No more castles in the air. Time to cut a deal and quit

Peter Preston believes it is time that prudence was put back at the top of the agenda

Monday May 10, 1999
The Guardian

It is the ignorance - and the choking sense of unreality - that get you down. Every time, every wretched time, we forget what war is like until we're in the thick of it. And then we remember. We remember how politicians in suits rely on generals in uniform, who are always more cautious than they seem. We remember, as those generals remember, how anything which can go wrong will go wrong, how the haze of battle covers a multitude of sins.

Buses filled with women and children on their way to market blown up by accident? Of course. So sorry. Stuff happens. A Chinese embassy destroyed because some planner (and maybe some CIA briefer) back at the ranch screwed up? More stuff, more happenings.

None of this, for a moment, is unpredictable. Indeed, generically, it is wholly predictable. And so the options become narrower. Carry on bombing as heretofore, but more nervously (for fear of another fiasco) and thus less effectively. Join the perennial chorus wanting ground troops now. Or get the G8 peace scenario from last week back into play in the glum knowledge that Beijing's ire and concomitant Papal despair have made its terms more, not less, negotiable when Milosevic comes to the table.

Ground troops? By chance, the other day, I was reading a report in the Sydney Morning Herald from a correspondent who'd walked the shattered streets of Pristina. 'There were scenes of devastation,' he wrote, 'resembling the destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny, by Russian bombing in 1994-95.' Precisely. Here's the parallel to remember.

The Russians, with all the leftover kit of superpowerdom, had total air dominance of Chechnya. They flattened Grozny. They poured in men and tanks and heavy artillery on the ground. And yet the capital, with its 400,000 inhabitants, changed hands three times. In a single week, in August 1996, more than a thousand Russian troops were killed or wounded.

At the close, the Red Army had no stomach for going on. How many civilians and soldiers, through the years of fighting on the ground, were left dead? Conventional estimates said 30,000 to 40,000. When General Lebed played peacemaker, he said: 'One can talk about 80,000 killed, give or take 10,000, and about three times as many wounded and maimed.' Unicef, on the spot, reckoned that 40 per cent of the dead were children.

The illusion of ground war is that it's easy and clinical: people don't hurt, accidents don't happen. That is malign rubbish. The bombing from the air and the battles in the streets go on simultaneously. The carnage is worse, not better. The 'degrading' of the Chechen 'war machine' (a Legoland construct) achieved nothing which counted in the end. Would 'our boys' do better in the rubble of Kosovo or Belgrade? Patriotic pride tells us so. History adds prudence to such pride.

Prudence, of course, is not high on the British agenda at the moment. Tony Blair is, supposedly, a natural war leader. His rhetoric resounds. If things slip into some botch of a settlement, we can always blame Clinton and Congress for their feeble cowardice; or Gerhard Schröder for his quaking Green coalition; or the CIA for its inability to read a street map. We can, in short, always learn the wrong lessons. Yet the real lesson already stands clear above the rubble.

The next few days - and maybe weeks - will be the dying fall of this enterprise. The bombing and the jargon will chunter on at a lower level. There will be every reason for Milosevic to talk, because now he has something to talk about. Some kind of UN force will go into some of Kosovo. Some of the refugees may go back; some won't. Every political participant - like party spokesmen in a TV election night studio - will hail a kind of triumph. Those who wish to feel vindicated, one way or the other, will have their moment in the sun. There's the essential option. (The other one, just bombing away month after month, offers diminished returns after the shambles of the Chinese embassy.) What does it tell us?

The best thing is that western democracies, confronting a humanitarian outrage too close to home for comfort, do have an unexpected capacity for idealism. There's been nothing of domestic benefit in all of this for Mr Blair or Mr Clinton or any of the Nato leaders dragging their way to solidarity. You may - at the end of the day - be able to argue, though never prove, that the intervention prevented worse tragedy or drew a line in the sand which will deter the Milosevics of the next millennium. You can certainly argue that, when the bluff of Rambouillet was called, there was no choice but to go on.

But these are not the deeper truths. Those begin, curiously enough, with Baroness Thatcher. She once said, in the afterglow of the Falklands, that democracy is the staple of peace - because democracies do not go to war with each other. Just so. And the reasons why are crucial.

They are the endless balancings of ends and means which an open society involves: the body bags, the bombs gone astray, the refugees in their camps, the marches in the streets - and the pressure on politicians they bring to bear; pressures for peace not war, defining characteristics of democracy.

Of course those pressures are there when Nato, at last, lurches into war. Of course the Greeks on the quayside in Athens boo British troops on their way to Macedonia. Of course the German Greens have doubts. Of course the US Congress queries the direct threat to American national interests that Serbia poses, and has difficulty discerning it. Of course the British debate is crazily skewed, with Clare Short breathing fire and Alan Clark filling the water buckets.

Nato was built to confront a supposedly clear and present danger: Red Army tanks rolling into Germany, not Grozny. Where there is a clear threat, it can stick and rally round. But Serbia never was, and never can be, that sort of threat. A threat to European cohesion, perhaps. A sickening affront to humanity. Yet diffused and resistant, in practicality, to all the leftover moulds of the second world war. Europe didn't, though, have the mechanisms to act alone. America's resolve was always (understandably) going to be frailer when the conflict touched the rest of their world. Cue Beijing.

Time to stop building castles of delusion. Time to do the best deal diplomacy can provide. Time to pay up and move on. There is peace of a sort in Chechnya. No Russian troops, but no independence. No victory to match the aspirations, but no defeat. Remember, remember: and so it goes.

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 1999

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