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25 March 1999

Blowing up the Kosovo crisis

For the first time in 50 years NATO is at war. What for, asks LM editor Mick Hume?

'We are not at war with the Serbs', the British and American governments assure us, as they rain down bombs, Cruise missiles and threats of worse to come on their non-enemies in Belgrade. I only know I would not like to be on the receiving end when a 'real' war starts.

Of course it is war, and an historic one at that. For the first time the NATO alliance, ostensibly a defensive creature of the Cold War, has launched a hot war against a sovereign state in Europe, in contravention of both the UN charter and NATO's own founding principles.

Why? Every time you turn on the television news, it seems that the excuse for the use of force offered by Washington and Whitehall has changed again. A cynic might almost think they were making it up as they go along.

First the air strikes were supposed to force President Milosevic to accept the West's plans for a settlement in Kosovo (which is an interesting interpretation of the term 'peace agreement'). Then Bill Clinton and Tony Blair suddenly forgot about that, and claimed that NATO's unprecedented use of force against Serbia was necessary to stop the 'humanitarian disaster' in Kosovo.

Yet there is nothing unique or very unusual about events in Kosovo. A strongarm regime has launched a ruthless campaign against armed separatists (the KLA - Kosovo Liberation Army), and many civilians have had to flee the fighting. It is a pattern that has been repeated on countless occasions around the world over the past 50 years, from Israel to Northern Ireland, without NATO feeling any need to intervene. Indeed one NATO ally, Turkey, is itself engaged in a long and bloody campaign to crush Kurdish rebels, without incurring so much as a slapped wrist from the USA or Britain.

No international agency declared a 'humanitarian disaster' in Kosovo before the NATO air strikes began. The situation there is obviously tragic, but that is no excuse for exaggerating it in order to justify starting an international war. As some astute commentators have pointed out, if anything is likely to provoke a humanitarian disaster in Kosovo, it is the NATO attacks on Serbia. Yet there sit the self-righteous Clinton and Blair, justifying their war as an attempt to avert the very tragedy which it may well bring about.

None of this was even debated in Britain before Blair pressed the button. In the age of New Labour and consensus politics, one does not argue about little matters like a European war. The prime minister made a desultory statement about the military campaign in the House of Commons, there were some half-hearted 'hear-hears' from MPs, then they all rushed off to watch it on the television - the real place where politics happens today. Even then, those waiting for the government to be asked some serious questions about its Kosovo adventure had better not have been holding their breath.

But we don't really have to ask any questions or be informed about Kosovo, do we? We have been fed all that we need to know in easily digestible capsules: the Serbs are about to commit genocide, Milosevic is like Hitler, not to bomb them would be appeasement. Such lazy references to the Second World War invoke the moral absolutes of the modern age. Once the Serbs have been demonised as the new Nazis, as they were so successfully during the Bosnian civil war, then the world decrees that they deserve all they get, and anybody who questions that risks being accused of 'Holocaust denial'.

Behind the emotive sloganising, it should be clear that NATO leaders have not gone to war over events in Kosovo. They have never shown any interest in or knowledge of the ethnic Albanians of that far-flung province. Their true concerns are much closer to home. As President Clinton admitted in his latest shift of tack, they launched the air strikes against Serbia in order to preserve the credibility of NATO - otherwise known as the global authority of the governments of the USA, Britain and their Western allies.

For Clinton this is another Hollywood war, giving him the opportunity to play the hero on the world stage at a time when his name is mud at home (41 of the 100 US senators voted against the air strikes motion). After Saving Private Ryan comes 'Saving President Clinton', shot exclusively on location in Serbia and Iraq, starring Tomahawk Cruise and countless corpsing extras.

The attitude of Britain's New Labour government is even worse, a repulsive cocktail of gung-ho political correctness and ignorant Little Englandism. Deputy premier John Prescott used all of his Balkan expertise to tell the Commons why they had to send in the bombers to stop 'Mr Missa. Milo. Milla. Milosoffovic'. Perhaps he should discuss these matters with the Sky News 'military expert', who talked about shooting down 'Iraqi jets' over Kosovo. Well, they're all the same, aren't they?

For his part, 'Bomber' Blair seems to relish every air strike, looking down on the world from his missile silo on the moral highground. He not only bought, but has now fired, Britain's first-ever Cruise missiles; eat your heart out, Maggie. Blair's ethical foreign policy is spinning into a kind of out-of-control gunboat diplomacy, where the assumption that something-must-be-done comes first and you worry about explaining the causes and dealing with the consequences later.

So, must something be done? It is hard to offer pat solutions to a situation like Kosovo. But one thing we must insist upon is that NATO air strikes and invasions can only make matters worse, by internationalising the conflict and exacerbating local tensions. 'Nothing' would be far preferable to this.

Everybody likes to go on about 'the Balkan problem'. Yet they seem strangely averse to trying a Balkan solution. It is high time we heard from the peoples of the entire region about what kind of Balkan settlement they want - and a lot less from the leaders of the Western world about who they want to bomb next.

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