What Milosevic needs is a Serbian version of John Humphrys

There is no internal debate, no one points out the gap between the lies he tells and the reality he describes
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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the great myths of the Kosovan war so far has been the legend of Super-Slobba, the Belgrade Machiavelli. According to this story - passed on by grand-standing reporters, hoary commentators and hoarier politicians - Mr Milosevic is a master strategician who has anticipated Nato at every turn, and is now well placed to earn the dishonourable peace he seeks.

First he invites Nato to attack him, knowing that such an assault will forfeit the good will of Russia, China and the United Nations itself. He calculates, rightly, that Western public opinion will not long stand for the sight of civilians being maimed on their behalf. Furthermore, the bombing releases him to clear Kosovo of its majority Albanian population, while the Allies face popular recrimination for allowing it to happen.

Gradually the clamour will force a bovine Nato, caught between its desire to act and its fear of human loss, to the table, where - effectively - it will capitulate, leaving Kosovo (or most of it) to Serbia, and Serbia (all of it) to Milosevic. And we - fools that we are - fell into his cunning trap! Don't it only go to show how dictators can usually outwit democratic politicians - or at least start with a clear advantage?

An advantage illustrated, you might have thought, by two incidents from yesterday. In Britain we woke up to discover, amongst other things, that Nato planes had bombed a place called Aleksinac in Serbia. We could read in our newspapers about a 67-year-old man, Dragan Miladinovic, turned to bloody mincemeat by our bombs. Meanwhile, almost no one in Serbia either knew or - it seems - wanted to know about the 13-year-old boy with the bullet-wound who escaped to Macedonia to tell the tale of a father and mother gunned down in Kosovo by Serb paramilitaries.

This, then, is Milosevic's chief advantage. He is unconstrained; there is no internal debate in Serbia. No one questions whether the world really is as he says it is; no one points out the gap between the lies he tells and the reality he describes.

It is a hell of an advantage. The same kind of advantage, in fact, that the planned economy of North Korea has long held over, say, that of post- war Japan.

But, increasingly since the exodus began, it has become evident that Milosevic's strategy, far from working, has been a catastrophe for him and for his country. He is probably the least successful national leader since Baby Doc Duvalier led Haiti. He has accomplished only one thing in a decade; to remain head of a shrinking, beleaguered, increasingly impoverished nation. A nation, furthermore, to be forever tainted with the charge of genocide.

Consider. A week ago, the big question over here was whether we should continue to take action against Serbia. Today it has become "how can we intensify that action?". In one day pounds 4m quid has been raised for the refugees, and it'll be much more by the time you read this. So much for compassion fatigue!

Last week the UN was making angry noises about Nato. Yesterday UN Secretary General Kofi Annan condemned Serbia's genocide against the Kosovan Albanians. (And I wonder, for God's sake, if this is now good enough for the quibblers?) In Russia, where we thought all the talk had been of "Nato barbarity", the TV stations have for the first time been showing pictures of the refugees and listening to their account of exactly who it was that burned their homes, murdered their husbands and raped their sisters. This is not, presumably, what Mr Milosevic, master tactician, had in mind. The outcry from the rest of the world against Nato's actions has not materialised, though it has been sought assiduously enough.

The Nato allies too have held firm, with only an occasional, teeny wobble on the part of a Portuguese here or an Italian there. Greece, given its geography and history, has behaved admirably and courageously. So when Mr Milosevic, now a born-again son of the Orthodox Church (Why not? It worked for Stalin) launched his Easter cease-fire plan, looking for chinks and divisions, there were none.

He had forgotten that, in the information age, the world would hear the refugees' stories, see videos of the corpses and compare all that with the Slobba version. Then they would brand him a murderer and a liar, and put pressure on their governments not to settle with the Butcher of Belgrade.

Had Milosevic presided over a democracy with a free press, he could never have made this incredible error. He would have been used to his arguments being picked apart in parliament and on television. Alasic Campbelovic would have advised him just how dreadful it would all look on the evening news; John Prezzic about how his own party wouldn't wear it. But poor old Milosevic doesn't have our disadvantages.

True, the first reactions in the West to the sight of those who were to be protected fleeing in great numbers were indeed negative. But since then the realisation of what Milosevic really is has been dawning on ordinary people across Europe and America. As a consequence, the democratic governments of Nato have been cut some slack by their anxious voters.

But there is a lesson in all this for our leaders too. Because the last thing we need right now is a strong dose of counter-propaganda. I do not want to hear George Robertson claiming that the Milosevic truce offer was a "sign of weakness". It was not. It was a ploy to divide the alliance, and it has failed, but it signifies no loss of resolve by the Serbs. I need to be able to trust Mr Robertson's statements, not suspect them.

Nor does Robin Cook need to tell us that, actually, Nato foresaw what has happened - that we knew there would be a spring offensive and a likely exodus. The truth is that we didn't expect Milosevic to do what he has done, for precisely the reasons that now make him the most hated man in this hemisphere. We simply did not believe that he would be so murderously stupid. So say it, Robin.

And Alex Salmond's wrongheaded opposition to Nato action may well be quoted approvingly in Belgrade. But if so, that's not his fault; the only real question is whether or not he's in error. I believe he is, but I don't need to insult the man to argue with him.

So far we have been able to proceed without much jingoism, partly because those who usually go around shouting "traitor", the Tory right, don't much like this war. Well and good; we're better off without them.

In this world only Popes and Today presenters are infallible. People know this. They need to be told the truth about the options, the truth about the failures, the truth about the difficulties.

We don't require any gingering up, oh leaders, just the sense that you believe in what you're doing and that you're doing your best. That'll do.