Crazy games and dealings


"Attacking the Chinese embassy was a political catastrophe for NATO"

THE VAST NATO war machine is sinking into a Balkan quagmire. Even before the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on Friday night last week, the US led coalition faced two interconnected problems. The first was that the bombing campaign, while increasingly indiscriminate and destructive of both civilian lives and infrastructure, seems to be having little serious military effect.

The military experts seem unanimous that a ground assault would be required to break Serbian control of Kosovo. Aside from Tony Blair and his liberal fan club at the Guardian, this step has little support among Western governments. For their various reasons the United States, Germany and France are all opposed to a ground war. This brings us to the second problem. In the absence of all out military victory over Serbia, NATO will have to negotiate some sort of settlement with Slobodan Milosevic.

But any deal acceptable to Milosevic is likely seriously to dent NATO's credibility-which is what this war was about to start with. Hence the fear expressed on Friday last week by Martin Woollacott, the most intelligent of the Guardian's pro-war columnists: "While Serbia cannot win, it is possible for NATO to lose. NATO loses...the further it ventures down the road to a compromise which lets down the Kosovans and gives a new lease of life to everything retrograde in Serbia."

Here a further complication enters-namely Russia. It is hard for the West to deal directly with Milosevic after having painted him as yet another new Hitler. Russia is the obvious intermediary. Moreover some of the saner heads in NATO capitals realise that it was complete folly to have gone out of their way to antagonise Russia.

Russia is anxious to play ball too. Thanks to the economic devastation caused by the pro-market policies they adopted on Western advice, Russia is an international pauper, desperate for help from the International Monetary Fund, which is effectively an arm of the US Treasury. Meanwhile a fortnight ago in Washington five ex-Soviet republics-Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova-formed a Western aligned alliance called GUUAM. This extends American influence in a strategic zone of key importance thanks to the vast oil and gas reserves of the Caspian Sea.

According to last Sunday's Observer Primakov, the Russian prime minister, is worried that too close a Russian identification with Serbia would antagonise the predominantly Muslim populations of the Central Asian republics. So both Russia and NATO had good reason to sign up to last week's statement of principles that could form the basis of a settlement in Kosovo.

But the rivalries among the Great Powers will continue to express themselves over the details of a settlement. The principles are highly ambiguous on such key questions as the nature of the international force that would police any agreement in Kosovo. A failure by Western governments to win their demand that NATO should form the "core" of this force would be a severe defeat for them. On the other hand, if Russia accepted this demand, it would leave Milosevic isolated.

The attack on the Chinese embassy was thus a political catastrophe for NATO. Thanks to its massive economic expansion over the past two decades, China is emerging as a major power in the vital Asia-Pacific region. Relations between Beijing and Washington have been deteriorating for some months. There have been disputes over trade, alleged Chinese hi-tech espionage, and US plans to install a theatre missile defence system to defend Japan and possibly Taiwan.

Thanks to the appalling history of imperialist intervention during the 19th and early 20th centuries, nationalism is an extremely powerful force in China. Even before the bombing the Financial Times reported last week that the Chinese army was discussing the lessons of Kosovo and the need to prepare for "limited war under high technology conditions". By drawing Beijing into a European regional crisis in which it previously had little direct interest, NATO's blunder has given Moscow valuable room for manoeuvre.

In all probability Russia and China will now press for a UN brokered settlement which may fall well short of NATO's demands. More fundamentally, recent events have dramatised the absurdity of a war well described by Rupert Cornwell in the Independent on Sunday as "bombing for bombing's implausible strategy of blowing up power stations, bridges (and now foreign embassies) for the sake of a province in the south of Yugoslavia that had already been reduced to an almost uninhabited wasteland".

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