Kosovo: not a Blair success but an Iraq clone
Assiduous readers of this blog, if they exist, will have noticed that I repeatedly point out that the NATO attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999 was not, as constantly asserted (not least by Tony Blair) a brilliant success for the Blair doctrine of 'humanitarian [or 'liberal'] intervention', but a resounding and discreditable failure. The myth of the Kosovo triumph has been repeatedly recycled during the current festival of Blair retrospectives, not least by Mr Blair himself.
In one more doomed attempt to put the record straight, I submitted a letter to the Guardian, which hasn't thought fit to publish it, no doubt regarding it as water under the bridge over the Danube (destroyed by NATO bombing) and as bad taste: don't speak ill of the departing. So here it is:
In his pre-resignation speech on 10 May ("I may have been wrong. That's your call", May 11) Tony Blair claimed success for his intervention in Kosovo to "stop ethnic cleansing", and in the premature orgy of Blair retrospectives numerous commentators — Timothy Garton Ash, Jonathan Freedland more cautiously, Julian Borger unreservedly, just in the Guardian — have also listed Kosovo as a major Blair success. Before this sinks permanent roots in the conventional wisdom, we should remember that the NATO attack on Yugoslavia over Kosovo had much in common with Iraq, for which it was a curtain-raiser: it was sold on a false prospectus (NATO's demands at the Rambouillet conference, presented as an attempt at a peaceful settlement, were in fact carefully designed to be rejected by the Serbs and thus to provide a pretext for the bombing), it was illegal under international law (Security Council approval was never even sought), it killed thousands of innocent civilians, it made a bad situation much worse (the bombing actually prompted an acceleration and intensification of Serbian ethnic cleansing, and an exodus of refugees from Kosovo for the first time), and it was a total failure (it was secret American, Russian and Finnish diplomacy, with no British involvement, that finally ended Serbian control of Kosovo on terms quite different from NATO's original demands: the bombing failed in its proclaimed purpose of forcing the Serbs to accept NATO's fake ultimatum). One difference from Iraq was that the NATO bombing didn't even bring about régime change: it was months later that Milosevic was toppled, by his own electorate, not by Blair or NATO. But Blair convinced himself and many others that the Kosovo intervention for which he had been principal cheer-leader had been a glorious success, and that he could repeat it in Iraq, with the catastrophic consequences that we can all see.
An old and extremely well informed friend tried to persuade me yesterday that Blair's call (noncommitally and reluctantly endorsed by Clinton) for the use of ground forces against the Serbs in Kosovo, after it had begun to become clear that the bombing was getting nowhere, would have been a major factor, perhaps the clincher, in Milosevic's eventual decision to accept the revised settlement proposals put to him by the American and Russian presidents' envoys (Strobe Talbott and Viktor Chernomyrdin) and the then Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari. I remain unconvinced. Milosevic must have known that there would never be the necessary unanimity among NATO members for the huge war effort required for a land invasion of Kosovo, which would have destabilised the whole region and could not have acquired legitimacy through Security Council approval. In any case, even if Clinton had wanted to get Congressional approval for an invasion of Kosovo (which I don't think he did), he would never have secured it. What forced Milosevic to accept the US-Russian terms was the knowledge that if he rejected them, he would lose the protection of Russian support and would become completely isolated internationally: that Russian support for the new proposals would ensure that they would get UN endorsement (unlike the NATO air campaign): that the totally unacceptable elements in the original NATO ultimatum at Rambouillet had been removed from the revised proposals: and, in short, that the game was up. It was quiet flexible diplomacy by the Americans and the Russians, plus Ahtisaari, wot won it, with a settlement that Milsosevic couldn't reject — and which could have been negotiated three blood-stained months earlier at Rambouillet without a bomb being dropped. And there's no evidence, so far as I know, that Tony Blair played any part in that diplomatic effort or in the negotiation of the eventual settlement, or indeed that he knew anything about it as he redoubled his fantasy demands for a land invasion.
Mr Blair and the pundits assessing his premiership really ought to stop claiming the NATO campaign over Kosovo as one of his triumphs. It was a fraudulently presented and criminal enterprise, and it failed, indeed made a bad situation much worse. But because Blair persuaded himself and others that it had been a glorious success, he was confident that he could repeat it in Iraq.