'Bomber' Blair's crusade
No matter when it ends, the war against Serbia has already made history. It is a war like no other, not least because those who started it - the British and American governments - have claimed that they are not actually at war at all.
Of course it is war, and a groundbreaking one at that. It is the first time that NATO, ostensibly a defensive creature of the Cold War, has attacked a sovereign state; and the first time that a Labour government has led Britain into a major international conflict, involving democratic socialist air strikes against passenger trains, television transmitters and homes.
In another sense, however, it is true that this is not a war as we have come to understand war over the past 200 years. This time it is obvious that there is no immediate issue of national interest at stake for Britain's rulers. Unlike the Falklands War of 1982, there is no threat to British sovereignty around which the right can rally to the flag. And unlike the Gulf War of 1991, there are no oilfields which the left can claim as evidence of an exploitative 'capitalist war'.
Instead, as prime minister Tony Blair told parliament on Tuesday 13 April, this war is being fought 'for a moral purpose as much as a strategic interest'. Or as he wrote in Newsweek: 'In this conflict we are fighting not for territory but for values. For a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated. For a world where those responsible for such crimes have nowhere to hide.' (19 April)
This unprecedented rationale for going to war has caused considerable confusion, and led to unusual alliances both for and against. The cheerleaders for Blair's war party include leading left wingers like Ken Livingstone and Vanessa Redgrave and the liberal Guardian, while the normally gung-ho Tory MPs, military men and the Daily Mail have more tended to hang back at the edge of the mob.
Blair's Newsweek article, where he set out what he dubbed the 'progressive' case for military action, started a press debate in which the world seemed to be turned on its head. There was Stephen Glover of the Mail and Spectator complaining that, by arguing for humanitarian intervention around the world, 'Tony Blair, new politician and inveterate warrior' would have us 'endlessly at war'. Meanwhile in the Guardian, Hugo Young (while pointing out 'how treacherous the humanitarian course can be'), congratulated Blair for asserting 'a principle that is new and, progressively, admirable: the moral imperative to stop dictators brutally punishing and exterminating national ethnic groups'.
So how are we to make sense of this novel state of affairs, which so powerfully illustrates LM's arguments about the end of the old politics of left and right? Blair is indeed on a moral mission in the Balkans. But it is not about ending 'the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups' or seeking 'to stop dictators'.
There is an inconsistency in the Anglo-American attitude towards repressive regimes, which demonstrates that something else must be going on. President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, who has been singled out as the target of Blair's progressive war, certainly has a grim record of repressing the ethnic Albanian minority within Serbia. But he is no worse than other rulers in the region, most notably Croatian president Franjo Tudjman. In 1995, Tudjman's forces drove around 200 000 Serbs out of their historical Krijina enclave within Croatia - the largest single forced movement of refugees in the entire Yugoslav civil war. Yet nobody in the West called that 'ethnic cleansing', never mind threatening to go to war over it - indeed NATO was busy bombing the Bosnian Serbs at the same time.
The 'moral purpose' for which Blair claims he is fighting this war clearly has little to do with protecting the welfare of the peoples of the region, be they Turkish Kurds or Macedonians. Even Kosovo's Albanians are merely a hapless stage army of televisual victims, whose suffering provides a convenient pretext for war. NATO contemptuously bombed their towns and cities. Then, when the air strikes precipitated an entirely predictable humanitarian crisis, the 'shocked' West rushed in the news crews to capture the refugees' tears.
The real 'moral purpose' of Blair's war is not to be found in the Balkans at all, but back home in Britain. As ever, foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics. The war against the Serbs is primarily about giving Mr Blair's government itself an aura of moral authority and a sense of mission. It is about projecting a self-image of the ethical New Britain bestriding the world. It is a crusade.
Like the medieval originals, the New Labour crusaders seem almost entirely ignorant of who they are off to fight, and why. It is a case of 'insert appropriate enemy here', be it last year's model Saddam Hussein or the 1999 choice, Slobodan Milosevic, a man whose name could have been made up by Sun headline writers. All that matters is finding a suitably ugly infidel against whom they can demonstrate their own righteousness.
At a time when it finds it difficult to forge a moral consensus in British society, and uncertainty dogs issues ranging from genetic engineering to road-building, the government will eagerly seize opportunities to lay down the law about what is Right and what is Wrong on the international stage. It is always easier to draw such a rigid line in the sand in a faraway country of which you know little and care less.
