The shame of the nation. John Simpson reported from Belgrade during the Nato raids on Serbia. Two years later he delivers his definitive verdict: Tony Blair was wrong. There was too much suffering

A New Generation Draws The Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the standards of the West

Noam Chomsky <em

Two years on, the memory of Nato's 78-day bombing of Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 has become an embarrassment. No one - from the political leaders who spoke at the time of their noble motives, to the pilots who dropped the bombs, to the journalists who reported from the ground - wants to be reminded of it. As for Tony Blair's invocation of "a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated" - well, that seems to come from a different political era. With George Bush II on the American throne, nobody talks that way any more.

The Nato campaign was vintage Bill Clinton: a demeaning business which did no one, including the president, any good. Far from demonstrating that the alliance was a powerful, unified force for righteousness, the Kosovo bombing campaign was careless and divisive. It killed too many civilians and gave Slobodan Milosevic's thugs an excuse to murder even more ethnic Albanians. It damaged Nato by showing up the weaknesses of its political control, and the unimpressive nature of much of its military capability. Who nowadays believes in the unerring accuracy, the irresistible force, of Nato weaponry - apart, that is, from the long-lasting destructive power of depleted uranium?

Noam Chomsky is the west's Andrei Sakharov, a distinguished "scientist" who has long directed his remarkable intellectual powers at western policies and practice. A New Generation Draws The Line is short and devastating, and compares the different approaches that the US and Britain, its small-time partner, took towards the two great foreign crises of 1999: Kosovo and East Timor. In the first, we proclaimed our high-minded intentions to the world. In the second, we did nothing but send weapons to help the subjugation of the East Timorese. Worse, American diplomacy at the UN made it impossible for anyone else to do anything to help in East Timor. Chomsky makes no reference to it, but this was largely a rerun of what happened in 1994, when Clinton and Madeleine Albright made a great moral fuss about the dreadful events unfolding in Bosnia (while not actually getting involved) and at the same time impeded UN efforts to end the genocide in Rwanda.

For Chomsky, it all comes down to big-power politics: "the 'disorderly' elements of the world must understand the price they will pay if they do not heed the orders of the master in Washington". Broadly speaking, the Indonesian government obeyed its orders; unlike Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein, it did not require disciplining.

Chomsky, and anyone else who questioned the Nato bombing campaign, was at once branded as being pro-Serbian. In my own case, the mere fact of my being in Belgrade for the bombing campaign and reporting on it for the BBC ensured that I came in for a Thatcher-like kicking from sections of the Blair government. But at least people such as Alastair Campbell, Clare Short and Robin Cook knew their political future might be on the line; lesser mortals who took their cue from them lacked even that excuse.

There was, for example, a detailed personal attack on me in a pamphlet, published by an admittedly obscure branch of the University of Washington, entitled: "The Serb [sic] Lobby in the UK". Written with journalistic haste, the pamphlet was the work of a British academic, Carole Hodge of Glasgow University. Through being in Belgrade, I was, it seems, guilty ipso facto of pro-Serbian bias, and receiving favourable treatment from the Serbian authorities. The pamphlet is actionable, but who (apart from the management of ITN, which drove the excellent LM magazine out of business) sues pamphleteers? This one, incidentally, forgot to mention that the Belgrade authorities attacked my reporting many times, and eventually expelled me - scarcely, you might think, the usual reward dished out by a government to a faithful lobbyist.

This is a trivial example of the way in which Balkan politics seems to lure even those who should know better into extremism of opinion. There are others. Alongside Chomsky's unanswerable critique of the Nato campaign, his publishers, Verso, are bringing out another piece of advocacy, To Kill A Nation by Michael Parenti. The entire thrust of this, from the title onwards, makes the heart sink. The book's thesis is that, far from being the work of a blundering US administration headed by a president with no discernible moral sense, the Nato bombing campaign and (for good measure) the entire break-up of the former Yugoslavia were really the deliberate work of the US government.

Belgrade being the world capital of the conspiracy theory, many of us have had our ears bent to this effect over the years by pro-Milosevic Serbs - and refused to buy it. "US policy", writes Parenti, "is not filled with contradictions and inconsistencies. It has performed brilliantly and steadily in the service of those who own most of the world and who want to own it all." Parenti's writing does not lack clarity and crispness, and there are points (especially about the gullibility of much reporting during the bombing campaign) where I would agree with him. But his conclusions are quite unacceptable. He attempts to whitewash Slobodan Milosevic, in the manner of those who, disturbed by the American and British bombing of Iraq, treat Saddam Hussein as though he has been singled out for persecution merely for daring to question American power.

Milosevic needed no help from the US in breaking up Yugoslavia. It was he who launched thugs such as Arkan, Vojislav Seselj and Ratko Mladic on their bloody way - none of whom Parenti mentions, although he does write kindly of the homicidal lunatic Radovan Karadzic and regards the dreadful siege of Sarajevo as perfectly reasonable. The Michael Parentis and Carole Hodges of this world never seem to understand that just because one side in a dispute uses the wrong tactics, that doesn't make the other side guiltless.

Both Parenti and Chomsky are right to draw our attention to the shameless demonisation of the Serbs by western politicians and journalists. If this was the only way to recruit public support for military intervention such as the Nato bombing campaign, then the cause itself was bound to be tarnished. And yet was Tony Blair's hankering after - what was it? - "a new internationalism where the brutal repression of whole ethnic groups will no longer be tolerated" really so very wrong?

Chomsky, after all, thinks the west should have taken action in East Timor. Having watched a few drunken Bosnian Serbs turning back entire convoys of desperately needed UN supplies outside Sarajevo, I have no problems with the use of force against such people: they were killers at one remove. I just don't like the idea of dropping huge quantities of ordinance on the heads of ordinary civilians in order to force their government to surrender.

It's a matter of degree: internationalism works better on a small scale, not a monstrous one. Half a dozen rounds from a UN rifle would have broken the siege of Sarajevo. A platoon of the Black Watch could have stopped the genocide in Rwanda. A regiment of Foreign Legionnaires could probably have sorted out East Timor. And Kosovo? There, I confess, I am less certain. But I believe that Noam Chomsky is absolutely right: it was indeed stupid and wrong for Nato pilots to have bombed the Serbs from 15,000 feet for 78 days, especially as they missed so many of their targets.

John Simpson is the foreign editor of the BBC

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich rule politics again