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Leading Article: Nato needs a fig leaf

TO HAVE STARTED a war without clear or achievable military aims was irresponsible; to have created so many refugees in the name of humanitarianism is a terrible irony. It is a moral imperative that the war should be brought to an end as swiftly as possible.

Foolish as Nato's actions have hitherto been, however, it is in no one's interests that Nato should be defeated. The cause of peace will not be served if the world's greatest military alliance - which served Europe so well for nearly half a century in its confrontation with Soviet totalitarianism - should be humiliated by a semi-dictator of a small and poor Balkan state, who has an appalling record of brutality and petty aggrandisement. Our enemies would know they had no reason to fear us: and a clear-cut victory for Slobodan Milosevic would be a tyrant's charter.

While peace is desirable, then, it is not desirable at any price. But escalation to a full-scale ground war is not desirable either. At the moment public opinion seems to support such an escalation, but the mood would quickly change once the hi-tech computer-screen war changed to a foot-slog-and-body-bag war. Moral fervour would not long outlast the news of the first casualties. Another solution must be sought, therefore. It is no good demanding the unconditional surrender of Milosevic if the will to give him no other alternative does not exist. An honourable pretext for ending the war is thus what we need. Continuing to bomb Serbia until it has no infrastructure left is not an ethically defensible policy. Milosevic may be a very bad man, but we should remind ourselves that the Serbian population is no less entitled to live than any other.

Some concession should be sought from Milosevic that could plausibly be attributed to the bombing. Militarily ineffective as it has so far proved to be - not by any means for the first time in history - no Serb can view with equanimity the destruction of his country that it is bringing about, or could wish it to continue for very much longer. Some pretext for peace could surely now be invented that would conceal the defeat suffered by both sides. If the leader of the moderate Kosovar Albanians, Ibrahim Rugova, really did meet Milosevic last week in Belgrade, for example, a deal involving him might be struck. This would be preferable in any case to the domination of an independent Kosovo by the KLA, which scarcely existed a short time ago, whose leadership is shadowy and ruthless, and whose popularity is unknown and has never been tested democratically. It is in the nature of such organisations to terrorise the population they claim to liberate.

Our responsibilities will not be over once compromise is reached and bombs stop falling. The hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians who have fled their homes will need to be repatriated in decent and humane conditions. Since we did so much to cause their displacement in the first place, we have a genuine moral obligation to assist them financially. This will be a much truer sign of the Government's commitment to an ethical foreign policy than its willingness to bomb Belgrade in a fit of moral outrage, however genuine it may have been at the time. It is deeply reprehensible of the Government to have incurred this moral obligation at the expense of the British taxpayer to no discernible end.

Nor is this the end to the responsibilities created by the intemperate bombing of Serbia. Any agreement with Milosevic on the basis of a concession on his part, if it is not to be too obviously a fig leaf to cover a Nato defeat, will have to be backed up by the threat of genuine force, including a land invasion, if he reneges on it as is his wont. Next time, in other words, Nato's action will have to be for real, not the sham it has been this time.

The Government should by now have learnt several lessons. The first is that, even in the information age, wars cannot be won by technological whizzes and bangs alone. The second is that moral outrage is not a sufficient guide to foreign policy. The third is that the entirely predictable results of its actions create obligations which, if met, are extremely expensive. So far, the Government has given us neither war nor peace with honour.