This is what Blair meant when he announced that the war against the Serbs is 'no longer just a military conflict. It is a battle between Good and Evil; between civilisation and barbarity'. Implicit in this statement is that, as a counterpoint to the Evil Milosevic, Blair himself is a force for Good in Britain and around the world. New Labour has appointed itself saviour of civilisation, on a high-minded mission to re-educate the barbarians; 'we are there to alter his behaviour', the ridiculous George Robertson said of Milosevic as NATO stepped up its bombing campaign, as if Her Majesty's secretary of state for defence was a therapist using Cruise missiles instead of a couch.
'Bomber' Blair's crusade is not simply about winning public support; the New Labour government appears to have few problems in that department, at least while the 'opposition' is led by little Willie Hague. New Labour's moral mission is rather about forging a renewed sense of self-confidence within the powerful British elite itself, at a time when traditional sources of authority from the church to the monarchy are losing their grip. At Easter time even the troubled Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, sought to throw in his lot with Blair's new religion, preaching a sermon against the 'crucifixion of Kosovo' in the hope that some of the prime minister's righteousness might rub off on his robes.
The self-flattering image of New Britain which Blair's crusade seeks to endorse is captured by the touching pictures of army officers bottle-feeding Albanian babies, and brushing the hair of little girl refugees separated from their parents. This is a nanny state with a difference, claiming the right to act in loco parentis for all those it deems deserving. Armed with a brick of moral superiority in her handbag, development minister Clare Short can bully Macedonian border officials about not acting like civilised Europeans, displaying what used to be called imperial arrogance but is now considered ethically correct behaviour. And behind her, an army of radical activists, actors, journalists and others have signed on for New Labour's religious war, in search of a cause with which to make them feel better about themselves and purge their souls.
Inevitably it seems, in seeking to find a clear moral purpose in Kosovo today, the new crusaders fall back on drawing rhetorical parallels with the Second World War. The Nazi Holocaust stands as perhaps the most powerful remaining moral absolute in the modern world. That is why government ministers and journalists insist that Milosevic is 'like Hitler', that the Serbs are threatening 'another Holocaust', and that, in the words of foreign secretary Robin Cook, 'NATO was born in the aftermath of the defeat of fascism and genocide in Europe. NATO will not now allow this century to end with a triumph for fascism and genocide'.
In fact, as several more rational commentators pointed out, there can be no sensible comparison between Hitler's Germany and Milosevic's Serbia (see this issue for a detailed discussion of these issues). Yet this kind of 'never again' rhetoric, simplistic to the point of being totally moronic, is now the mainstay of every government war briefing, newspaper headline and TV news broadcast.
What all of this ideological smoke masks is that the new 'progressive' warfare is actually worse than the old-fashioned variety. As a crusade, Blair's war need not be constrained by the conventional rules of realpolitik. Since the end of the West's Cold War with the Soviet Union, the wider geopolitical considerations that might once have checked militaristic impulses are far less important. That was why the New Labour crusaders could be way ahead of the generals in demanding that Milosevic must be crushed. When you are running a grand mission to save the world, you need recognise no restraints. After all, those who proclaim that they have right on their side can do no wrong. All that matters is that Something Must Be Done, and worry about explaining away the consequences later.
The fact that this has been a politically motivated moral crusade, rather than a calculated military operation, helps to explain the out-of-control character of NATO's Balkan adventure, creating the widely received impression that strategy has been made up by NATO leaders as they go along. So it was that, through the first weeks of war, the crusade took on a dynamic of its own, jacking up the military stakes alongside the rhetoric, as the Kosovo Liberation Army was transformed from a proscribed terrorist group into an unofficial member of the NATO alliance, while more and more troops, tanks and aircraft were despatched to the theatre of war. As we go to press, serious questions remain about where all of this will end.
Throughout the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, we have insisted in the face of all the shrill demands for intervention that outside interference is the problem, not the solution, and that more of it can only make things worse. I take no pleasure in the fact that our stand is now being spectacularly vindicated, as NATO's war on what remains of Yugoslavia wreaks havoc across the Balkans.
Way back in December 1991, in an editorial in what was then Living Marxism magazine, I wrote that 'if the West's latest propaganda campaign is pursued to its ultimate conclusion, Serbia may well suffer Iraq's fate of being blown off the map'. That sentence has since been cited by ITN, in the documents supporting its libel case against LM magazine and me, as 'proof' that I am a one-eyed Serbomaniac. I leave it to our readers to judge for themselves.
Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999