A powerful Scot prepares for another Nato battle

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The Independent Online

By Kim Sengupta

GEORGE ROBERTSON was described as "the most powerful Scotsman in the world'' when collecting his honorary degree from Dundee University. Now, with the world on the edge of war, the Nato secretary general is playing a crucial part in exercising that power.

In Wednesday's emergency meeting of the Alliance at Brussels, which took the unprecedented step of invoking a clause in its charter that an attack on a member state is an attack on all, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen was an influential voice. In the next few days that voice should remain influential in deciding the extent of the retribution that will follow.

When Lord Robertson left his post of Defence Secretary for Brussels, many saw it as a sinecure for a man whose career in domestic politics was over. He resented the inference and insisted that Nato would have a pivotal role in the new world order. He would not have known, of course, that it would be thrust into that role after such a cataclysm.

Those who know Lord Robertson say he will have a deep sense of foreboding about what is unfolding. During the Kosovo conflict, when he was Defence Secretary, he was pilloried by those opposed to the Nato bombing as a warmonger. Indeed, some of the language he used in attacking the Serbian leadership was bellicose and crude.

But that is too simplistic a view of Lord Robertson. Behind the bullish exterior he stressed in private that he was deeply troubled by the casualties suffered by civilians. He was also hurt by the vehemence of the attacks on him. Whatever the faults of Nato, he held, it was on the side of good against evil. This belief in absolutes is shaped by Robertson's Scottish upbringing as well as his experience in public life.

One of the most seminal events in his life, Lord Robertson says, was what happened at Dunblane Primary School in 1994. His son was a member of one of Thomas Hamilton's boys' clubs and the MP had become deeply suspicious of the man and tried to have him thoroughly investigated.

When Hamilton murdered 16 pupils and their teacher Lord Robertson was intensely affected and remains so. "The feelings are deep and extremely personal,'' he says. "Dunblane was a life experience for me. It leads on to Milosevic and Saddam Hussein. I had the same feelings of frustration. Why do we say there's nothing we can do about it? There is a moral element.

"In the last year of the 20th century there were Yugoslav soldiers putting babies on bayonets, two hours' flying time from Paris. I visited a school in Kosovo where children had been rounded up and killed. I looked at the pictures of the dead children and I thought, 'Not again!'"

George Islay Macneill Robertson's background is one of making definite stands against what he would consider to be deeply evil. His father, grandfather, brother, son and nephew all joined the police force to defend society against predators. And there is much of the policeman in the secretary general's attitude to international affairs.

That this has made him dangerous enemies was brought home when the CIA discovered a plot to assassinate him and General Wesley Clark, the Nato Supreme Commander, during a visit to the Balkans a year after the Kosovo war.

According to American intelligence, the Serbians had planned to shoot down their helicopter with Stinger missiles. When this was revealed, Lord Robertson attempted nonchalance, saying: "We live in a very dangerous world and we must be able to cope with these things."

In one respect Lord Robertson's view of what Nato does has signally failed. He has said: "We are not talking about international do-goodery. This is self-interest. We have to stop these crises before the crisis comes to us. That is what we do."

The lack of intelligence about the attack on America has shown Nato's crisis management, on this occasion, has not succeeded. Lord Robertson will now have to not only repair the damage but redefine the organisation.