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Nato in denial?

Mick Hume on the alliance's refusal to take responsibility for its actions in Yugoslavia

Expressing regret over the farcical bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea came quickly to the real point of his remarks. Responsibility for the crisis in Kosovo, he made clear, lay with one man alone: President Milosevic of Yugoslavia.

A couple of weeks earlier, questioned as to how NATO could justify the extraordinary decision to bomb Serbia's equivalent of Television Centre, prime minister Tony Blair responded that television stations were part of 'the apparatus of dictatorship and power of Milosevic', and that, in any case, 'responsibility for all aspects of NATO's campaign' rests with the Yugoslav president.

Leave aside for the moment the minor issues of what Chinese embassy staff in Belgrade had to do with the Kosovo crisis, or exactly what part the 27-year old make-up girl buried under the Belgrade rubble played in 'the apparatus of dictatorship'. The telling point was the refusal of Shea or Blair to accept responsibility for the consequences of NATO's actions. If you have missed the daily Ministry of Defence press briefings since the air strikes began, here is a summary of what has been said by assorted ministers and officers of the Crown:

'Good morning. NATO is responsible for nothing. We are not at war with the Serbs. We have not precipitated any humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. It is not our responsibility to look after refugees. And we cannot be blamed for killing civilians by bombing cities or trains or refugee convoys or television stations.'

The flipside of this argument is that Slobodan Milosevic, small dictator of a crippled state, with a record no better or worse than many of his neighbours (Franjo Tudjman's Croatia and NATO ally Turkey for two), is, of course, responsible for everything.

Cast your minds back to the start of the current conflict. Before NATO launched its air strikes, no inter-national agency had declared a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo. Immediately after NATO's air war against the Serbs began, just such a disaster began unfolding on our television screens. Logic might suggest that there was some relationship between the bomb blasts and the sudden shattering of refugees' lives. But no; as defence secretary George Robertson declared on 30 March, NATO was 'quite clear where the blame lies: the responsibility for this terrible humanitarian crisis lies squarely on Milosevic's shoulders'.

A few days later, when the Yugoslav authorities took Western journalists to residential areas of Kosovo's capital Pristina, which had been flattened by bombing raids, NATO spokesmen suggested that the Serbs must have done it themselves. (Reporting from amid the rubble, John Simpson of the BBC seemed unaware that he had been duped again.) NATO later conceded only that a bomb might have been 'seduced' off target. And when journalists asked NATO commander General Wesley Clark if he intended to drop food relief to the refugees inside Kosovo, whose plight has featured so prominently in justifications for the war, he retorted that this was another job for Slobba's shoulders. 'Our view is that frankly, this is a problem that's been caused by President Milosevic', said General Clark. 'He needs to address this problem.'

NATO's efforts to avoid taking responsibility for anything came to a head around the attack on two convoys of refugees outside Djakovica in western Kosovo on 14 April, which left 70-plus reported dead. A NATO spokesman first blamed the Serbs for 'using today's NATO action as a cover for their own unprovoked attack on a civilian convoy'. The next day, as NATO conceded that its planes had in fact bombed one civilian convoy, Blair insisted that this 'should not make us flinch from placing responsibility for this conflict squarely on the shoulders of Milosevic'.

Days later, as NATO finally had to admit that its planes had attacked both civilian convoys, US airforce brigadier general Dan Leaf would still only allow for the 'possibility that civilian-type vehicles were struck and there may have been civil personnel harmed. We cannot determine that clearly'. Leaf also re-raised the suggestion that the Serbs had machine-gunned and grenaded the refugees themselves, an allegation for which nobody had been able to produce any evidence over the week since the attack.

'Where NATO is responsible, we say so', claimed Tony Blair's press secretary Alastair Campbell, in a letter published in the press on 6 May. He then conceded that, yes, NATO was responsible for bombing a bus on a bridge near Luzane; but no, he would not admit 'Serb claims' about the number of dead, or indeed about the fact that it was a civilian bus at all.

Is there, as they say, a pattern of pathological behaviour emerging here? These days we are used to hearing about inadequate people who are 'in denial', or refusing to take any responsibility for their actions. It is, however, of a slightly different order to hear the leaders of the Western world adopting such a mindset in the middle of a major war.

But then, this war is different. It is a crusade. And crusaders who carry the sword of (self-) righteousness need carry none of the blame. As Tony Blair has repeatedly made clear, NATO's war against the Serbs is 'a battle between Good and Evil, between civilisation and barbarity'.

When you are engaged in such a worthy crusade rather than just another grubby little war, the normal rules need not apply. The righteous are always right, the wicked are always in the wrong. If this is an epic struggle between Good and Evil, with Milosevic filling the role of Hitler, it follows that NATO leaders are a force for Good around the world. And when it comes to allotting responsibility, they ask, what more do we need to know than that?

The reason why NATO has had so much difficulty accepting responsibility for civilian deaths caused while bombing refugee convoys is not just that its planes drop their bombs from a great height. It is because NATO believes it is dropping its cluster bombs and Cruise missiles from the moral high ground. From that rarefied vantage point, looking down on the rest, Mr Blair and his ministers honestly cannot see how they could be blamed for anything.

If anything goes in pursuit of a Good Cause, then Blair's 'humanitarian' war starts to look even more dangerous than old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. But no doubt that kind of talk is just...irresponsible.

Defence secretary George Robertson and his blame-free shoulders

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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