The Independent, 5-9-99

Leader - A bomb too far
Robin Cook said yesterday that it was
one of the tragic accidents of war, but
the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy
in Belgrade was more than that. It was
an act of monumental incompetence in a
war that has been characterised from
the start by military bungling and
political cowardice - or, in the case
of Tony Blair, political recklessness.
This war began in folly, it has
proceeded in folly, and now, following
the G8 meeting on Thursday, looks as
though it may end not in outright
victory for Nato but in a peace
settlement with Slobodan Milosevic.
However humiliating, a peace deal is
better than a war that has aggravated
the very evil it sought to defeat.
The bombing of the embassy, while
shocking, should not have surprised us
unduly, however. Most of Nato's bombs
have found their targets, but too many
have not. Intelligence sources must
have known that the Chinese embassy was
dangerously close to its Friday night
targets, and that the embassy staff
were living as well as working there.
There could have been few more
sensitive sites. China is a permanent
member of the UN Security Council,
whose support Western leaders decided
last week they needed if they were to
make their new seven-point peace plan
acceptable to Russia. As a permanent
member, China has veto rights on any UN
decision. Until now the assumption was
that Peking would not exercise it. It
is true that the Chinese government has
been especially hostile to the Nato
action in Yugoslavia; with its own
troops occupying Tibet, it does not
relish the precedent of the West
intervening inside other people's
national boundaries. Chinese public
opinion is behind its government; the
Chinese press depicts President Clinton
with a Hitler moustache and points out
that the words Nato and Nazi are
similar in spelling.
But China usually exercises its veto
only when its national interests are
directly threatened. It was assumed
that the Russians could persuade the
Chinese to, at least, stay silent in
the Security Council. Friday night's
bombs may have shattered more than an
embassy building. And the longer the
bombing continues, the more complicated
things will become. The bombs have
resolved nothing. As we predicted at
the beginning of this war, they have
failed utterly in their original
intention of preventing a humanitarian
disaster. Nato has little credibility
left. There can be no justification for
the use of cluster bombs, and none for
hitting TV stations, electricity plants
and other targets that will deprive the
ordinary people of Serbia food, fuel
and heat. Now Nato has had to resort to
non-violent measures, like the oil
embargo and the diplomatic moves to
bring Russia on side, which ought to
have been tried before the bombers were
Mr Blair has not come well out of all
this. His government last week passed
the second anniversary of its arrival
in office. Such a milestone ought to
have been the occasion for a measured
review of his not inconsiderable
achievements. His party, though it lost
seats in the local elections, retained
a percentage of the vote which was
enviable for this point in the lifetime
of a parliament. His policy in Northern
Ireland, though a settlement has proved
elusive, maintains the peace, which is
no small accomplishment. His handling
of Europe has, with a few exceptions,
proved sure-footed. He has followed
through on devolution, though we have
yet to see how willing he will prove to
cede control behind the scenes. His
approach to welfare reform seems
generally sound. But any review of the
comparative successes of his first two
years must now be overshadowed by the
way he has propelled the country into
what may prove its greatest foreign
policy blunder since Suez.
Mr Blair has been a hawk among the
Western leaders. Bill Clinton has
constantly cast one eye back to a
reluctant Congress, and an American
public among which what little support
there ever was for ground troops has
fallen away. The German Chancellor has
hesitated too, as public opinion
becomes increasingly hostile to the
bombing. Only Mr Blair's hawkishness
seems to have increased as the conflict
has progressed. The day before the
embassy bombs fell his vocabulary got
even stronger; he made repeated
comparisons to "Hitler's evil regime"
and talked of Victory in Europe Day and
the challenge our parents' generation
faced. He could not, he later said, see
a future for Serbia under Milosevic -
against whom he said there was "serious
evidence" of war crimes. "I'm not
sitting down and dealing with
Milosevic," he added.
All this is an unwarranted gamble.
Important differences of detail
remained unresolved in the G8's
document of "seven agreed principles".
It is possible of course that Milosevic
might back down; if so it will probably
be Russian diplomacy which is accorded
the success. A second option is that
Milosevic might remain defiant,
deciding like Saddam Hussein, that a
military defeat could bring him
domestic political victory; for the
hawks of Nato that might secure the
reverse - military victory but
political defeat. Most likely now is
some kind of fudge. That's where we are
after six weeks of bombing, God knows
how many deaths and the creation of
almost a million refugees. The war
should never have been launched, as we
have argued from the start. Serbia, of
course, cannot win in all this, but it
is not inconceivable that the hawks of
Nato, Mr Blair foremost among them,
might yet lose.

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