Let evil go unpunished
Government, J K Galbraith once observed, is more often than not a choice between the disastrous and the unpalatable. In Yugoslavia, western governments rejected the unpalatable option, which was to stand aside. They chose the disastrous course, with the results in death, exile and destitution that we now see. This is not to excuse Slobodan Milosevic; he and the Serbian forces in Kosovo bear the exclusive moral responsibility for acts of appalling savagery, which are in some ways even worse than those committed by the Nazis. Nor is it to deny that ethnic cleansing on this scale must, to some extent, have been prepared in advance. But that is not quite the same as saying that it would have gone ahead without western intervention. The truth is that, once the Nato action started, it was entirely logical for Milosevic to raise the stakes, to get the Albanians out of Kosovo at the greatest possible speed and in the greatest possible numbers, in the expectation that he could then negotiate from a position of strength before the bombing did too much damage. Further, he knew that the bombing would create political cover for his behaviour, allowing him to suppress internal opposition and to escape Russian censure.
None of this should be dismissed as hindsight; numerous commentators made exactly these points as the first bombs were dropped and there is substantial evidence that the military and intelligence advice to western governments was on similar lines. But the "something-must-be-done" school prevailed. Nato's reputation, the moral comfort of western peoples, the political virility of their leaders, the mission to teach tyrants a lesson (as though tyrants were members of some intimate club who would say to each other "we'd better stop tyrannising or Tony Blair will come and bomb us") - all these took precedence over sensible strategic calculations or, for that matter, the welfare of the Kosovar Albanians. Where western politicians can help in such tragic circumstances is in financing and organising humanitarian relief. Yet they have been so preoccupied with launching cruise missiles that a refugee crisis unprecedented in Europe since 1945 finds them almost comically unprepared, except in their certainty that Albanians cannot possibly be better off in Dover, London or Blackburn than they are in Skopje, capital of one of Europe's poorest countries. Thus, we are asked to believe, people who recently threatened to swamp Britain with false claims for asylum would now prefer to live in burnt-out homes and razed villages inside Kosovo.
So a war that was supposed to make us feel good about ourselves is fast becoming a cause for shame. But events move on and the Nato governments face a new choice, this time between a prolonged ground war and a negotiated settlement. Again, the choice is between the disastrous and the unpalatable. The latter option involves partitioning Kosovo between a Serb-populated north and an Albanian-populated southern protectorate, guaranteed by both Nato and Russian troops. That some such deal will soon be on offer from Milosevic is almost certain; it gives him most of what he wanted to achieve in the first place, including new homes for the Krajina Serbs (whose expulsion from Croatia seems somehow to have been excused a place in the record of Balkan infamy). That is why it is so unpalatable. Though western governments could easily spin the creation of a free Kosovo as a victory, the tyrant could also claim his triumph. Ethnic cleansing, so repugnant to the liberal mind, would be legitimised. Evil would go unpunished.
Consider the likely alternative, however. A long and bloody ground war; an intensification of the bombing, leading to thousands of civilian casualties and a devastated Serbia that could destabilise central Europe for years to come; a displaced Albanian population dispersed across Europe with no immediate prospect of returning to its homeland; unrest and possibly civil war in Macedonia; risks of a wider Balkan war, drawing in Greece and Turkey; a significant worsening of relations with Russia. Once more, we would choose a course for which the moral arguments now seem overwhelming: a just war, but not one that could be certain of achieving anything for the people we are supposed to be rescuing. Once more, we would pursue humanitarian aims, but at a terrible human cost, as we have done in the past 14 days. Once more, we would prefer the disastrous to the unpalatable. We may wish to take the honourable course, to "pay any price, bear any burden", in John Kennedy's words, in defence of values we hold dear. Alas, in international politics, such simple options are rarely available.
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