There will be plenty of wrangling, but don't call this deal shoddy

The deal is not so flawed that Milosevic's generals have been biting Nato's hand off to implement it
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YOU MAY remember the medics satirised in Hilaire Belloc's cautionary tale about Henry King, the one whose chief defect was chewing little bits of string. "Physicians of the utmost fame", summoned to the child's bedside, "murmured as they took their fees/there is no cure for this disease". This, broadly, is the position of many of the critics of the air war against Kosovo.

The critics' infinite adaptability to changing circumstances is perhaps best illustrated by one of the most celebrated of them, the famous Cambridge historian, and latterly, intellectual voice of the Daily Mail, Corelli Barnett. Mr Barnett begins, back in March, by saying that air strikes would be "futile". Six weeks later, the campaign is still "bankrupt". A fortnight later it is "failing". A fortnight or so later, with the seeming capitulation of Slobodan Milosevic, Mr Barnett is in a quandary.

While the military historian, John Keegan, with commendable courage and honesty, confesses that he was wrong and that the air campaign now looks as if it was a "victory for the new world order", Mr Barnett takes the bold route; he simply denounces the agreement made by Nato with the Serbian leader last week as a "shoddy deal" that stops well short of what Mr Barnett judges to be Nato's real war aims. Since everything, in Mr Barnett's world view, is pretty shoddy, he suggests that Nato should still run with it, since the only alternative is an equally shoddy war behind which, according to Mr Barnett, it would be anything but united.

Well, the deal is not so shoddy, it now appears, that Milosevic's generals have been exactly biting Nato's hand off to see it implemented. Even before the breakdown of the talks between Serb and Nato generals early yesterday, it looked as if some of the hype surrounding last week's agreement might have been premature - though that was hardly the British Government's fault. Ministers from Tony Blair down, rightly, urged caution. There can be little real cause for celebration until the Serb forces depart, and perhaps not until the return of the refugees which those same ministers have, also rightly, insisted should be the sole criterion by which to judge whether Nato has realised its war aims.

But if nothing else, the extreme difficulty of the negotiations in the big tent at Kumanovo has underlined the point that whatever deficiencies there may be in the agreement from the West's point of view, this remains an extremely unpalatable outcome, not only for Milosevic's generals, but also (if the Defence Secretary George Robertson is right in saying that the generals are merely "dancing to Milosevic's string") for the Serbian leader himself.

True, there is evidence that the Serbs are using this bleak hiatus to destroy evidence of war crimes that yesterday Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff, chillingly implied might prove to be worse than anything so far imagined. That would be consistent with a mere delaying tactic. But the denunciation of the agreement by extreme nationalists in both Belgrade and Moscow suggest strongly that the Serbian regime is staring at defeat. And knowing it, has been baulking at its implications.

That isn't to gloss over the looseness in the document. Part of the wrangling at the G8 meeting in Bonn yesterday was over how the Russians' demand to be separated from the Nato command structure can be met without giving them the power to run a partitioned sector in Northern Kosovo, to which no sane Albanian would return. There remains the problem of persuading the KLA to surrender its arms when there is no explicit provision for a referendum on Kosovo's future three years hence, as there was at the Rambouillet talks. (Mr Robertson, though, was at pains yesterday to point out that the passage on Kosovo's political future does explicitly say that an interim agreement will take "full account of the Rambouillet accords".)

Finally, of course, there is a dissonance between Western rhetoric about Milosevic and the fact that his demise can not be guaranteed. No one should assume, however encouraging the signs, that Milosevic is about to be overthrown by democratic forces in Serbia. Much of the potential opposition is from groupings, either ultra-nationalist, weak, or both. Mr Milosevic has survived seemingly calamitous reverses before; in Bosnia, for example, and the Croatians' ethnic cleansing of the Krajina Serbs in 1995.

But none of that means that the deal struck last week is "shoddy". If it was, at least in the sense that Mr Barnett means the word, Milosevic would not now be hesitating between taking it and the unpalatable alternative of exposing his troops and civilian population to more bombing, stepped up after its "detuning" over the past few days, and in the longer term of calling what he cannot know is a bluff that Nato could yet mount a ground invasion against weakened Serb resistance.

A late refinement of the critics' analysis is that Milosevic only submitted last week to the diplomatic offensive because he began to take the latter threat seriously, and that shows the critics were right all along to deride the idea that the war could be won by air power alone. Simultaneously, some add that in this Milosevic was wrong, because Nato would never agree to such a ground operation. It is, of course, hard for anyone outside the Nato command bunkers to know for certain whether there is an element of bluff in the threat, repeated solemnly yesterday by Mr Robertson, to keep "all options" open, and whether anyone but the British really believes in a ground strategy as a last resort. All that can be said is that British politicians and officials most closely in touch with Washington appear convinced that President Clinton, however slowly, had come to the same conclusion as they have.

This does not mean that if the Serbian prevarication is more than a temporary problem, there would be no difficulties in keeping the alliance together. There would be siren voices in some of the more anxious and weary Nato countries pressing for a few more concessions here and there to Milosevic in order to get it over with. There would be arguments in favour of doing more to keep the Russians in the fold. But as the Serbian leader must know, the British Government, in particular, has faced and surmounted such difficulties before.

The preliminary signs last night both in Bonn, where the G8 foreign ministers were meeting, and in Belgrade, are that implementation is now nearer than it looked on Sunday night. But the fact that Tony Blair, whose leadership role in Europe has strengthened visibly during the war, has refused to let his guard down, is as suggestive to Milosevic as to his Nato allies that there is no more room for compromise. Nothing, perhaps, more underlined his determination than his refusal to join in premature exultation last week.