Donald Macintyre: A good start, but Mr Blair still needs to watch his step

'The electorate is not going to be overcome by some amnesia about our hospitals, schools or crime'
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The Independent Online

In his statement last night to the hastily recalled House of Commons, Tony Blair did several things. He avoided triumphalist claims about the previous night's strikes in Afghanistan. He repeated that the Allies intended – not the least daunting of tasks – to secure a broad-based, stable government in Kabul. He emphasised the multinational nature of the coalition. And he warned soberly that the campaign would be a "long haul". But it was the tone, as much as the content, that suggested that he has learnt some important lessons from the war in Kosovo.

In emphasising yet again last night that Britain and the US as not waging war against Islam, and that the atrocities of 11 September were an attack on civilised values everywhere – including those of Islam – Blair made an important point, one that needs to be repeated across the Arab and Muslim worlds as frequently as possible to undermine the idea that this is, in Professor Samuel P Huntington's famous phrase, a "clash of civilisations": that point was that the last great military adventure embarked on by the US and the UK, in Kosovo, saw the West pitted in support of Muslims against a Christian Orthodox enemy.

Yet this is not the only way in which the experience of Kosovo is important. For there were lessons much closer to home, and more political with a small "p", from the waging of that war. One is the level of co-ordination at a military level – said by those in the loop, perhaps not surprisingly – to be exemplary in the present case.

But the other is also the level of political and presentational co-ordination. For much of the Kosovo war, despite the ideological affinity between the Clinton administration and the Blairites, this didn't happen. And it matters when the going gets rough. The copybook case is the bombing of a convoy that turned out to be one of refugees and not of Serbian military forces. This was tragic enough, but the damage to morale was compounded by conflicting and misleading accounts, including those from Nato HQ in Brussels. The lesson of that is, first, that the participants need to get their stories straight; and, secondly, that the stories need to be true. There is a famous passage in Harold Nicolson's diaries about Churchill in the Second World War when he gave an unvarnished account in the House of Commons of some appalling reverse; he was listened to with hushed respect and left behind a conviction that, whatever was going wrong, the war was in the best possible hands.

Churchill, in other words, took the country into his confidence as often as he could. He was perhaps uniquely able to have this effect with the bad news as well as with the good; but after the huge mistake of bombing the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the Western governments limited the international damage by being franker and swifter in holding their hands up to it than they had been with the bombed convoy.

The second lesson from Kosovo was that the Prime Minister risked a lot by focusing his attention on the war to the extent that domestic issues became almost wholly eclipsed. It's not too much to say that this may have been one of the reasons that Labour did so badly in the European elections in 1999. As it happened, Mr Blair did find time yesterday to chair a meeting of ministers on public service reform. And even on his hectic travels in the past few weeks he has made a point of staying in touch with less glamorous events at home. But precisely because of his soaring poll ratings and the adulatory press at home and abroad – not least in the US –Mr Blair needs to watch his step. Not only can this change if the war goes wrong; even if it goes right, the electorate is not going to be overcome by some amnesia about the state of hospitals, schools or crime in inner-city estates, about the kind of places where there are no war reporters to record a daily life of misery.

But that brings us neatly to the third, and perhaps most important, of all the lessons from Kosovo. Which is that some connection has to be made between the commitment of Allied, including British, forces to the treacherously inhospitable conditions of Afghanistan and the lives of the electorate in whose name the Government is committing them.

During the Kosovo war, I asked a senior minister why the government did not make more of the fact that standing up to Slobodan Milosevic and ensuring that Kosovo Albanians were able to return to their homes would mean that the burden of coping with refugees here would be lessened; he issued a magisterial rebuke. Such lowly considerations did not figure in the Prime Minister's mind, he insisted. That may well be true. The intensely moral streak, religious even, in Tony Blair's approach to international events isn't much in doubt. We didn't intervene in Sierra Leone primarily for selfish, strategic and economic interests. And it's impressive that we didn't.

But while the moral high ground is a good place to occupy, it can be, at least in the long run, electorally infertile territory. Which is why it matters to complement the depiction of the struggle of good against evil with some considerations of enlightened self-interest. Here there are strong signs that Mr Blair has, indeed, absorbed much of this lesson from Kosovo. Afghanistan has become a kind of symbolic cockpit for all those evils that used to be worth add-ons at grandiose G8 summits but about which the international community did not collectively do very much: drugs, refugees and, most of all, international terrorism.

And here the Prime Minister, last night in the Commons and earlier, has made a striking connection between a far-off land about which we are rapidly learning a great deal more and the ordinary lives of millions of the citizens who returned him to office.

That doesn't mean he has lost his sense of moral purpose. When on Sunday he pointed out that more Britons had been killed at the World Trade Centre than in any other terrorist outrage in this country's history, he went on to say that it would be right to join the coalition even if not one Briton had lost a life. Nevertheless, he has found the language to make the connection between ordinary life in First World Britain and the use of military force against the Taliban and the terrorists that they harbour: prosperity (look at the airline jobs, the loss of stockmarket confidence, the collapse of tourism) and freedom from drugs (90 percent of heroin consumed in the UK comes from Afghanistan) as well as the need to avert a terrorist threat that could in time be turned on the UK as well as on the US.

This may be something strangely opposite to the norm: the moral dressed up as the expedient. But the connections are all the more welcome because they are true: this is exactly how politics has been internationalised. They show, perhaps, a more mature leader than the one who led in Kosovo: one who realises that the leader himself needs not only to be admired, like a player on the stage, but who needs to activate the popular will for the enterprise on which he is engaged. It may seem humdrum. But it isn't cynical. In a democratic society no war should be risked with less.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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