Leading Article: Drum-beating will not help Kosovo

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TELEVISION pictures of tanks on village streets, harrowing stories of families split apart by brutal policemen, the bloody evidence of ethnic conflict ... no wonder that the drum is being beaten for foreign intervention in Kosovo. The American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has been vocal and she has been echoed by the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. She talks ominously of the Milosevic regime "paying the price".

This, however, is dangerous language and the British government should think very carefully before associating itself so closely with the American line that all the world is a potential target for military intervention. To stick to President Clinton over Iraq like Brer Rabbit to the Tar Baby is one thing but over Kosovo the British government - pro tem president of the European Union - risks another deep rift between the European powers which would expose, once again, the pretentious talk of a "common" European foreign policy.

Loose talk about intervention also gives an incentive to the Kosovo Albanian insurgents to up the ante - the more Serbs they can kill and the more ground they can claim prior to such an intervention, the better their prospects. There are clear analogies between the situation in Kosovo and that in Yugoslavia as a whole before it broke up. Some experts suggest the lessons from Bosnia are clear: intervene now to prevent major ethnic bloodshed later. They would, however, be more convincing if they also described what kind of arrangement of states and ethnic groupings intervention is intended to create. Look at Bosnia, hanging on as an entity by the skin of the teeth of British and other Nato troops. To say that intervention is about keeping the peace alone will not do. The Albanian majority in Kosovo deserve protection from abuse, to be sure, but do they deserve a landlocked statelet which would be economically unviable? Even the Americans do not contemplate that.

The United States, which already has forces on the ground in the Balkans, in Bosnia and Macedonia, cannot be the universal policeman; once the policeman starts getting shot at (and Serbian passion over Kosovo should not be underestimated or written off as some ploy by Slobodan Milosevic) then he is likely to withdraw.

Mr Milosevic is a cruel opportunist with no vision to offer the Serbs. But he operates in troubled waters. The European Union countries cannot agree on sanctions, let alone military intervention. The Russians are more closely exercised by their ethnic kin in Serbia than they are about Iraq. In such circumstances the very phrase "international community" (much loved by our Foreign Secretary) does not have a great deal of meaning. Britain and the United States and perhaps Germany might make financial sanctions effective in the long run; Russia and Greece are hardly in a position to lend Belgrade money. Such pressure should be applied immediately and tightly but ought not to be accompanied by belligerent promises that might lead the Albanian insurgents to imagine a white knight will come to their rescue.