We have only made it worse

As the New Statesman goes to press, the Russian prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, concludes "fruitful" talks in Belgrade. It is just possible that, by the weekend, he will broker some kind of truce or even peace for Kosovo. Both sides will then claim victory, and that is how wars usually end. But the arguments against Nato's involvement will remain unaltered.

Let us first dispose of the weak arguments against intervention. The first, favoured mainly on the left, is that it is wrong to fight for the human rights of minorities in Yugoslavia if we do not also fight for them in Turkey, China, the Middle East, Indonesia and a host of other countries round the world. And certainly, if western governments wish to be taken seriously in what John Lloyd (page 9) calls their "militant humanitarianism", they must look more carefully at the trade agreements they make and the arms they sell to such regimes - in other words, they must consider genuine altruism, which involves real economic sacrifice. But that is not itself a reason why those who truly care for human rights should oppose intervention in Kosovo.

The second weak argument, favoured particularly on the Tory side, is that no direct British interests are at stake. This is the true analogy to 1930s appeasement, an isolationist position which argues that we should keep well clear of quarrelsome and unpredictable foreigners. It is the same amorality that once tolerated apartheid and all but supported Franco. It is easily countered by the old story of the man who, when the Nazis came in turn for Jews, communists and homosexuals, didn't worry because he wasn't himself a Jew, communist or homosexual. When they came for him, the story concludes, there was nobody left to worry. Democracy and respect for human rights are not so firmly and so universally established (far from it) that we can afford to ignore even localised threats to their survival. A world where people like the Kosovar Albanians are safe is a world safer for all of us.

When these two anti-intervention views - both Utopian in their way - are dismissed, the remaining arguments against the bombing look all the stronger. First, it strengthens precisely the people we wish to weaken. President Milosevic, who faced significant democratic opposition, can now pose as a defender of the Serbs' national integrity; the extreme nationalists and superannuated communists in Russia can portray Nato's actions as evidence of the west's arrogance and determination to humiliate their country. Second, Nato, a regional and defensive alliance, has set itself above the UN as an arbiter of right and wrong, disregarding both its own and the UN charter. True, Russia and China would veto any action in Kosovo; but, equally, attempts to create an international criminal court to deal with genocide, torture and so on are obstructed because the US vetoes any idea that its own servicemen could be tried overseas. Great powers, which have less need of international law than weaker ones, are apt to put their own interests first. That is why international law remains in its infancy. But the west should think carefully before it tramples on such a tender growth.

By far the most important argument against the bombing, however, is that it has exactly the opposite effect to the one intended. Far from deterring the slaughter and expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo, it has apparently caused the Serbs to step up their campaign to levels far exceeding even the barbarities of Bosnia. If, as the British and American governments argue, all this was planned long before the bombings, why were Nato and the aid agencies unprepared for the flood of refugees? The start of the present wave of brutality actually coincided with the departure of the 1,400 international observers (whose presence had some restraining influence even on Serb paramilitaries) in anticipation of the war.

Very well, then, reply the more militant elements of the war party, let us move directly against the slaughter by putting in ground troops. Do these people know what they are talking about? Even if the US Congress were to countenance such a move, it would take weeks, perhaps months, to build up the necessary forces. The troops would enter Kosovo from Macedonia through a narrow mountain pass, probably mined by the Serbs. And the destabilising effects on Macedonia itself, with its substantial Serb and Greek minorities, hardly bears thinking about. Whether those who advocate a ground offensive have relatives in the services - or whether they would countenance the conscription that might be required to sustain a long conflict - is unknown. But the world has never been short of those willing to send other people's sons to war.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, How the doves turned hawkish