Milosevic has caught Nato still living by its Cold War creed

He is adept at reading our squeamishness and has no fear of body- bags; they got him where he is today
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The Independent Culture
WHEN I think of all those hot afternoons endured at defence conferences entitled "Whither Nato?", and the long speeches on "The Alliance and Its Options for the 21st Century" - what a waste of time it all was. The debates inevitably turned on the impact of the Eastern European enlargement of Nato on Russia, about which we would argue incessantly. Occasionally, the "Southern flank" of Europe would have a walk-on part in the deliberations, centred on the role of Turkey. The Balkans was always discussed as a problem Nato had to help solve, without any suggestion that these benighted countries might have any effect on the mighty Atlantic Alliance itself.

In the communal mind of the institution, Moscow was still the key to Nato's future. The ritual war games that were played once a year on some blasted heath in Germany, and latterly Poland, still assumed the need for deterrence against a Soviet-trained army, or at least one like Saddam Hussein's which followed Soviet military doctrine, and not very cleverly at that.

It has not turned out that way. The future of Nato is being forged daily in the burning crucible of Kosovo. I do not mean to underestimate the consequences of the war for the West's dealings with Moscow. These will be complex and demanding. But the direction Nato now takes will be determined far more by the errors and omissions of the present campaign against Serbia than by the careful calculations of how to rub along with a grumpy and insecure Russian bear.

Large institutions are loath to let go of the certainties that defined them in the past. Many defence strategists have pointed out that Nato's engagement in Bosnia through air strikes and the UN presence meant an end to the stated raison d'etre of territorial defence, and that this necessitated a rethink of the way the Alliance operated. But Nato continued to be lulled by its successful deterrence throughout the Cold War and the gratifying collapse of Communism into believing that the same basic model would prove serviceable in the next century. It hasn't even made it through 1999.

We know that the planners failed to gauge Milosevic's likely response to aerial bombardment - namely to ethnically cleanse Kosovo as fast as inhumanely possible, and turn the refugees into an instrument of war. Every armchair general has since concluded that they would never have made such an elementary mistake. But that does not accurately reflect Nato's conundrum. The reason it has not, so far, fought a wholly efficient campaign against Milosevic is inherent in the way it perceives itself - as a low-risk enterprise which achieves its objectives by imposing swift, surgical victories from the air.

Watching the weather map on TV, I was suddenly struck by the incongruity of our island festooned in nothing more perilous than rainclouds. A few minutes before, the news had featured the map of Serbia with missiles raining down on it. The West's air defences being what they are, we do not need to worry too much about the prospect of a Yugoslav National Army MiG dropping its bombs on the Home Office. We are lucky enough to send the ordnance flying in one direction only.

But that sense of security - the one Nato has so successfully instilled - has created the expectation that we can fight difficult wars the easy way, without military personnel dying on our side. The West wills the end of Milosevic, but not the means. That seriously restricts the choices open to the Generals. A body-bagless war was established early on as the central imperative for President Clinton and Mr Blair. US military chiefs, we now discover, had their doubts about whether the sledgehammer of air power alone was a flexible enough weapon to crack the hard nut of Serbian aggression against the Albanian population of Kosovo. But this was the only conflict President Clinton wanted. The generals shrugged and said they would do their best. Mr Milosevic, having experience of the West's tentative handling of Bosnia, is adept at reading the enemy's squeamish psychology and making his own moves accordingly. He has no fear of body-bags - they have got him where he is today.

This is the main, but not the only, restriction on the West's waging of the war which dare not speak its name. A second, invisible and daunting front on which politicians fight their battles is that of public opinion. Here again, the strategic imperatives are undermined by the reluctance to risk even temporary unpopularity.

Hence the muddle over the fate of the Kosovo refugees over the space of just a few days. On Sunday, they were welcomed to Britain in "some thousands" by Jack Straw, following the Americans' lead in demanding a humanitarian response to the crisis in the border camps. Clare Short, listening to aid agencies in Macedonia, came to an entirely different conclusion - namely that the only chance for the refugees to return lay in them being held on the borders of their homeland.

It is not often that Mr Blair votes with Ms Short rather than Mr Straw, but these are turbulent times. Britain's participation in the US-led policy of dispersal was reversed within a few hours, with Mr Blair acknowledging that moving the refugees would do Mr Milosevic's work for him by removing Kosovo Albanians.

This time, he is right. The war will have been in vain unless it demonstrates that ethnic cleansing does not pay and that the Kosovars belong in their homeland. But it will take a long time until Kosovo is fit for the Albanians again. The vast majority will refuse to return unless Milosevic is toppled from power in Serbia, which brings us back to the vexed question of ground troops. If Mr Clinton and Mr Blair really believe that they can get the Kosovars back, they will have to help construct a place safe for them to live in, and protect them. That means troops on the ground to enforce the settlement. No one said this was going to be a short war with a neat conclusion, but now that we are in it, Nato will have to see it through to the end.

The consequences will anchor the West in the Balkans for the foreseeable future. While Serbia learns to live with the consequences of Milosevic's delusions of nationalist grandeur, the Alliance will have to assess the reasons for its own patchy performance in stopping him. The new Nato will need to be far quicker on its feet than the old one - more attuned to responding to the unpredictable. It must co-ordinate humanitarian factors as part of its operations, rather than allowing the endgame to be dictated by them.

The former UN Commander Michael Rose has written that the "entire credibility" of Nato is at stake in Kosovo. I would go further. At stake is the essence of Nato: the question of what its duties, values and limits should be. Next time, we had better have the answers ready.

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