This war may have been wrong, but we must win it

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WHAT FOLLOWS is part forecast, part wishful thinking about Nato's mission in Kosovo. The best place to start is with the character of Tony Blair. Suddenly we see the passionate side of the Prime Minister. For him, the callous, murderous expulsion of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo is an outrage which, rightly, fills his soul with repugnance.

Few things in politics, I believe, have ever affected him in this way.

In the case of other weighty matters, such as whether to join the euro; what to do about disability benefits; how to bring peace to Northern Ireland - all these Mr. Blair sees as essentially technical problems requiring competence rather than fervour. The task is to find a solution which improves the existing state of affairs and which yields, at the same time, a political dividend. Compromise a bit? Ask a leading Conservative politician to help? Consult focus groups? Certainly, if that is what is required.

Kosovo is different. The Prime Minister is behaving like a person who thinks that he knows what is the morally right thing to do, but fears that he will fall short and, so, he deliberately places himself in a position from which there can be no retreat without a very substantial loss of face.

His statements, of course, are quite unambiguous. In Albania last Tuesday, Mr Blair said: "We have seen scenes of terror and murder... This is not a battle by Nato for territory; it is a battle for the values of civilisation and democracy everywhere... We bring justice and hope to the people here... they are our cause, and we must not, and we will not, let them down... Our promise to all of you is that you shall return in peace to the land that is yours."

Moreover, the Prime Minister visits the region so often that he, of all people, has started to miss the weekly meetings of the Cabinet, supposedly the solemn forum from which all political power is exercised. Why? Because, we are told: "There is a war on." Indeed there is, though in Downing Street it would be more accurate to call it a crusade - and none the worse for that.

Suppose, as is likely, that Serb forces in Kosovo fail to weaken sufficiently for Nato troops to be sent in without a qualm before winter arrives. In the high summer, we may find ourselves in a situation where it is unclear whether the Serbs are nearly beaten or whether they could still offer stout resistance. Perhaps President Milosevic has prepared a trap. We won't know.

Let us also assume that in these circumstances the American position doesn't change: the US will not risk fighting, even against modest opposition. The other Nato members get ready to cut a deal with the Yugoslav leader: even a fudge would do, so long as it could be presented as a success. What would the Prime Minister do then? How would he free himself from his own trap?

Before I attempt an answer to this question, let me draw your attention to a remarkable coincidence.

On Tuesday morning, both The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian published long first leaders which advocated that Europe - rather than the United States - should now take the lead. The Daily Telegraph asked whether the European allies could muster among themselves a sufficient force to drive Milosevic back, and said the question was finely balanced.

The Guardian argued that there must be a display of European unity and a readiness on the part of Europeans to contribute the absolute maximum to a ground force organised "for offensive action if necessary". The paper quoted with approval a study which proposed that Europe should tell US leaders: "Europe will take primary responsibility for its own security. But we still need your help". This is, I believe, the direction in which the Prime Minister will go, assured as he would be, of bi-partisan support.

He would have to turn first to President Chirac and say roughly this: "If our two countries were to take the lead, each of us old nation states which fought the two world wars of the 20th century together, we could, with the help of our allies, achieve Nato's aims to the letter. We each have well-trained military forces, albeit not very large, at our disposal. We could hope to enlist popular backing for this purpose; the opinion polls are already supportive, and in any case our peoples would respond to clear leadership.

"By the way, we should also try to share command of our combined forces more harmoniously and effectively than we did either in 1914 or 1939, so that we put into the field a single, powerful force."

The beauty of this approach, if the United Kingdom and France could form the noyau dur or hard core of the Nato effort, is that the two governments could then say to each of the allied countries: "Help us in whatever way you can." In particular, the message to Mr Clinton would be that the United States need not do any more than it is already doing, which is massive by any standards. We are not any longer going to ask you, Mr President, to demand the impossible of Congress, nor to take chances with the election campaign of your vice president, Al Gore.

Ideally, Britain and France would try to persuade their Second World War enemies - Germany and Italy - to join them in the leading group. That - even more than the original creation of the Common Market and the re- unification Germany following the end of the Cold War - would draw a line under the ancient divisions of Europe. But probably neither Germany nor Italy, for differing political reasons, would do so.

To Italy the minimum request would be to continue making freely available military airfields and perhaps to contribute some of its specialist mountain troops. Germany would be asked to concentrate on providing logistical support. With the remaining Nato members, the principle would be the same. We, that is Britain and France, won't ask you what you don't want to do, but we believe that what you could contribute without reservations would, in the aggregate, be sufficient.

This is what I think should be done - and what might actually take place. I have to say that I was against the war at the beginning, but I am entirely in favour of succeeding now that we have started.

Kosovo is not, as is sometimes supposed, an American, but rather a European problem.

It falls to us to provide the leadership, the resources and to take the risks. Britain and France must put themselves at the head of the coalition. As I said, this is part forecast, part wishful thinking.

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