Kosovo - We were suckered. A year after the Nato bombing began in former Yugoslavia, two new books attempt to explain exactly what happened and why the west was wrong. By John Simpson

Virtual War

Michael Ignatieff <em>Chatto & Windus, 249pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0701169435

A year after the first bombs struck Belgrade, there are, I suspect, fewer and fewer people in the west who would agree with George Robertson (then defence secretary) that the world is a better place as a result of Nato's intervention. At the time, with the compelling television pictures of tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians being forced out of Kosovo, there seemed to be some substance to the notion that we were engaged in something new - a war fought to impose decent values on a leadership and a nation that seemed to have no awareness of them. Yet now it is the Kosovo Liberation Army that receives warnings from Nato, and it is the last remnants of the Serb population of Kosovo that need protection.

I think we were suckered. I think the KLA succeeded in doing what the Bosnian government tried and failed to do between 1992 and 1994: recruit Nato to fight the Serbs because it was too weak to fight them itself. Kosovo was the war of Christiane Amanpour's flak jacket. President Bill Clinton dared not risk the accusation from television commentators that he was appeasing the Hitler de nos jours, while the other Nato countries, Britain most of all, dared not risk the accusation that they were letting the Americans down. They didn't think it would matter much; Madeleine Albright promised that it would all be over in a matter of days. So it was: 78 days.

For those of us who slept with the enemy during that period, the reductionist accusation - you have doubts about the bombing, so you must be pro-Serb - is the kind of thing we should have expected. For what it's worth, after reporting from Belgrade for the entire duration of the campaign, I was eventually thrown out for speaking "disrespectfully" on BBC radio about Slobodan Milosevic, and I don't think many of the western journalists in Belgrade can seriously be accused of pro-Serb leanings. But it's true that watching the day-by-day effects of the bombing on ordinary people was neither pleasant nor easy.

From the viewpoint of Brussels, the campaign seemed to have been conducted with unprecedented precision. From the viewpoint of Belgrade, the destruction that Nato wreaked in Serbia and Kosovo (not to mention occasional parts of Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia and even Bulgaria) seemed careless, stupid and inefficient; and tactics such as the bombing of Belgrade Television and the use of weapons such as the cluster bombs that went astray in Nis and elsewhere, with appalling results, were not simply wrong in themselves, they were own-goals that were every bit as bad as the bombing of the Chinese embassy. Such unforced errors, which characterised the entire campaign, scarcely fit the notion of a crusade for moral values.

At the time, Michael Ignatieff, who has written with such clarity about the events of the past decade in the Balkans (and, unlike most other writers on the subject, has actually risked his neck by going to these places and seeing for himself what he calls "Balkan Physics"), would probably have called me an appeaser. That is certainly what he called Robert Skidelsky during their exchange of letters in Prospect magazine in May, at the height of the war. But by the end of this excellent, thought-provoking essay, which forms a natural completion to his two other books on the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, Ignatieff seems to feel about the war rather as I do: "We see ourselves as noble warriors and our enemies as despicable tyrants. We see war as a surgical scalpel and not as a bloodstained sword. In doing so we misdescribe ourselves as we mis-describe the instruments of death. We need to stay away from such fables of self-righteous invulnerability." Precisely. This was only a "virtual war" from 15,000 feet; from ground zero it seemed pretty real. But that being the case, which Ignatieff should we follow - the early one or the late one? Wasn't it a fable of self-righteous invulnerability that made us decide to step in and right the wrongs of Kosovo to the point where we (that is, the United States) armed and trained the KLA, and created the circumstances where it could drive the Serbs out of Kosovo in precisely the same fashion, if not on the same scale, as the Serbs had driven out the ethnic Albanians?

It was a magnificent moment when Tony Blair told an audience in Chicago in April 1999 that "we cannot turn our backs on the violation of human rights in other countries if we want to be secure". Quite right. But Blair's government allowed the Metropolitan Police to crack down on British demonstrators who were calling for better human rights in China and Tibet, and he himself became the first western leader to go to Moscow and shake the hand of the liberator of Chechnya. Presumably, therefore, his Chicago speech meant: "We cannot turn our backs on the violation of human rights as long as it happens somewhere small and weak, with 1970s military technology."

The only justification for bombing Serbia was the Albright one - that a short, sharp shock would force Milosevic to back down - and this turned out to be wrong. As a result, Nato's weaknesses were shown up; next time, no US president will be quite so quick to bomb another country. The threat of righteous force - not at all a bad thing in principle - has been undermined and diminished.

Virtual War is not a comfortable book. I admire Ignatieff all the more for facing up to the uncomfortable, and allowing it to alter his views accordingly. His account of his postwar visit to his friend Aleksa Djilas, to whom I myself turned in Belgrade for a sane view of things, is the most powerful section of all, written with painful honesty. The truth is, however, there never was a simple, easy answer to the question: What should be done about Milosevic? In March last year, every answer was wrong. But some answers were more self-evidently wrong than others; dropping cluster bombs on civilians, even by mistake, was surely the most self-evidently wrong answer of all.

John Simpson is the BBC's world affairs editor

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