Nato's most potent enemy lives in Washington, not Belgrade

Blair has been confronted by the President's faults. Clinton cannot see a line without fudging it
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The Independent Culture
TONY BLAIR started this war as the European leader who combined impeccably pro-European credentials with a stiffening twist of Atlanticism. To Americans, he appeared as the perfected version of the flawed Clinton model: an invigorating, centre-left politician who didn't need to lie about his sex life. In Germany, he was the example of revitalised centrism on whom Gerhard Schroder modelled himself in his bid for the chancellorship. Blair's ideas and style were a universally sought-after British export.

How different things look today in the pre-terminal phase of the conflict in Kosovo. The Prime Minister is finding himself stuck in the position that comes least naturally to one of nature's bridge-builders - out on a limb. Germany is panting for an exit strategy from the conflict, at practically any price. The Chancellor who said a month ago that Germans should not rule out ground troops because to do so was to neglect the country's special responsibility for peace in the Balkans, is now flatly declaring the option "unthinkable".

The French political establishment and opinion polls remain hawkish, but the military, observing the raison d'etat that led it into semi-estrangement from Nato four decades ago, is enthusiastic only about being part of a ground force in which they, rather than the Americans, provide the lead, take the glory and establish themselves as the diplomatic force majeure in the region.

As his European support flakes away, Mr Blair has resorted to pursuing a zig-zag policy with the Americans in the hope that he can needle or wheedle them into some kind of action consistent with Nato's rhetorical stand against the Serbs' oppression of Kosovo. In the last few days he has alternated praise with criticism in the hope that this will have some effect on the policy-makers in the White House. Having allowed dissatisfaction with American havering on ground troops to leak out at the weekend, Mr Blair has changed tack on his visit to Albania and lauded the "vision and steadfastness" of the United States. Perhaps the Prime Minister has recruited the weapon of heavy irony to his rhetorical arsenal. Vision and steadfastness are the two qualities most strikingly absent from American policy towards Kosovo.

In what may prove to be a final throw for ground intervention, Robin Cook will venture to Washington armed with the British assessment of the Yugoslav National Army's fighting strength, which shows the Serbs to be far weaker than the Pentagon's analysis suggests and the environment as "permissive" for Nato troops as it could be without Milosevic issuing a gilt-edged invitation.

From the beginning of their association, before Mr Blair's election, Clinton and Blair sought to appear as a political item. The Third Way was their love child - a concept at once so perfectly inclusive, economically neutral and innocently vacuous that to oppose it seemed to be an act of bloody-mindedness. My complaint against the Third Way is that it fudged the inevitability of making stark choices. War is the starkest choice of all. Mr Blair realises that. Mr Clinton does not. As a result, we have a disquieting loss of resolve at the heart of Nato. The special relationship between Britain and America will not survive a shabby end to the intervention in Kosovo. Neither, in its present form, will Nato.

In tragic circumstances, Mr Blair has been confronted by the shortcomings of his political blood brother. New Labour has long had a blind spot about Clinton's moral vacuum. They considered Monica Lewinsky and the rest to be the minor lapses of a President who was otherwise in great ethical shape. In truth, they betokened a deeper weakness - his talent for vacillation and relativism, which has returned to haunt us all in the conflict with Serbia.

Unlike Mr Blair, Clinton cannot see a line without fudging it. He wanted a war without risk, intervention without setting American foot in the war zone, compassion without cost. The more fervent Clinton's verbal commitment to help, the less American resolve has held. When Hillary told the refugees that she felt their pain, I knew we really were in trouble.

America aimed to win the war by fluke. When this hope foundered as Milosevic defied the bombs, Clinton ditched his original goal and began to seek an exit from war, using the Russians as brokers. You may remember the scene near the end of Schindler's List when the Germans have fled the camp and the refugees, still too numb from their ordeal to feel the joy of liberation, are lying in a field. Along comes a uniformed figure on horseback. "You have been liberated by the Red Army," says the Soviet officer. Such is the narrative power of Spielberg's film and his cinematography that the terrible bathos of this moment goes largely unremarked by audiences.

Liberation by the Russians has always been a mixed blessing, as those who experienced it in eastern Germany and Poland at the end of the Second World War still recall. The Kosovars will not return to a part of their territory under Russian protection. That means partitioning, or, as the Russians now put it, with nostalgia for their post-1945 role in Germany, "sectorisation". There is even talk of a force without a US component, a triumph for Milosevic.

The closing lines of Robert Southey's poem, "The Battle of Blenheim", spring to mind, In them, a small boy quizzes his grandfather over the fate of the doomed 600 cavalrymen: "What good came of it at last?" quoth little Peterkin, "Ah, that I cannot tell," said he, "But t'was a famous victory."

In Kosovo, we are watching the Alliance being destroyed by its creators, the Americans. Some will welcome this as freedom from Washington's hegemony in world affairs. Others see it as the great opportunity for Europe to develop a common military strategy. Perhaps we have no other choice. But let us not deceive ourselves that this is going to happen easily, quickly or reliably. The continent that cannot agree on how to reform a Common Agricultural Policy lacks the common will and shared resolve, let alone the experience, to uphold a peaceful order through thick and thin. At the new millennium, we are in a far more exposed and volatile position in Europe than we have yet begun to comprehend.

Victory will be announced in the Balkans, whatever the outcome. The Democrats have an election to fight in 18 months' time. The American people will be told that they did their best to help some beleaguered people far away. But there is no such thing as a victimless military failure. Mr Blair feels this keenly, as any good European must. Unless Washington can be persuaded that the shame of a bad compromise will return to haunt it, "ethnic cleansing" will again have been rewarded, and evil gone unpunished. That would be a famous victory, all right. No good can come of it.