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Thursday, June 10, 1999 Published at 10:39 GMT 11:39 UK

UK Politics

Peace boost for Blair

Tony Blair: Stood firm on air power

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has emerged from the war with Belgrade with his standing vastly enhanced both at home and on the international stage.

During the conflict he was surrounded by doubters and was regularly attacked by his own backbenchers and the opposition.

In the last few weeks there were even signs that the cross-party consensus was beginning to break down.

Kosovo: Special Report
The constant theme was that the air war would fail and that ground troops would have to invade Kosovo to kick out the Serbs.

And towards the end, it appeared the prime minister was bracing himself for that decision.

But, for the first time ever in a conflict, air power did prove enough - albeit backed by the threat of ground troops - and Slobodan Milosevic's surrender has vindicated Mr Blair's stand.

Future uncertain

It is still far too early to judge whether this campaign has proved a total success.

The future of the refugees is uncertain, K-For troops cannot be sure they will not face resistance from rebel Serb forces when they enter Kosovo and the long-term stability of the region is still far from secure, particularly if Milosevic remains in power.

And there are still the unanswered questions about whether Nato should have become involved in the conflict in the first place - and whether or not its actions made the ethnic cleansing worse.

But, for the moment at least, Tony Blair will be regarded as the man who stiffened the allies' resolve and ensured the war ended with a form of victory for Nato.

There were always deep, if hidden, rifts within Nato over the conflict. Germany would have found it impossible to commit ground troops, the Italians were fundamentally opposed and even Bill Clinton wavered.

It was only Mr Blair who remained absolutely steadfast in his approach to the war.

At first this saw him branded naive and misguided, and history may well yet criticise him for so readily taking Britain into the conflict.

Bitter end

As the war progressed he faced growing criticisms but his visits to the region only strengthened his determination to carry on to the bitter end.

He appeared genuinely moved by the plight of the refugees and even went so far as to suggest the war was a moral crusade.

Time after time he insisted the air attacks were succeeding and would eventually break Milosevic. And the end of the war leaves him significantly strengthened.

His backbench critics may not be completely silenced, but much of their ground has been whipped from under them.

And his standing as a player on the international stage has been hugely boosted.

This is not the equivalent of Margaret Thatcher's election-winning Falklands war and demands for people to "rejoice", as she did at the end of that conflict, would be hugely inappropriate from the prime minister.

In many ways, the real tests are still to come. But Mr Blair will enjoy a new stature in the wake of Milosevic's surrender.

It remains to be seen how long that will last.

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