Friday, 30 April 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 April 1999

There can be no doubt now that the political leaders of NATO miscalculated badly when they launched their aerial bombardment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia more than five weeks ago.

Bill Clinton, Tony Blair et al decided to rely on bombing raids alone to make Slobodan Milosevic stop his military assault on the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo and accept a NATO-led "implementation force" in the province. So sure were they of the efficacy of air strikes – and so afraid of domestic public opinion if the body bags started coming home – that they even announced that there would be no need to send in ground troops to force Milosevic to concede.

Milosevic, however, having seen NATO's hand, upped the stakes. Instead of pulling back his forces from Kosovo, he unleashed a ferocious pogrom against the Albanian population of the province. Within a week of the air raids starting, more than half the 1.9 million Albanians in Kosovo had been forced from their homes. What little there was of opposition to Milosevic in Serbia rallied to his side.

In response, NATO increased the scope of its aerial bombardment – and as a result started to kill civilians, including Kosovo Albanians, in significant numbers. The bombardment has now gone on more than 30 days. A substantial part of Serbia's military capacity and much of its communications infrastructure have been "degraded". Even the presidential palace has been hit.

Yet still Milosevic has not yielded. His support at home — insofar as it is possible to measure it — has apparently remained solid. Ethnic cleansing has continued unabated in Kosovo. The number of refugees has risen inexorably. Ethnic tensions in the main countries the refugees have fled to, particularly Macedonia and Greece, are at crisis point. Russia, which was from the start opposed to the NATO action, is now so antipathetic that serious commentators are talking about the danger of a new Cold War. Although it is still just about possible to argue that, given a little more time, the air strikes will force Milosevic to back down, it is looking increasingly as if they will not.

So what should happen next? Some on the Left argue that the bombing campaign has been so counter-productive that it should be stopped at once, with the cessation of hostilities to be followed by diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis.

The proposal has a certain superficial appeal. Diplomacy is generally a better means of pursuing foreign policy than war. If doing something has the opposite effect of that intended, it usually makes sense to stop doing it.

Yet stopping the air offensive and opening talks would amount to conceding victory to Milosevic – and that is unthinkable, not because NATO's honour is at stake but because a victory for Milosevic would be a victory for ethnic cleansing. Milosevic now has effective control of a depopulated Kosovo, and there is nothing to suggest that he could be talked into giving it up if NATO calls off its bombardment. Indeed, everything suggests that he will not give it up unless he faces the prospect of imminent military defeat. If NATO is serious about standing up to ethnic cleansing, it must prepare to inflict such a defeat.

As has been clear since long before the air offensive began, this means planning to deploy ground troops, if necessary in a combat role. Yet NATO continues to insist that a forcible intervention with ground troops is not an option. Of course, that might just be a sophisticated bluff – but all the indications are that it is not, and that although Tony Blair is now convinced that ground troops might be necessary, Bill Clinton, backed by the German and Italian governments, is unpersuaded.

My hunch is that, eventually, public outrage at the nightly television pictures showing the desperate plight of the Kosovo Albanian refugees will push Clinton into accepting the argument for ground troops. That would hardly be a cause for celebration: ground troops should have been a central part of NATO's plans since military intervention in Kosovo was first mooted. But for the sake of Kosovo's Albanians, I hope that he changes his mind sooner rather than later.

Friday, 2 April 1999


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 April 1999

The crucial question in Kosovo is not whether western military intervention is justified but what sort of military intervention could possibly stop Serb pogroms there.

It is becoming increasingly clear that bombing alone will not suffice – indeed, that bombing alone will make matters worse. The NATO bombardment of Serbian military bases has given Serbian terror squads the excuse they wanted to go on the rampage, expelling Kosovars from their homes and killing anyone who resists or gives the impression of being capable of mounting resistance. More bombs will not stop them. Only a massive and immediate deployment of ground troops, which would never get Serb approval, could possibly halt the carnage.

Yet that is precisely what the United States and Britain, the only two powers capable of such a deployment, have ruled out.

The half-respectable reason is military logistics. Kosovo is a mountainous place. The few roads into it go through passes that are easily defended by the JNA, the Yugoslav People's Army, from the surrounding heights. It would be difficult to invade by land under any circumstances – let alone with thousands of refugees streaming across its borders in the opposite direction. The JNA, so the argument goes, is a potent force that cannot be messed with lightly. In any case NATO does not have tanks suited to the terrain. What's more, plans do not exist for any deployment of ground troops. The idea was looked at and dismissed as impractical last autumn.

