Divide that will widen


BILL CLINTON, Tony Blair and the other leaders of NATO's war against Serbia have unleashed a bloody and intractable disaster upon the Balkans. Even in its own terms, the thinking behind the NATO offensive seems deeply confused. The idea seems to have been that a quick burst of bombing would cause Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to crumble and accept NATO's demands.

When the bombing led instead to an exodus of refugees from Kosovo, Blair was quick to seize on the resulting suffering to justify yet more bombing. He claimed NATO had anticipated that Serb forces would drive the Albanians out of Kosovo. But if the Kosovans' flight was expected, why had no preparations been made to receive them? By last weekend Downing Street had changed its tune. "We did not expect Milosevic to move the levels of population that he did," a spokesperson said. This was contradicted by Kevin Bacon, spokesperson for the US Defence Department. "In the Pentagon, in this building, we were not surprised by what Milosevic has done," he said. "We've made a complete mess of this," a former military intelligence officer told the Observer. "The mistake NATO has made is to opt for a campaign of air power alone that has allowed Milosevic to ethnically cleanse Kosovo."

Given NATO's objectives, the air offensive has been a flop so far. Using eight cruise missiles to demolish an interior ministry building in Belgrade that had been cleared of staff and papers before the war began may look good on CNN. But it does nothing to reduce the fighting capacity of the Serb forces. The "widening" of the air campaign over the past few days is beginning to look like the kind of vicious destruction of civilian infrastructure that has caused such suffering in Iraq. How will destroying the bridges across the Danube in Novi Sad in the north of the country affect the Serb war effort?

The pressure to bomb Serbia more indiscriminately arises from NATO's failure to produce any results yet. But, apart from further antagonising the Serb people, more intensive bombing may also increase Clinton's and Blair's problems elsewhere. The Western powers seem to have decided to ignore Moscow's protests on the grounds that Russia is too weak economically and militarily to pose a serious threat. This calculation is probably correct in the short term but over the longer term the resulting alienation of the entire Russian political establishment from NATO may prove costly.

More immediately, more bombing can widen the divisions inside NATO itself. Greece is against the war and there is strong opposition in Italy, which is providing the main airbases for the Western assault on Serbia. It is the manifest failure of the air campaign that has led to growing calls for NATO to deploy ground troops in Kosovo. But, assuming it was technically feasible, this operation would not be a walkover like the US led offensive against Iraq was in 1991. It would be a vicious low intensity war against experienced Serb forces operating in familiar terrain that is ideal for guerilla fighting. The NATO troops would inevitably take casualties. The prospect terrifies Clinton, who knows that since Vietnam public opinion will only tolerate wars where US soldiers don't get killed.

There would be a real danger of a land war against Serbia becoming another Vietnam, with NATO forces bogged down for years. As Clinton himself put it, "The thing that bothers me about introducing ground troops into a hostile situation is the prospect of never being able to get them out." A long war would destabilise the entire Balkan region. Already the bombing and the flight of refugees are causing political turmoil in the fragile and impoverished societies of Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania.

Arming the Kosovo Liberation Army and backing Kosovan independence would make the situation worse. This is advocated by the former Labour leader Michael Foot and by cold warriors like ex-presidential adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. It may seem attractive as a compromise between just continuing the bombing and sending in ground troops. The trouble is such forces can turn into Frankenstein's monsters. An Albanian nationalist army, hardened by war and enjoying mass support in refugee camps throughout the Balkans, could threaten the integrity of half a dozen states throughout the region. The truth is that NATO is boxed in. Whatever strategy it adopts is likely to be costly and damaging. There are already reports of serious divisions within the Clinton administration over the war. As this catastrophe continues, such conflicts will grow in every Western capital.