Kosovo: big hearts, soft heads

How extraordinary that, after half a century of peace, we stand on the brink of a significant European war. And how extraordinary, too, that there should be so little sense of drama or fear or anticipation or indignation. We do not wait anxiously by radio or television sets. (Indeed, as Ian Hargreaves says on page 52, this war will do little for the viewing or listening figures or for newspaper circulations.) We are not turning out to wave the flag for our troops as they board ships or trains. We are not, in Chamberlain's words, trying on gas masks or digging trenches. War has become remote, sanitised, something that happens mainly to other people, even when we as a nation are involved. Better still, war gives us a moral glow. We do not appease, we do not stand idly by, we do not fail to teach bullies a lesson, we do not harden our hearts when we see burnt Kosovan villages or orphaned Kosovan children. The lack of any obvious British strategic or economic interest actually helps. We tolerate the most odious regimes if they happen to be big trading partners, important oil suppliers or military allies. (Given the talk about special "European responsibilities", the Turkish Kurds may think it was just bad luck to be born on the wrong side of the Bosphorus, but there is surely more to it than that.) In Yugoslavia, western liberal morality appears in its purest, noblest form, at minimum risk and minimum cost to ourselves. Why, we can even use it as an opportunity to keep our air forces in a state of what sportsmen would call match-fitness. Thus new Labour's ethical foreign policy dovetails neatly with its ethical domestic policy, also based on easing the consciences of the comfortable without afflicting them.

There is a way of ending the suffering in Kosovo (which Melanie McDonagh eloquently describes in stating the pro-bombing case on page 16). It is to put a vast army on the ground and to drive Slobodan Milosevic and the Serbs out of what is recognised by international law as their sovereign territory. Likewise, it is possible to overthrow Saddam Hussein by marching on Baghdad. Western governments will do neither for a variety of sound reasons: soldiers would be killed, public opinion outraged, allies affronted, lessons of Vietnam invoked. But at least, if it followed such courses, the west would have coherent objectives and the military means of possibly achieving them. What is bombing intended to achieve? Presumably, to get Mr Milosevic back to the negotiating table. So no doubt, in time, it will, but only when he judges that he has a stronger hand. We can already see him preparing it: the Albanians will be driven southwards, so that the Serbs can lay claim to the northern part of a partitioned province while the west does its best to establish normality in a self-governing, even independent, rump, teeming with refugees. Thus western meddling merely raises the stakes in the former Yugoslavia as it always has done and always will until we face the disaster of a general Balkan war.

But we settled the Bosnian business, didn't we? We did nothing of the sort. The Serbs eventually settled in Bosnia because they had been defeated by the Croats and they had few cards left. We still do not have peace. We have a frozen conflict that will flare up again as soon as 50,000 foreign troops and UN staff, who virtually run the country, are withdrawn. Whether human suffering will eventually be greater or lesser as a result, is impossible to say. But we should reckon up what happened from 1992-95, when we prolonged a horrendously complex conflict because we encouraged people to fight on when they were heading for defeat.

This is the way with wars, particularly civil wars. They end when one side or both calculate that there is nothing to be gained from further fighting. They then bargain with what they hold. Outside intervention merely complicates things because it introduces another set of bargaining chips and neither side can be sure how they will be used. The combatants become like casino-players who do not want to leave because an eccentric millionaire uncle may shortly arrive, write off their losses, and even give them a whole new stack of chips. The Albanian Kosovars now think the roulette wheel could give them independence, while the Serbs look forward to ethnically cleansed territory. Who knows what the Albanian minorities in Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkans think they could get? Or what hopes the Macedonians, inside and outside Greece, are now nurturing? Western liberal politicians have big hearts, soft heads and an insatiable appetite for international peacekeeping conferences. How sad that, far from saving children from death and bereavement, they so often make things worse.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong