We agree on one thing: it's a mess

The relentless propaganda war is trivialising epic suffering, says Felipe Fernndez-Armesto
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Imentioned last week that Yugoslavia has weather, specifically that damp white stuff which makes visibility difficult; I believe the technical term is "cloud". This seems to have nonplussed Nato planners, who have been forced to admit that pilots had perfect conditions for bombing on only one of the first eight days of the campaign against the Serbs. The most sophisticated warplanes in the world need a cloud ceiling of at least 25,000ft and visibility of more than five miles if they are to find their targets without too great a risk of being shot down. Fog, cloud and rain had such a disastrous effect in the first week that the air campaign has neither knocked out Serbia's air defences nor halted atrocities in Kosovo.

"I think right now it is difficult to say that we have prevented one act of brutality," conceded a Pentagon spokesman, Kenneth Bacon. President Clinton is reported to be losing sleep over the Balkan debacle, as well he might. Another embarrassing disclosure is that the Pentagon is running short of air-launched cruise missiles. After a week of air attacks designed to bomb Slobodan Milosevic back to the negotiating table, the US has already used a third of its stock of 150 missiles. Revealingly, someone did check on the numbers before the air war began, and decided against increasing supplies.

This admission lends credibility to the theory that Nato commanders, or their political masters, misjudged President Milosevic's determination not just to hold out but to raise the stakes by creating a vast refugee crisis when he came under fire. It also raises questions about how much weaponry the US and Britain have wasted during their undeclared war on Iraq, which has been going on since just before Christmas. A Baghdad businessman, Jasim Gheilan, described last week how a cruise missile flew through his bathroom window on 17 December and came to rest in his bedroom.

But Iraq is old news. By Thursday the Sun's noisy jingoism - "Bomb bomb bomb: blitz will beat Serbs says Blair" - sounded like the ravings of a madman as doubt and despondency spread across Europe. Cracks in the Nato alliance widened as the French President, Lionel Jospin, told a closed session of socialist deputies that he had not ruled out sending in ground troops. On Friday, under the headline "Kosovo: doubts about Nato strategy", Le Monde quoted a UN warning that refugees streaming into Albania could be menaced by famine within 15 days. In Italy La Repubblica was reporting "a wind of defeat, of confusion, of fear" blowing through the corridors of Washington.

The military has already begun to fight back, letting it be known that Nato leaders authorised air strikes in spite of intelligence warnings that they could not prevent the kind of scenes we are witnessing in Kosovo. "In the Pentagon, in this building, we were not surprised by what Milosevic has done," insisted Mr Bacon. "I think there is historical amnesia here if anyone says they are surprised by this campaign." So a consensus is emerging about how we got into this ghastly mess, which is to say an over- estimation of the usefulness of air power by Nato leaders fearful of the effect at home of a bloody ground conflict.

Unfortunately, there does not yet seem to be much agreement on how we get out of it. Governments and individuals all over Europe and the US are contributing to the relief effort in Albania and Macedonia, horrified by pictures of refugees herded on to trains in a way that recalls Nazi atrocities. Nato leaders have widened their list of targets for air strikes, but warplanes such as the American A10 tankbuster cannot function properly with- out coming within range of Serb surface-to-air missiles. The impotent rage of Bill Clinton, when three American servicemen were seized by the Serbs, demonstrates how little stomach the US has for the nasty realities of war on the ground.

"President Milosevic should make no mistake. The US takes care of its own," declared Mr Clinton, who was nevertheless unable to do much to relieve the plight of the three men. (No matter how sorry one feels for the captured soldiers, by the way, there is something distasteful about the way their appearance on Serb television pushed the refugee crisis off front pages.) Yet opinion polls suggest, in Britain at least, a growing acceptance that the war cannot be won in the air alone.

Ordinary people seem to be less squeamish in this respect than politicians, recognising that Nato's decision to launch a hi-tech air war has minimised Allied casualties at the expense of its objectives.

But an even more dreadful prospect looms: that a continued refusal to send in ground troops may yet hand political and military victory to the vile Mr Milosevic.