Leading article: Misguided missiles

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR will have learnt one lesson last week: you can't avert a humanitarian disaster without spilling innocent blood. The killing of Albanian refugees by Nato warplanes in Kosovo must be seen in context. Accidents happen in the fog and fury of war. It is obviously difficult to distinguish between a truck and a tractor while flying an F-16 at 15,000 feet. Let us, therefore, maintain a sense of proportion. Those who oppose the Clinton-Blair crusade must not yield to facile moralising. The bombing of the refugees was appalling but it was not deliberately evil. Ethnic cleansing is deliberately evil; pilot error is not. We still do not know how many Albanians were killed by their Nato saviours last week, or how many planes were involved, but we do know that what happened was inevitable. Nato has gone out of its way to avoid collateral damage. We are, happily, far more fastidious today than we were in the Second World War, when the allied raids on Hamburg and Berlin and Dresden were intended to kill as many women and children as possible; then, we faced a uniquely wicked enemy. Milosovic is a very bad man, but - let it be said again and again - he is no Hitler.

Nor is this a war of national survival. Milosevic poses no threat to us and has no extra-territorial ambitions: for good or ill, Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia. Of course, to make such points is to risk being charged with indifference to suffering, if not with treason. Those who support the Nato action find it difficult to accept that those who do not are also moved by a concern for human life and a contempt for Milosevic. Everyone is expected to be "on message", to the point where independent reporting from Belgrade earns the displeasure of the Government. Such a response suggests that uncertainty lurks behind the calm exterior of Tony Blair and Robin Cook; that, for all the military expertise of Nato, no one is sure how to proceed. The bombing may continue for months. So far, its only effect has been to make Milosevic popular with those Serbs who, until a month ago, despised him. Among the gullible the war has made a hero of a monster.

What Tony Blair describes as "the first progressives' war" - a peculiarly asinine phrase from a man who has shown such moderation, statesmanship and courage in seeking to end the war in Ireland - has aggravated, not alleviated, the humanitarian disaster in the Balkans. In the year before Nato struck, some 2,000 people died in the civil war in Kosovo. Now many more are likely to follow them. Under cover of Nato bombs more than half a million Albanians have been forced from their homes, and 20,000 have crossed borders in an attempt to find safety since Wednesday. The situation on the ground will get worse.

But aggressive pessimism is as inappropriate as bland optimism. As we noted last week, Nato cannot be seen to fail in this war. As Mr Blair continues to disallow the possibility of ground troops, diplomacy remains the best hope. Perhaps it will be possible, after some particularly impressive display of smart bombing (incinerating a convoy of Serbian trucks might do the trick), to declare victory, and to begin negotiations again with Milosevic. His status as a war criminal will complicate matters, but that need not be an insuperable problem to the agile minds of the Foreign Office and the State Department. It is unlikely that Clinton and Blair will get what they want: peace and goodwill among all the peoples of former Yugoslavia. The implacable hatreds of the region are not going to be tamed by "the first progressives' war". The poor bloody Albanians will continue to suffer hideously, and so, to a lesser extent, will the Serbs. The civil war will eventually resolve itself. Nato must extract itself with as much honour as it can muster. All it is doing now is to prolong the agony and deepen the injustice. The Prime Minister wants to end the obscene suffering of the Kosovar Albanians. So do we. All the same, the war that he has taken us into is inept, cowardly and dishonest.