Leading Article: A bomb too far

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The Independent Online
ROBIN COOK said yesterday that it was one of the tragic accidents of war, but the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was more than that. It was an act of monumental incompetence in a war that has been characterised from the start by military bungling and political cowardice - or, in the case of Tony Blair, political recklessness. This war began in folly, it has proceeded in folly, and now, following the G8 meeting on Thursday, looks as though it may end not in outright victory for Nato but in a peace settlement with Slobodan Milosevic. However humiliating, a peace deal is better than a war that has aggravated the very evil it sought to defeat.

The bombing of the embassy, while shocking, should not have surprised us unduly, however. Most of Nato's bombs have found their targets, but too many have not. Intelligence sources must have known that the Chinese embassy was dangerously close to its Friday night targets, and that the embassy staff were living as well as working there. There could have been few more sensitive sites. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, whose support Western leaders decided last week they needed if they were to make their new seven-point peace plan acceptable to Russia. As a permanent member, China has veto rights on any UN decision. Until now the assumption was that Peking would not exercise it. It is true that the Chinese government has been especially hostile to the Nato action in Yugoslavia; with its own troops occupying Tibet, it does not relish the precedent of the West intervening inside other people's national boundaries. Chinese public opinion is behind its government; the Chinese press depicts President Clinton with a Hitler moustache and points out that the words Nato and Nazi are similar in spelling.

But China usually exercises its veto only when its national interests are directly threatened. It was assumed that the Russians could persuade the Chinese to, at least, stay silent in the Security Council. Friday night's bombs may have shattered more than an embassy building. And the longer the bombing continues, the more complicated things will become. The bombs have resolved nothing. As we predicted at the beginning of this war, they have failed utterly in their original intention of preventing a humanitarian disaster. Nato has little credibility left. There can be no justification for the use of cluster bombs, and none for hitting TV stations, electricity plants and other targets that will deprive the ordinary people of Serbia food, fuel and heat. Now Nato has had to resort to non-violent measures, like the oil embargo and the diplomatic moves to bring Russia on side, which ought to have been tried before the bombers were scrambled.

Mr Blair has not come well out of all this. His government last week passed the second anniversary of its arrival in office. Such a milestone ought to have been the occasion for a measured review of his not inconsiderable achievements. His party, though it lost seats in the local elections, retained a percentage of the vote which was enviable for this point in the lifetime of a parliament. His policy in Northern Ireland, though a settlement has proved elusive, maintains the peace, which is no small accomplishment. His handling of Europe has, with a few exceptions, proved sure-footed. He has followed through on devolution, though we have yet to see how willing he will prove to cede control behind the scenes. His approach to welfare reform seems generally sound. But any review of the comparative successes of his first two years must now be overshadowed by the way he has propelled the country into what may prove its greatest foreign policy blunder since Suez.

Mr Blair has been a hawk among the Western leaders. Bill Clinton has constantly cast one eye back to a reluctant Congress, and an American public among which what little support there ever was for ground troops has fallen away. The German Chancellor has hesitated too, as public opinion becomes increasingly hostile to the bombing. Only Mr Blair's hawkishness seems to have increased as the conflict has progressed. The day before the embassy bombs fell his vocabulary got even stronger; he made repeated comparisons to "Hitler's evil regime" and talked of Victory in Europe Day and the challenge our parents' generation faced. He could not, he later said, see a future for Serbia under Milosevic - against whom he said there was "serious evidence" of war crimes. "I'm not sitting down and dealing with Milosevic," he added.

All this is an unwarranted gamble. Important differences of detail remained unresolved in the G8's document of "seven agreed principles". It is possible of course that Milosevic might back down; if so it will probably be Russian diplomacy which is accorded the success. A second option is that Milosevic might remain defiant, deciding like Saddam Hussein, that a military defeat could bring him domestic political victory; for the hawks of Nato that might secure the reverse - military victory but political defeat. Most likely now is some kind of fudge. That's where we are after six weeks of bombing, God knows how many deaths and the creation of almost a million refugees. The war should never have been launched, as we have argued from the start. Serbia, of course, cannot win in all this, but it is not inconceivable that the hawks of Nato, Mr Blair foremost among them, might yet lose.