But the more important reason for the rejection of deployment of ground troops is political. The truth is that the logistics are difficult but not impossible. The mountains and narrow roads are as much of an obstacle to the JNA as they are to NATO. The JNA is big, but it is poorly equipped and its morale is low. With its overwhelming air superiority, NATO could, if only the will were there, launch an occupation of Kosovo with airborne troops playing the key role.

That, however, might be a bloody business. It might mean body bags coming home to Detroit, Dagenham and Dusseldorf – and that is why Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have so emphatically ruled it out.

Of course, it is hardly novel for states to attempt to maximise their military clout at the same time as minimising the vulnerability of their combatants. That is the story of military technology over the centuries. But it is remarkable, since the movement against the war in Vietnam, how exclusively the US has adopted a policy of wielding the biggest possible high-tech stick while making its top priority the avoidance of US casualties – a policy that other western states have followed.

Now that the Cold War is over, using the high-tech stick is much more of an option in foreign policy than it was. But it can be used only if the danger to western combatants is minimal, perhaps even eliminated. Bombing is fine; risking the lives of our servicemen is not.

If this is better in some ways than the First World War generals' casual disregard for the poor bloody infantry, it is also profoundly debilitating. Slobodan Milosevic knows that, if he can survive the bombing, there is not much else up NATO's sleeve.

As things stand, it appears that Milosevic and his war criminal cronies could cling to power for a very long time. It is possible that "moderate" elements in the JNA will stage a coup against him, but otherwise the prospects of his being overthrown by his compatriots are slim. Serbian civil society has all but ceased to exist: the opposition is in tatters.

All of which makes the rhetoric of Blair and Clinton about finishing off this dreadful dictator look thin at best. I'd like to see the back of Milosevic as much as anyone, and like Blair and Clinton I think that the only way to get rid of him now is to inflict a comprehensive military defeat. But to will the end you have to will the means – and without ground troops the means are not there.

Thursday, 1 April 1999


New Times column, April 1999

It is still too early to say what the implications will be of the forced resignation of German finance minister Oskar Lafontaine last month.

In the days immediately after Lafontaine's spectacular departure - still not fully explained as New Times went to press - chancellor Gerhard Schroder was at pains to emphasise that the policies of his Social Democrat-Green coalition government would remain the same.

It is just possible that they will. But it is more likely that Lafontaine's successor as finance minister, Hans Eichel, will take a much more business-friendly approach to tax policy at home and a much less critical line on European macroeconomic policy. And it could be that Lafontaine's demise is the harbinger of a changed ruling coalition in Germany.

Eichel is outgoing state premier in Hesse, where his SPD-Green coalition government suffered a humiliating electoral defeat in February after a campaign in which the opposition Christian Democrats played the race card against the Bonn government's plans for liberalising Germany's citizenship laws.

He does not have Lafontaine's clout nor his charisma. His reputation is for solid pragmatism rather than flamboyant radicalism. Crucially, unlike Lafontaine, who was SPD chairman and the darling of the party's rank-and-file, he has no independent power base in the SPD and owes his position solely to Schroder, whose policy disagreements with Lafontaine had been barely concealed for months before their final bust-up.

Lafontaine's plans to shift the burden of taxation from workers and families to business, with income tax cuts paid for by increased corporate taxes, had business leaders up in arms. So too did his public support for trade union wage demands and his scepticism about the need for greater labour market flexibility and other supply-side measures to make Germany more competitive. On all these issues, Schroder had indicated his sympathy with employers.

To Schroder's embarrassment, Lafontaine's attacks on the European Central Bank for its refusal to cut interest rates to boost demand in the depressed euro-zone led to opposition accusations that the finance minister was undermining Germany's culture of financial stability. Lafontaine caused consternation in the US by demanding exchange rate target zones for the world's major currencies and upset the British government by calling for rapid tax harmonisation across the EU.

Lafontaine also found himself in hot water with Schroder when he suggested closer co-operation between the SPD and the Party of Democratic Socialism, the former East German communists, and when he semi-publicly criticised the chaotic style of his own government.

But Lafontaine did have significant strengths, even if diplomatic tact was not one of them. His arguments for a demand-led macroeconomic policy at European level were sound, as indeed was his case for tax harmonisation. His departure is a blow to hopes of developing a countervailing force to the ECB's exclusive concern with low inflation.

In German politics, Lafontaine was crucial to holding the SPD-Green coalition together. Now he is gone, there is a real possibility that it will fragment. Schroder and the Greens have already clashed over nuclear power and citizenship law reform, and last month's Green party conference was notably cool about the government's record. The next few weeks could be extremely rocky.