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Thursday, April 29, 1999 Published at 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK

Kosovo and 'the truth'

Clinton, Blair and Cook have all concentrated words against Milosevic

By David Sells, correspondent for BBC television's Newsnight gives a personal view of the war of words over Kosovo.

If truth, famously, is the first casualty of war, then cant is its first beneficiary. Nato's leaders, celebrating 50 years of the alliance in Washington at the week-end, justified their bombing of Serbia with what seemed at times, an almost genuine piety.

Kosovo: Special Report
One uninvited guest a certain Dr Pangloss, nodded his approval. All is for the best in the best of all possible Nato's," he murmured.

Even as the mighty were gathering, Nato bombs struck the studios of Serbian State Television in Belgrade, knocking it off the air for a few hours and killing about 25 people, some of them journalists. All, of course, lackeys of President Milosevic, even the cleaners and make-up ladies, so a just target (we are told) for the air strikes.

Every bomb cries 'God for Nato'

The autocrat Milosevic has state TV in his pocket. It is a potent instrument of propaganda for him. Of that, no doubt at all. And the comment of a Serbian government minister that the destruction of the TV building was "a monstrous crime without precedent in history" was predictable hyperbole.

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But what about the British justification for taking out this Ministry of Truth: "ethnic cleansing and the plight of the refugees are the end result of a strategy that begins with broadcast and written propaganda" ? With that sort of reasoning half Serbia becomes an acceptable target. It is Kafkaesque.

How simple it becomes when good fights evil, with Nato on the side of the angels. As Mr Blair put it: "we are upholding the values of civilisation."

So, every bomb, every missile, cries God for Nato, England and St.George. We are God's warriors. And, if you have any doubts, just watch television. See those pictures of real human misery as Kosovo Albanians flee the province.

'Military' targets

And, of course, their effect is devastating. The fact that Milosevic waited for Nato bombing to start before he put the expulsions into over-drive is an inconvenient detail.

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The fact that even supporters of action against Milosevic condemn the air strikes as futile, that Nato has blundered into this campaign like a bull in a china-shop, that its political and military goals change by the week, that it has no United Nations cover to legalise its attacks, that far from weakening Serb support for Milosevic Serbs have closed ranks in face of the bombing, that the campaign is causing the very regional destabilisation it seeks to avoid, all this seem to be blissfully ignored in Washington, London, Paris, Bonn and Brussels, if not perhaps in Athens, Rome, Prague and Budapest.

A real effort was made, certainly in the opening weeks, to avoid civilian casualties, if not always with success.

No hint here of Guernica or Dresden, but when it conies to material targets the word "military" is now being stretched to breaking point. The raddled and long-sanctioned Serbian economy is slowly being bombed back to the last century. Jobs vanish with it. As in Iraq, it is the people who pay. Milosevic himself sits tight.

Moral rectitude

The Western Goliath lobs bombs and missiles into a small Balkan state week after week, laying about it with moral rectitude.

The thinking is millenial. Mr Blair and a fresh generation of leaders, born after World War II, hail (in his words ) "from the progressive side of politics, but who are prepared to be as firm as any of our predecessors," and they dream dreams.

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They are protagonists of a new world order, preaching a "new doctrine of international community" which will allow for intervention, a la Kosovo, into the internal affairs of sovereign states. Millenial indeed.

Why, though, the critics wonder - and there is a small army of thoughtful critics in the newspapers - have these new leaders junked the accumulated wisdom of the ages in pursuit of their noble aim in Kosovo?

A columnist in the Economist magazine writes that it was brave of Mr Blair at the Nato birthday party to intensify his advocacy of a war "so many of its other architects are beginning to lost faith in." And, he added: "If a war has no hope of succeeding, continuing to prosecute it at calamitous cost not to your own servicemen but to its supposed beneficiaries in Kosovo begins to look less like courage than wanton obstinacy."

The truth is - the critics again - that since Yugoslavia collapsed at the beginning of the nineties, Western nations (America at their head) have fudged the issue.

They have declined their two real options: to intervene properly with ground troops or to stay wholly out of the mess. And once again they are pretending. They are being seen "to be doing something."

And, as happened in Bosnia, they are, so the critics say, making things arguably a whole lot worse. The justification intoned like a litany is humanitarian. And thus, as Thomas Carlyle put it: "is not sentimentalism twin-sister to cant" ?

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