President Clinton must be as decisive as Harry Truman

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
COULD THIS have been the week when the course of the war in Yugoslavia finally turned against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic? Certainly, there were hopeful reports of political splits and military mutinies. Our correspondent in Belgrade wrote yesterday of "near panic" in the Yugoslav government on hearing of the mass desertion of 1,000 conscripts and reservists from Kosovo. It is, of course, not easy to find out exactly what happened, but there is general agreement that the soldiers left their posts and returned to their home towns of Krusevac and Alexandrovac, in the formerly stubbornly loyalist areas of south-central Serbia, because of concern about relatives who had been protesting publicly on their behalf.

Back in Belgrade, Milosevic returned to a well-tried tactic in organising violent demonstrations to attack the headquarters of an opposition party that had been voicing its discontent over the course of the war.

And in Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in what is left of Yugoslavia, Milosevic's army took over the functions of the local customs officers and border guards. The Montenegrin President, Milo Djukanovic, has voiced his objections to this "dual power", but his greater fear is that a civil war may follow an attempted coup against his government.

Perhaps the many assurances we have had from Nato spokesmen - in addition to our own Foreign and Defence Secretaries - that the air war is "working", may turn out to be true. It is often said that air power alone has never succeeded in winning a war, but like most hyperbole this is not strictly true. The most famous bombing campaign in history - the fire-bombing of Japanese cities in the Second World War, followed by the nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki - resulted in the capitulation of the Japanese Emperor. Harry Truman's objective, like that of Bill Clinton now, was to avoid a lengthy land invasion that would have been extremely costly in America lives.

What does history say now of that brutal exercise in military coercion? From an American perspective it still seems the right call; but the mass slaughter of innocents to protect one's own soldiers remains a morally dubious trade-off to those who are not so intimately involved. These considerations have led the bombing campaign in Yugoslavia to be targeted solely at "military" targets, although the definition of such targets has been rather broad (it has included much civilian infrastructure) and the collateral damage has been profoundly upsetting in its brutal destruction of trains, television offices and foreign embassies.

If Serb morale - political, military and civilian - does obligingly collapse in the next couple of weeks, the Allies will be spared the Harry Truman option (sans nuclear weapons, of course) of bombing the opposition into submission by increasing their suffering and destruction to an intolerable degree.

Wishful thinking, however, is no basis on which to execute a war, even if it does seem to have dominated the thinking in the White House and most of the other capitals of Nato's 19 member nations up to this point.

As it is, we are encouraging Milosevic to absorb as much punishment as his country can bear, in order to turn the conscience of the West against the war. And this strategy has been working all too well, for it is not only in Yugoslavia where splits are evident. The only thing that has enabled public opinion in the West to support the continued bombing campaign has been the relativistic observation that the evil done to the Albanian population by the "ethnic cleansers" of Belgrade is of a much higher, and worse motivated, order.

The war must be brought to a conclusion quickly. As this paper has argued since the bombing began, the best way to avoid using land forces is to prepare to commit them. The double act of supposed unity being played out in the United States on breakfast television and The Larry King Show by Robin Cook and the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has failed to paper over the fact that it is their leaders, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who are in disagreement. Mr Clinton wants to postpone making any decision on fighting the Serbs on the ground - he won't even commit to battle the Apache helicopters whose deployment in Albania the Pentagon has so proudly trumpeted - for fear of creating political difficulties on the home front.

Mr Blair, however, has recognised that a choice must be made - and he has made it - to commit troops now for use when they are needed, whether that be to police an agreed settlement or to liberate Kosovo against a fatally weakened foe. Now Mr Clinton must, for the first time in his presidency, take on the decisiveness of Truman, who knew well how to bear the heat of the kitchen. Fortunately for everyone, the decision Mr Clinton must take is far easier, and far more obvious.