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Another Vietnam?

April 9, 1999

The Times (of London)
April 9, 1999

Nato's leaders are treading the path that led to insanity in Vietnam

Another middle way has not worked. The Great Bombing Pretence is
collapsing in Kosovo, as it was bound to collapse. Foreign policy is
revealed not as focus-grouped, glamorous kid-machismo but as something
that kills people.

Nato's bombing adventure in Kosovo looked good for a
day or two. But it was always cynical and ill thought-out. Now, with
generals on both sides of the Atlantic screaming no, the "immaculate
coercion" of the cruise missile war must be followed by the real thing.

In the United States this week I have heard almost no support for Nato's
belief that "bombing alone" would win security for Kosovo's Albanians. I
hear only Lyndon Johnson's notorious Vietnam quote, "I never felt that
this war would be won from the air." Yesterday's New York Times/CBS
poll was clear. Will airstrikes stop President Milosevic? Sixty per cent say
no. Will America send ground troops? Seventy-five per cent say yes.

The
24 American ground attack helicopters being sent to Albania are the first
swallows of an awesome summer. Last October Western diplomats told
Mr Milosevic to give autonomy to Kosovo "or else." He was threatening
no state, and perpetrating no greater evil than those being ignored by the
West in the Caucasus or condoned as a fait accompli in Bosnia. But great
men had said "or else," and the networks were watching. So now it is "or
else."

Europe thinks it goes to war when diplomacy has failed. America thinks it
goes to war when Europe has failed. It is grimly intriguing that the
American pro-war lobby is made up of mostly younger people who do not
remember (or have forgotten) the Vietnam escalation. The issue, once
again, is not the plausibility of the operation but the esteem of Uncle Sam
and confidence in America's military omnipotence. As for whether a
Kosovan war will be anything but an American one, you can hear, read
and talk about this subject from dawn to dusk and not hear a word about
British involvement - beyond the complaint that "America is having to
rescue Europe from another of its messes."

The collapse of "bombing alone" this past fortnight has been spectacular.
The misreading of Mr Milosevic by Nato deserves to rank with Gallipoli
and Pearl Harbor in the annals of military incompetence. Bill Clinton and
Tony Blair could not have been more clear in the objective. It was to "stopthe killing and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and force Milosevic to grant the
region partial autonomy." The bombing has achieved the opposite. By
targeting cities, factories and bridges, and hitting enough houses to kill
civilians (including, of all obscenities, native Kosovans in Pristina), the
bombs have increased support for the regime and made compromise less
likely.

Why leaders pursue strategies that so regularly fail (as this approach
failed
in Iraq) is for psychologists to answer. Mr Milosevic's response was
exactly as predicted. Faced with demands that he accept Nato troops on his
soil and a promise that they would not be imposed, he had to judge
whether that promise was believable. He sensibly concluded that it was
not. He urgently moved his formidable army into Kosovo, where until this
week not a single bomber had been able to find it.

In two weeks the
Yugoslav leader cleared half the province of its Albanian population and,
in grim Balkan fashion, treated perhaps hundreds of Albanian men as
putative KLA fighters and shot them dead. Mr Milosevic is now in a
position to offer a "monitored ceasefire" but with the Kosovo Liberation
Army truly crushed. It defies belief that anyone in London or Washington
thought bombing alone would achieve any other outcome.

Nato spin-doctors are frantically trying to express "surprise" that Mr
Milosevic moved so fast and acted so ruthlessly, and argue that bombing
alone was always a long-term strategy, whatever that means. The
American press hoots derision at such excuses. The Pentagon and the
Ministry of Defence are known to have been sceptics about bombing from
the start. In the nearest Washington comes to an official statement,
"sources" this week admitted that there never was any coherence to
bombing alone. As a State Department official admitted: "We have
accomplished nothing." The policy is dead.

Whether Mr Milosevic would have behaved with the ruthlessness of the
past two weeks without the bombing is, of course, horribly moot. What is
certain is that before the arrival of Madeleine Albright, Robin Cook,
Richard Holbrooke and the world's most powerful bombs, Mr Milosevic
was conducting a guerrilla war with the equally ruthless KLA, a group that
had scant local support until its cause was "adopted" by Britain and others.

The United Nations last week put the Albanian-Serb balance of atrocities
at roughly even. After the arrival of the grandees, Mr Milosevic changed
tack and did what he did in Bosnia. He has killed thousands and displaced
half a million people, while conceding not one inch to Nato. He has
enforced an Albanian diaspora, tweaked Uncle Sam's nose and won the
grudging support of Russia and China, important if there is to be a land
war. In other words, he has done precisely what President Clinton and MrBlair said they would never let happen.

This week Nato's leaders, having learnt nothing, came up with a new
pledge. It was that the displaced people of Kosovo would soon march
home under the banner of a Nato protection force. If I were a Kosovan, I
would give no more weight to such promises than to an offer of autonomy
from Belgrade. The West gave similar pledges under Dayton to displaced
Muslims in Bosnia. They have not been honoured.

We now have "the ground option." The Pentagon is reported to have
considered the invasion of Kosovo so crazy that it refused to draw up
contingency plans. That has had to change under presidential order.
Schemes of Vietnamese fantasticality are now being woven. They involve
the air cavalry "cleaning" corridors into Kosovo for an infantry advance
through the mountains. Behind them will come returning Albanian
villagers, to be resettled in safe havens along the border, secured by
modern technology from marauding Serbs. What the RAF has left standing
of Pristina may have to be flattened. But as they said in Vietnam, you
sometimes have to destroy the village to save the village.

In the heat of war, a fine line divides practicality from insanity. An idea
later dismissed as risible, like bombing Cambodia or defoliating North
Vietnam, may have seemed serviceable at the time. Desperate leaders need
desperate ways out of corners. Today's armies, designed to confront
communism, are being marched into battle by fidgety leaders to get nasty
pictures off the television screen. A wild compulsion appears to have
seized Western liberalism as it gazes ogle-eyed at whatever atrocity the
networks have selected for the nightly "grief pornography" slot. It is as
if, with the Cold War over, liberals now want their turn at playing war games.
They want to feel the surge of power, the roar of the chopper blade, the
thrill of "bombs away."

If I thought for one minute that the appalling destruction America and
Britain are now raining down on Yugoslavia could conceivably achieve its
declared objectives, I might ponder the justice of such action. There is
such a thing as a world order and it does merit imposition, as in the
Falklands and Kuwait. Though the integrity of states should be respected,
it is not absolute.

But in Kosovo no virtue appears achievable. A European
state, already afflicted by a communist past and a brutalist present, is
being plunged into further misery. Those we purport to help are being killed
and
exiled. The best we can hope is that Mr Milosevic declares his cleansing at
an end and invites the "monitors" back, as he did last October. That will be
a Nato defeat. But it will be a lesser defeat than the madness now on offer
from the hawks of Washington and London.


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