Why is this? Why is it a nasty (and counter-productive) bit of post-imperialism, on the one hand, to whack Saddam's Iraq for failure to comply with UN resolutions, or to send a few dozen Tomahawks into a mountain valley in Afghanistan to take out Osama Bin Laden, or to obliterate a dubious (but probably innocent) factory in Sudan, but an essential part of our duty as a decent member of the family of nations, on the other, to give Slobodan Milosevic a good blasting?
These situations are, of course, different. But not in any deep, moral sense. Indeed, many of those who seem keen on action in Kosovo would be hard-pressed to name the Kosovan Albanian leader, or to tell us what his policy on, say, independence for Kosovo might be. Likewise, the exact nature of the Iraqi obfuscation over arms inspections, and its weapons- making capacity, loomed unlarge in the thinking of those who claimed that a bombing campaign was being planned by the Americans as a diversion from President Clinton's exotic problems at home. Remember all those cartoons featuring phallic missiles, and excited Bills going "yahoo!"? Cartoonists are a reliable bell-weather of what half-informed trend-setters are thinking at any one moment, and - interestingly - I have not yet seen a single drawing, casting doubt on the correctness of sending bombers over Belgrade.
It is an oddity worth explaining, that we should, on the whole, be so antsy about bombing Baghdad, and yet so gung-ho about blitzing poor old Sploj. For a start, the Serbian operation will go ahead (indeed, may have already begun by the time you read this) without the blessing of the UN, unlike the run-in with Saddam. And the reason for this is that the Russians have said in advance that, on the Security Council, they would veto any UN call for action against Serbia.
Secondly, intervention in Kosovo is arguably much more dangerous than police action taken against Iraq. For a start, we have no real idea what to do about Kosovo itself. At the most basic level, we know that there are a couple of million Albanians who want independence, being suppressed (often brutally) by a Serb minority and its kinsfolk in Belgrade. But Kosovo was not defined as a separate nation under Tito in the way that Croatia and Bosnia were, and its secession from the rump Yugoslavia (still with me?) threatens to destabilise the Dayton agreement which brought peace to Bosnia, and to bring terrible conflict to neighbouring Macedonia and therefore, possibly, to mainland Greece. Add the Russians, and it all begins to sound unpleasantly like the way really big wars happen.
Nevertheless, we want to get involved. And I suppose that the first reason for this must be that we are geographically closer to events in Kosovo than to those in Iraq. The massacres and the burnings are taking place on our own continent, Europe, albeit a part of Europe which the vast majority of us have never visited (actually, I once took a bus from Montenegro to Macedonia, passing through the length of Kosovo, and afterwards remembered only that the men wore funny little hats, that the roads were bad and that the girl I was with loved me rather less than I loved her).
This desire to help out is pleasantly untinged by any accusations of self-interest or imperial ambition. The Second World War was a just war, fought mainly to liberate Europe from a tyrannical, racist power. By contrast, our adventures in other continents are mostly seen as having been on the side of the subjugator, not the subjugated. In Iraq, and in the Middle East generally, the sight of planes flown by white people and dropping high explosives on lots of brown people, seems an extension of a past of which many of us are ashamed. Sending a Miami Belle over to splat a job lot of European ethnic cleansers feels more kosher.
The ordinary Serbs, too, seem to be more the authors of their fate than does your average Iraqi, or the unlucky night-watchman at the Khartoum branch of Boots. Inhabitants of a qualified democracy, it seems to us that the -ics have more chance - should they want to take it - of getting shot of Mr Milosevic, than the El Whatevers do of persuading Saddam to retire. In other words, the everyday Serb seems to us more guilty, more implicated, than their Arab counterpart.
However, when we saw the persecuted Kurds dying on their snowswept mountainsides seven years ago, we all wanted action then, too. So we must add immediacy to proximity and legitimacy as factors that influence our desire to intervene. Right now, there are thousands of ethnic Albanians who, fleeing massacres and shelling, are in danger of dying in freezing forests. Something must be done to save them. In a rather incoherent way, we conceive that this something must be a Serb military withdrawal, enforced, if necessary, at the business end of a smart missile.
In feeling this sense of impatience, we are motivated partially by a terrible guilt at what happened in Srebrenica three years ago. The shooting of thousands of Muslims by Serbs, some of whom are now involved in Kosovo, is a stain on this generation, which we cannot expunge. We - not our parents or grandparents - watched while this massacre took place, and we desperately don't want it to happen again.
In one sense, this feeling represents the ultimate victory of sentiment over interest in foreign policy. Indeed, many of us feel much safer and better precisely when our activities abroad are unsullied by interest. There was oil in the Gulf, but there is sod all in Kosovo. Even the zinc mines are said to be clapped out. But there are baddies and goodies, and we know where our duty lies.
This attitude is, of course, highly dangerous. In his new book on the First World War, historian Niall Ferguson seeks to show that Britain was only involved in that appalling conflict because of a victory by warm emotion over cold interest. There was no threat to the Empire, nor was the prospect of German victory more terrible than it had been when they defeated the French in 1871. But the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, decided that a treaty with France should be honoured, and everyone else was talked into liking the idea of a nice war.
It's a view. And it's certainly true that it is better to have a clear idea what you want to achieve when you launch those planes, than a vague and misty notion of justice. But the part of me that wants to prevent Saddam Hussain from ever using chemical weapons again, would also want to stop another Srebenica at any cost. Even if it means goodbye Sploj.Reuse content