War In The Balkans: The party agrees a line, but no troops

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The Independent Online
WHEN LEADERS of Nato's 19 member-states left Washington yesterday evening, they could look back on a summit that was far from the triumphant showcase for the alliance that was planned more than a year ago.

But neither, thanks to some tight American summit- management, was it the disputatious talking-shop some had feared. If the goal was to authorise a significant advance in the military operation in Kosovo, it was a qualified failure. If, however, it was the more modest objective of consolidating alliance unity around the air campaign and avoiding a split, the summit was almost successful.

The two controversies that dominated the approach to the summit - ground troops and the eleventh-hour Yugoslav- Russia proposal - were never allowed to reach the agenda. The quarrel about ground troops - whether, when and under what conditions they should be deployed - had threatened to burst into the open after statements from the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary implying an early ground campaign.

By Saturday, day two of the summit, mentions of ground troops were relegated to hallway discussions with reporters, and by yesterday, Tony Blair told the top American talkshow, NBC's Meet the Press, that he did not want to talk about ground troops at all, that the priority was to increase the air campaign. Madeleine Albright the US Secretary of State, stated the party line: "There was really genuine support for an intensified air campaign."

While "intensifying the air campaign" may have been the only strategy all 19 Nato countries could agree on, there was another rationale. Calling the question of ground troops a "pseudo debate", the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, said: "The more we talk about ground troops, the more it may seem that the air campaign is not working." In other words, any change smacked of an admission of failure, and Slobodan Milosevic should not be given the idea that alliance strategy was failing.

Rationalising the "air campaign first" strategy in more detail than at any time since operation Allied Force began, President Bill Clinton drew a contrast with the Gulf War, saying that there the air campaign had lasted 44 days before ground troops were deployed, "and the land was flatter, the targets were clearer, the weather was better".

Angrily rebutting a suggestion that the operation was drifting, he said two things were needed: "One, vigorous execution, and, two, patience." To think air power could stop ethnic cleansing was unrealistic. "You cannot take every Serbian body and uniform on the ground in Kosovo and extract them from Kosovo and put them back in Serbia. That, I think, is self-evident to everyone."

But he also elaborated on Nato's earlier objective of forcing President Milosevic to withdraw Serbian forces from Kosovo, saying: "We will either break down his military capacity to retain control over Kosovo, or the price of staying there will be far greater than the perceived benefits."

Earlier, the United States, as summit host, had pre-empted another potential source of division by deflecting a suggestion by the Russian special envoy on Kosovo, Viktor Chernomyrdin, that he fly to Washington during the summit to deliver in person Mr Milosevic's acceptance of an unarmed international force in Kosovo. The Yugoslav President's offer was "inadequate", Nato agreed, and Moscow did not press the idea of a flying visit. Friday saw the first and last mention of the Yugoslav-Russia proposal.

Almost all Nato leaders, however, stressed the necessity of involving Russia in any final settlement. "There can be no lasting peace without Russia," said Mr Schroder, and moves were afoot behind the scenes to pursue Russian mediation.

Mr Chernomyrdin could meet Nato representatives in Europe this week, and the Canadian Foreign Minister, Lloyd Axworthy, is to visit Moscow as early as today.

The summit agreed two operational advances. The Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Wesley Clark, has been given expanded authority to select targets for air strikes. He does not have a completely free rein, having to choose from a pre-selected list, but the much-derided war by committee that entailed 19 leaders agreeing to individual targets has been abandoned.

The other advance is a de facto security guarantee extended by Nato to the frontline states around Yugoslavia for the duration of the conflict. This formalises Nato threats of tough action if Yugoslavia were to try to invade or overthrow the regimes in Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro.

The one open dispute concerned the proposal for a Nato naval blockade to prevent Yugoslavia receiving fuel through Montenegro. By yesterday evening, however, the view was growing that Russia - a big oil supplier to Yugoslavia - might comply voluntarily.