Focus: And now it's all over?

Nato's first humanitarian war has worked, but the next time everything may not be so clear-cut

t was, in its way, an astounding feat of arms. No VCs will be awarded for the 77-day Kosovo air war, and no feats of heroism will linger in the memory, to fill history books and fire schoolboy imaginations. It was a grinding affair, in which the biggest headlines were made by dreadful errors such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

Like all successful wars, it will influence military thinking for generations. For the first time the case has been made that air power - not nuclear bombs, but conventional air power - has won a war on its own. And while the Gulf war was the low-casualty conflict, Kosovo has introduced the seductive concept of war without casualties at all.

In fact, the first assertion is not watertight. Appearances to the contrary, Kosovo is less than perfect proof that air power alone can win a war. In the end, it was the notion of ground war, first as a creeping local reality, then as a distant but terrible threat, that made Slobodan Milosevic blink. In the last couple of weeks, the Kosovo Liberation Army was making inroads from its bases inside Albania, enough to force the Yugoslav army to leave cover and engage it - at last making the Yugoslav forces easy targets for allied planes, operating in the clear skies of early summer. For all its protestations to the contrary, by the end Nato was serving very much as the KLA's air force.

Simultaneously, President Bill Clinton, having previously ruled out an opposed entry into Kosovo, let it be known in Washington that "every option was on the table", as Pentagon planners mused aloud about how to get 200,000 allied troops into the area to invade by August. For the Yugoslav President, the possibility of holding out until winter, and a negotiated settlement with his war-weary opponents, had vanished. And there is one other important difference from normal wars. Nato's campaign was not intended to defeat the Serbs in their own country, merely to force them to stop mistreating a province of whose population Serbs constituted less than 10 per cent before the crisis began. Finally, Mr Milosevic calculated that holy but overwhelmingly Albanian Kosovo simply wasn't worth turning into another Masada.

Like all wars, this war was one of a kind, whose recipe will not work in every circumstance. But many a general and Western politician will be itching to try it. Even more than the Gulf, Kosovo has been a showcase for warfare's third industrial revolution: first spears and bows and arrows; then the guns, superseded in their turn by mechanised armour, now overtaken by smart weapons, drones and the rest, as the command centre moved from the battlefield to the computer screen. With almost unbelievable results.

Yes, the war would have been shorter had the ground threat been brandished early on. Yes, some of the tragic mistakes which killed hundreds of Serb and ethnic Albanian civilians would probably have been avoided had the Nato pilots taken greater risks and flown at lower altitudes. As it was, in the course of 11 weeks, in which 900 aircraft flew 36,000 sorties and 12,000 bombing raids, the alliance lost just two aircraft and not a single life in combat - a tinier proportion than the average Western air force loses in routine training (two Apache helicopter crewmen died this way in Albania). Nato destroyed a quarter of Belgrade's tanks and planes and a third of its artillery pieces. By Mr Milosevic's admission, 462 Yugoslav soldiers died, although Nato puts the figure far higher.

The prospect is of more of the same. Kosovo has shown that America and its main allies have a technological advantage which can only increase. "The bombs and missiles will get even smarter and deadlier," says Anatole Lieven of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, "while the electronic wizardry that goes into them can be countered only by equal wizardry, beyond the reach of all but a very few countries - and, with the exception of Japan, none of them outside Nato." And herein may lie the real "Kosovo effect": not so much on the conduct of wars, but on the decision to go to war in the first place.

More than any recent war, Kosovo was conceived as an extension of diplomacy, another notch in the escalation of pressure against Slobodan Milosevic. Now that negotiation by cruise missile has been proved to work, Nato itself could come under pressure from human rights groups and others to so the same thing elsewhere to prevent manifest injustices; not only in its European backyard, but in the Middle East, Africa - or even, potentially most perilous of all, in Russia's backyard of the Caucasus and TransCaucasia. The next tinpot dictator who terrorises a neighbouring country or a section of his own people - why not give him the Milosevic treatment? No matter that bombing might not be much use to prevent another Rwandan genocide (in Kosovo the air strikes undoubtedly brought about an increase in the atrocities they were meant to prevent): the risks are non-existent and the cause is just.

Which leads back to what may be the most profound diplomatic legacy left by Kosovo, obvious even before the first missiles struck on 24 March. For all the lofty language about the first war in modern times fought not for national interest but for humanitarian motives (which Kosovo undoubtedly was), it was, and remains, equally true that Nato took international law into its own hands. Only at the end of the day was the United Nations brought into proceedings.

The alliance acted in the name of "the international community", though the only organisation which can lay claim to represent that nebulous entity is by definition the UN. Nato has moved closer to becoming the policeman of globalisation, with a self-granted mandate to impose Western values as and when it sees fit.

In the case of Kosovo, few would dispute that the values brutally trampled by Mr Milosevic were not so much Western but universal. But another time it may be less clear-cut.

Suggested Topics
News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star