The legacy of appeasement

We need a commitment of at least 10 years, tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars
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The Independent Culture
ALUSH GASHI was a small, wiry, bright-eyed man, a surgeon, a healer. When we met in Pristina, he explained to me, with quiet passion and in excellent English, what the Kosovar Albanians were trying to achieve with their movement of non-violent resistance. Now he is dead - shot by the Serbs running amok in Kosovo. I will remember him. And I will remember Fehmi Agani, the grey-suited, sly old professor who tried to negotiate a peaceful path to independence. I try to telephone other friends and acquaintances in Pristina, ringing all their numbers, but the lines are dead - and perhaps they are, too.

They were alive a few weeks ago. They might still be alive if we had not started this bombing that is supposed to help them. Does that mean we were wrong to bomb? Not necessarily. But we were wrong not to have done so much sooner. The time to stop Milosevic was in the autumn of 1991, when he sent his troops to besiege the Croatian town of Vukovar; but we, in Western Europe, were fiddling in Maastricht. In the Nineties, as in the Thirties, a decade of appeasement ends in a war much larger and more dangerous than it would have been at the beginning.

For seven years we gave no effective aid to the strictly non-violent efforts of people such as Alush Gashi and Fehmi Agani. We paid serious attention only when other Kosovar Albanians reached for the gun. Then we huffed and puffed for another year. "I hope Milosevic is listening - this is the last warning," said Robin Cook. That was in June 1998. Yes, we tried to negotiate a just peace at Rambouillet. But, as the Romans knew, if you want peace, you must prepare for war. And we knew that in the last few weeks Milosevic was pouring military and police forces into Kosovo.

Here was our second big mistake: to start the campaign without being prepared to follow through with troops on the ground if Milosevic reacted as he has. Of course, it's easy to be wise with hindsight. I myself thought he would probably back down at the last minute. But it was irresponsible not to plan for the worst case, which is now with us. In Serbia proper, the bombing has united people in defence of their country. Two days ago I talked by telephone to a liberal, anglophile friend in Belgrade, a fierce critic of Milosevic. He told me they were sitting in the cellar, cursing Clinton as a maniac and celebrating the shooting-down of a Nato jet. The bombing has "united the whole nation", he said. If people like him are talking like that, what chance is there that senior army officers will turn against Milosevic at such a moment?

In Kosovo, Serbian forces are brutally driving tens, perhaps already hundreds of thousands of Albanians out of their homes, following the quarter of a million made homeless in the last year. The refugees' reports of summary executions are too detailed to be mere rumour or exaggeration. What we don't know is the Serb strategy. Is this a wild rampage of terror and destruction? Is the action concentrated, as some reports suggest, on the regional strongholds of the Kosovo Liberation Army? Is it in preparation for a possible partition of the province between Serbs and Albanians, a fallback position much discussed in Belgrade over the last year? Or does Milosevic really think he can "ethnically cleanse" Kosovo of 1.8 million Albanians, 90 per cent of its population, even as our bombs rain down? Whatever the plan, it is being implemented with incredible speed. At this rate, even the most concentrated and sophisticated air power will not stop it before hundreds of thousands more Kosovars have been driven out - and humanitarian disaster has become total catastrophe.

There are now two alternatives. One is just to go on bombing, and pretend that failure is success: an Orwellian exercise. The other is to prepare very rapidly to send in ground troops. For all the appalling difficulties of mountainous terrain, mined roads, unwelcoming transit countries, restless allies and, above all, inevitable casualties, I reluctantly conclude that - if nothing changes for the better - this will become the lesser evil in a matter of days. If we go in while most of the Albanians are still there, Kosovo will not be "Europe's Vietnam", because the majority of the population - the Vietnamese, as it were - will be on our side. (However, our forces would also have to try to prevent Kosovar Albanians from taking revenge on innocent Serbs.)

The political object should be to make Kosovo an international protectorate, as it would effectively have been if the Serbs had signed the Rambouillet accord. We should try to get as many nations as possible involved - including, crucially, Russia. Ideally, it would become a United Nations trusteeship, for which the UN charter provides. Against the obvious objection that we would be invading a sovereign state, you could argue that Kosovo was a constituent part of former Yugoslavia - a republic in all but name - and that the international community has already accepted the republic's right to form separate political entities. Eventually, but only after a period as a protectorate, it could become the sovereign Republic of Kosovo - or Kosova (the Albanian spelling, with an a).

Coming on top of the existing protectorate in Bosnia, this would be a huge commitment. Yet the reality is still more daunting. If Milosevic lost Kosovo, the Serbs might finally lose patience with him. But in Belgrade last year I was repeatedly warned that what came after Milosevic could initially be worse, with a figure like the extreme nationalist Vojislav Seselj gaining power. At best, this would be a Weimar Serbia, bristling with revanchist sentiment. At worst, it would be a rogue state, like Libya or Iraq. On the other side, to Kosovo's east, you have a failed state: Albania. We could not take responsibility for the Albanians in Kosovo without doing something about the imploded, bankrupt, semi-anarchic motherland. To Kosovo's south, there is Macedonia, an unstable, divided country, with at least a quarter of its population being Albanian. To its north there is little Montenegro, the other constituent republic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which is trying to assert its own autonomy from Serbia. What if Milosevic - or his successor - turned his attention to crushing Montenegro?

The problems don't stop there. I spent the last few days in the capital of one our new Nato allies, Hungary, which is Serbia's immediate northern neighbour. Within a fortnight of joining Nato, Hungary has found itself involved in a war with its neighbour. Worse still, more than 350,000 ethnic Hungarians live in Serbia, in the Vojvodina - which, like Kosovo, was an autonomous province in the old Yugoslavia. So Hungary's new allies are also bombing Hungarians. I found Hungarian leaders wracked with concern. What if refugees started flooding across their frontier? What if Serbian nationalism turned against the Vojvodina Hungarians?

Then, in my Budapest hotel, I was tackled by a charming couple from another Nato ally, Greece. The attacks are madness, they told me. Their sympathies are with the Serbs.

In short, this is to take on not just a province of 2 million suffering people, but a whole region. It will mean an international commitment of at least 10 years, tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel, billions of dollars. But what is the alternative?

The alternative is for the mightiest alliance of democracies in the history of the world to be defeated on its 50th anniversary, and to leave the innocent to be slaughtered. It is Srebrenica multiplied a hundredfold. This is the mess we have got ourselves into. This is the legacy of a decade of appeasement. This, in the deepest sense, is the price we in Western Europe must now pay for having fooled ourselves 10 years ago, at the end of the Cold War, that we could just go on cultivating our own back gardens, without facing up to our responsibility for the whole of Europe.