Podium - Nato's search for a `Goldilocks' war

Lawrence Freedman From the E H Carr Lecture, given at Aberystwyth by the professor of war studies at King's College, London
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THE KOSOVO war has been described as a "humanitarian war", with the altruistic motives much more sharply defined than the truly vital interests that are supposed to be at stake when we go to war. It has, more than most, been framed in terms of competing moralities - intervention against atrocities versus non-interference in internal affairs - and competing immoralities - strategic bombing versus "ethnic cleansing".

The basis for Nato action against Yugoslavia is that Serb forces have engaged in a campaign of such brutality and ruthlessness, in order to depopulate an unruly province, that conscience dictates action.

Few critics of the war in the West doubt the existence of the Serb campaign; instead they argue that its pace and intensity are a direct result of Nato's intervention into a conflict that might well have been solved by more peaceful means. At issue is not whether the Kosovar Albanians are victims, but whether Nato must share blame for their distress, and whether it can do anything more than create new victims.

It is not the case that Nato air strikes prompted the campaign against the Kosovar Albanians. The campaign had its own internal logic before that, based on the limited options available to Belgrade for dealing with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

The time taken for the refugees to reach the borders of Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro meant that coincident with the start of the campaign was the sudden appearance of tens of thousands of distraught people clamouring to escape. Many had been travelling for days, even weeks.

It was as they told their stories that the enormity of what was under way in Kosovo became apparent. Soon into the air campaign, the UN was reporting that almost 600,000 people had reached the border countries, with another 800,000 displaced people. The reports from the refugees had a distressing familiarity - of people forced from their homes by shelling and arson, of men taken away and murdered and women raped. There could be no doubt who the victims were.

The speed of events on the ground, and the contemptuous attitude shown by Belgrade, left Nato with little choice but to implement threats originally intended only as a supplement to diplomacy. It had configured its forces for a limited, coercive purpose and the implementation of a settlement, and so was unprepared for the new situation.

By the time air strikes began, the Yugoslav decisions they were designed to influence had already been taken and the plans they were supposed to frustrate were well advanced.

Instead of Milosevic being shocked by finding himself in confrontation with the world's strongest military grouping, it was Nato that was shocked by the ferocity of the Serb assault on civilians. Even as cruise missiles and aircraft started to pound away at Yugoslav defences, the grim work of "ethnic cleansing" was intensified, intending to create a new demographic reality that Nato would eventually have no choice but to accept.

The most obvious evidence of the Alliance's failure to adjust was the early disclaimer that there was any intention to use ground forces. This eased pressure on Yugoslav ground forces and left no obvious means of ensuring the return of the refugees. So Nato was left attacking large fixed targets and only belatedly found a way to attack Serb units in Kosovo itself.

This has been an uncomfortable and uninspired Nato campaign, systematic but also ponderous, constantly behind the game, attempting to find a "Goldilocks" sort of war so that the violence is neither too hot nor too cold. Given this, the most striking feature of the Alliance effort is that it still continues without any noticeable loss of cohesion.

There have been plenty of signs of unease, especially after each missed hit, but by and large Nato opinion has stuck resolutely behind the war effort. The reason for this does not require sophisticated analysis. Victims the people of Serbia may be, but their government has been judged culpable of such crimes against humanity in Kosovo that its victory cannot be contemplated.

It has been the folly of Belgrade through this decade to claim to be holding together a federation by methods that will inevitably drive it apart.

In war, victims are often denied a happy ending. The best the victims of Kosovo can hope for is to go home to their shattered villages and their traumatic memories, with their security and welfare the responsibility of the international community. This would not be much of a victory. All one can say is that it would be a defeat for Slobodan Milosevic.