Parliament: Government rhetoric degraded by seven weeks of bombing

The Sketch
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The Independent Online
I DON'T know what's happening to President Milosevic's war machine but I know that government rhetoric is being degraded day by day. The ignorance and the knowledge go hand in hand. Seven weeks into the war, we have, as far as I'm aware, yet to see a single photograph of a destroyed Serbian tank or a dead Serbian soldier, and yet every week brings another contribution to the growing picture bank of Nato's mistakes, the latest of such enormity that it sounds like something dreamt up in a slivovitz- fuelled fantasy session between Slobodan and his advisers.

This is unfair, naturally; Serbia takes every step to publicise civilian casualties - even, one suspects, arranging for them to take place should it be unexpectedly let down by Nato. At the same time, it will conceal any evidence that bombing is having an effect on its army and police forces. But this is the lie of the terrain Nato finds itself fighting on, and it must somehow adapt to it - the public have incontrovertible evidence of the mistakes, only repeated verbal assurances about the success.

The language is becoming fatigued as a result, used so often it turns brittle. When George Robertson claimed yesterday that "we have had enormous success" with the air campaign there was a loud gibber of disbelief from the Tory back benches, and even the front bench was showing some impatience with the overused formula of "tragic mistakes" and "regrettable errors". The latter, they suggested, could not quite do justice to the latest cock-up - a failure of payload delivery that would be unacceptable from a pizza-delivery boy, let alone from one of the most technologically advanced air forces.

"We go to inordinate lengths to avoid civilian casualties," Mr Robertson said during defence questions, but the lengths apparently do not include flicking through a recent edition of the Belgrade telephone directory. "Are there no maps available?" asked Diane Abbott, her voice dripping with scorn. Mr Robertson had no satisfactory reply so resorted to one of the synthetic argument substitutes, which always show that a minister is struggling. He chose to deploy the "no laughing matter" gambit against Ms Abbott. "Facetious remarks are not proper in these tragic circumstances," he said primly. Ms Abbott might have answered that people were only laughing because otherwise they'd weep.

It was a tetchy session in general, and other sharp questions also provoked Mr Robertson to drop diversionary flares, designed to disrupt opposition targeting. After a sceptical inquiry from Julian Lewis about Labour's plans to cut the Territorial Army, he expressed his disappointment that party political points should be scored at such a time. When Keith Simpson asked whether the Chiefs of Staff had expressed reservations about the air campaign in March, he answered "yes". He didn't use the word, naturally, but it was the only plausible translation of the long, meandering route he took to avoid the word "no". That and the regretful tone in which he noted that Mr Simpson was trying to "drive a wedge between Service chiefs and the Government" (an understandable grunt of outrage here from Tories, who take the view that a sentence ending with a question mark should not be treated as indistinguishable from a Serbian missile).

When regretful accusations of political pettiness or outright treason won't do the trick, then simple abuse is always available. After the admittedly excitable Michael Fabricant had asked about the implications of Kosovo for Army manning levels, Mr Robertson got catty: "I hear the grinding sound of a great military mind at work," he replied. Labour MPs laughed at this, not, I think, because it was witty, but because Mr Robertson had finally delivered some ordnance back at the other side. Not the right target, of course, but then you can't have everything.