Leading Article: Worse than a mistake

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THE DEATH of as many as 100 Albanian villagers in a Nato bombing raid on southern Kosovo may give Mr Blair pause, but it seems unlikely. Nothing so far has dented his Churchillian resolve. He will not rest, he has told us, until good has triumphed over evil. There will be setbacks along the way, to be sure, but "those who want a war that is perfect, with no mistakes, no errors, no civilians hurt, are not realistic about war". Let us be realistic, then. Nato's latest attack on civilians was a mistake, but it was an inevitable one. It is what happens when airmen are required to launch attacks from 15,000 feet. Perhaps, as Nato says, the target was "legitimate" and perhaps cluster bombs were not used. Nato spokesmen do not deliberately lie. Nevertheless, from the evidence so far available, what happened on Thursday night in Korisa borders on the criminal. That much, indeed, may be said about any action in this conflict: Nato's war against Serbia contravenes international law.

The illegality of the war is one reason why this newspaper has opposed it from the start. There are other, equally pressing reasons. On 28 March, four days after the first wave of bombers went in, we wrote that no matter how bad things were in Kosovo, Nato's action would make them worse: the bombing would serve as a cover for death squads; the deployment of ground troops, should it occur, would sacrifice good lives in the name of bad policies. We pledged our support for British servicemen, but at the same time we insisted that such support did not exempt politicians from condemnation.

The Prime Minister does not like to be condemned. Even mild criticism agitates him. Last week, after Michael Howard had spoken of the "gross incompetence" of the Chinese embassy bombing, Mr Blair accused the Opposition - and by implication all those who are against the war - of undermining the morale of the armed services. It can't be long before he starts to tell us that careless talk costs lives. For there is an element of moral blackmail as well as hysteria in the Prime Minister's words. He would like to silence criticism by suggesting, however obliquely, that it puts the lives of British servicemen at risk: after all, demoralised soldiers and airmen are more vulnerable than those who are cheerful and confident. In fact, the people whose lives are seriously at risk at the moment are the Albanians and the Serbs.

Not that we are impressed by Mr Howard's attack on the Government. The Tories have all along supported the bombing: they have backed the Government's aims and its means. They knew, as we all knew, that smart bombs would kill civilians and that the wrong targets would be hit. It is much too late for Mr Howard and the Tories to become scrupulous, far less contemptuous of Mr Blair's running of the war (not, incidentally, that Mr Blair has much to do with the running of what is an American show). All Mr Howard is doing now is to make political capital out of squalid tragedy. It may be what he is paid to do as an Opposition politician, but it would be foolish to take anything he says about this war seriously.

It would be foolish, too, and disgusting, for opponents of the war to yield to moral triumphalism. Many good people support this war. They believe that it is a just response to Milosevic's abominable cruelty to the Kosovar Albanians. We do not. We believe that Milosevic's worst excesses in Kosovo have been made possible by this war; that a war begun to avert a human catastrophe has in fact created a human catastrophe. Milosevic alone is guilty of the crime of ethnic cleansing, but Nato has acted as his enabler. Today, however, the emphasis is on Nato's victims, not on Milosevic's. Last week, by cruel irony, Mr Blair accused the BBC of ignoring the plight of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. They won't be this week, Prime Minister.