Let us now praise America for doing right by the Kosovars

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I WAS wrong. Two weeks ago I wrote that a ground war seemed inevitable. I didn't believe that the air campaign alone would force Milosevic to move. I didn't believe his troops would leave Kosovo unless there were Nato troops to drive them out. Well, he buckled and surrendered (that is what has happened, however Belgrade may try to dress it up) and I join the long list of commentators who, at different points in this conflict, failed to appreciate the impact of the air campaign on the Yugoslav leadership. I did always believe (and say) that he would be defeated - I just didn't imagine it could be done with aircraft alone.

Now that the bombers and missiles have done their work and the Serbs are on their way out of Kosovo, my friends "Easy" and Arber and their families will be getting ready to leave Albania and go home. I am happy for them and for the hundreds of thousands of other refugees who were driven out by the Serb warlord. "Easy" will get to have his big celebration party in Metrovica some time in the next few months, and I may just be able to keep my promise and be there with him.

I read a great deal from the anti-war side about this being a war of Nato expansionism, a war about the consolidation of American power on the borders of Russia, an attempt to define an aggressive new world order. It was none of that, and those who peddled that line failed to see beyond their own reflexive anti-Americanism. Most of them were still trapped in an old left time-warp in which Yankee power romped through South East Asia and Latin America.

Instead of the reticent Clinton and his reluctant generals, they saw Nixon and Kissinger and Dr Strangelove; they saw Ronald Reagan and his Contras and the malign tentacles of the Military Industrial Complex. They protested about the need for UN resolutions, while forgetting the scores of them Milosevic had already ignored. They turned a blind eye to the years of Serb promise-breaking and double-dealing and acted as if Milosevic was a man we could "do business with". (In this, of course, they were no different from the American and European diplomats who for years fostered the illusion that Milosevic was the guarantor of stability in the region.)

Others were blinded by their own bitterness about America's relentless and often unjust support for the Israelis in the Middle East and refused to see any possibility that the United States might, in this case, be capable of acting in a good cause and even succeeding. Sure, the US record in the Middle East is appallingly one-sided, but in Kosovo the White House got it right. It defies logic to suggest that because America gets it wrong in one part of the world, it is incapable of getting it right anywhere else.

The US support for Croatia and the "ethnic cleansing" of Krajina Serbs is also cited as an example of disgracefully one-sided behaviour. Yes it was. And yes, Tudjman should be investigated for responsibility for war crimes in the Krajina and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But please don't tell me any of this makes it wrong for the Clinton White House to draw a line in the sand and stand up for justice in Kosovo. It may not feel nice, it may look like hypocrisy, but it was the right thing to do.

This war was not about Nato expansionism, still less about the arrogant flexing of Yankee muscle. The truth of this age is that we battle to keep the Americans interested in what happens in the rest of the world. They are a people whose political and military establishment has a deep isolationist streak, and whose broader population are hugely ignorant of the world beyond American shores. For these reasons we find ourselves in a position not of needing to restrain American power, but of having endlessly to confront the US with the moral imperative of humanitarian intervention.

Remember that for the 100 days of this century's most recent genocide (in Rwanda) the Americans twisted and wriggled and did everything they could to avoid getting involved, haggling over the rental terms for armoured vehicles for the UN force. Anything to avoid being dragged into a conflict in a far-away country. At the end of it all nearly a million people were dead, thanks in no small part to Washington's absolute refusal to countenance action. This time the Yanks did the decent thing. Not without a lot of prodding and pressure from Blair, mind you, but the right thing all the same.

It was, as Blair said at the very outset, a war against the evil of "ethnic cleansing". In the course of the war brutal and stupid things were done by Nato. Innocent people were killed. But do not try to pin the blame for the great crime of the war - the deportation of hundreds of thousands of people - on the Western Allies. Don't forget that in the year before the war Milosevic's men had driven some 300,000 people out of their homes in Kosovo, that Serb murder squads were touring the countryside butchering civilians, and that for decades Serb extremists had nurtured a plan for the expulsion of the Kosovo Albanians. Milosevic used the Nato bombing as a convenient pretext for emptying the province of its majority population. But they left at the point of Serbian guns - not because of Nato air strikes.

War is profoundly troubling to the liberal conscience. As I have written before, it ruptures our idea of ourselves; it is an abomination, a defiler of conscience and body and soul. You do not have to walk among the dead and maimed, or to record their stories, to realise this. But after 10 years of the evil wrought by ethnic war in the Balkans, did we have a choice this time round? I honestly believe not.

We are coming to the end of one era in the Balkans. Soon enough Milosevic and Tudjman will no longer be in power. The minor warlords who grew up around them have been sent a terrible warning and we at last appear to be engaged with the region in a real and committed sense. Political inertia, diplomatic fudge and double-dealing, moral abandonment, pious wishful thinking - these are the qualities that until now defined our attempts to deal with his blood-stained territory. The tramping feet of refugees have put an end to that.

Sooner or later Kosovo itself will move towards independence. The idea that 90 per cent of the people of a region can be forcibly compelled to live under the sovereignty of a state that they loathe is simply untenable - it is possible only where state terror is practised at its most absolute, say in East Timor or Burma. I hope that the KLA realises that it is in its interests to work with Nato and not to try to subvert the peace by launching a renewed war against the Serbs from liberated territory. And if Nato itself is to have any credibility as a guarantor of peace, it must act ruthlessly against those who will want to wreak vengeance on Serb civilians.

In broader terms, we need to be ready for the crisis that will soon erupt in Serbia itself. Neighbouring Montenegro is also fearfully unstable. We are, as has been repeatedly said in recent days, simply at the beginning of our partnership with the people of the Balkans. And that is what it is: not an overlordship or a dictatorship, but a partnership. Never again can we afford - morally or practically - to look the other way or encourage, through our weakness and vacillation, the whims of dictators.

The writer is a BBC special correspondent. He will be away for the next few weeks