answer on Iraq: what would you do instead?

It is true that this is the first time Nato has been the aggressor against a recognised state. The bombing of Iraq was not the same; Saddam Hussein was a threat to his neighbours. And Bosnia was a recognised country, part of which the Serbs were trying to annex. But just because it has never been done before does not make it wrong.

It was right in 1978 for Vietnam to invade Cambodia to overthrow Pol Pot, and for Tanzania to invade Uganda to overthrow Idi Amin. But it is a dangerous principle of international statecraft that individual states can decide what is right and then do it.

On the other hand, however, it is an unrealistic principle to behave as though the United Nations were a democratic world government endowed with the military capability to enforce its decisions. The right way - we hate to say it - is the third way. And the Prime Minister set out with admirable clarity the principle that should govern the new world order, in a speech in Cape Town in January, at the time of the strikes against Iraq. "People say - and I understand - you can't be self-appointed guardians of what is right and wrong. True - but when the international community agrees certain objectives and then fails to implement them, those that can act, must."

In the case of Kosovo, the UN has agreed the objective, which is to protect the basic human rights of the Albanian-speaking majority in the Serbian province. That may be an extension of the rule of international law into the internal affairs of a state, but that is surely a good thing, of a piece with feeling the collar of brutal dictators such as General Pinochet. However, because of the veto system on the Security Council, the UN was unable to will the means. The feebleness of UN-led military forces has been demonstrated, with tragic consequences, in Rwanda. And it is far better for a group of nations bound by a commitment to democracy and human rights, such as Nato, to act together, than for the United States (or the United Kingdom) to go it alone - especially now that Nato has expanded to include nearly the whole of Europe rather than just the western half.

A similar form of international governance is being developed - imperfectly, erratically - elsewhere in the world. In Sierra Leone, Nigeria has intervened under the umbrella of the Economic Community of West African States to support the UN's aim of upholding the democratically elected government of President Kabilah.

The answer to the second objection springs from the Blair doctrine, which is a tentative but welcome development of international law. If Nato wills the means to enforce the ends agreed by the UN, it must see it through. It is worrying that the US public education drive - President Clinton as the avuncular geography teacher, live on American television - should have come so late. But if we are serious about defending the lives and rights of the Kosovars, we cannot balk at the prospect of a long war.