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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Blair's Stand on Kosovo Shared by Most of Europe

Policy: British leader voices strong support for bombing runs, as many NATO members feel the region is in trouble.

April 08, 1999|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Since NATO began its military campaign in Yugoslavia, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been in almost daily telephone contact with President Clinton.

British generals have taken the microphone at NATO briefings as often as the Americans. And, along with U.S. airstrikes and cruise missile attacks, British Harrier jets have dropped cluster bombs on the Serbs.

Once again, Blair is taking the lead with the United States in an international military campaign. Last time, unequivocally backing the U.S. in airstrikes against Iraq in December, the prime minister looked quite conspicuous. This time, while speaking out just as forcefully, he is in tune with most of Europe on Kosovo. Or rather, Europe is in tune with Blair.

His resolve this time goes far beyond Britain's traditional support of U.S. foreign policy. He has plenty of reasons of his own for backing the air attacks, not the least of which is the feeling, shared by most of NATO's European members, that the region is in trouble.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's war against the Kosovo Albanians threatens to destabilize Western Europe even as the region seeks to enter the 21st century as a strong and unified economic bloc.

There is a general revulsion at Milosevic's campaign of "ethnic cleansing," which has driven hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in the last two weeks. Mass deportations and killings raise too many comparisons with World War II.

Tens of thousands of refugees will put a financial and political strain on Western European countries. Although governments are saying they will accept them, many of their people do not welcome new immigrants.

Blair also wants to see a strong NATO on its 50th anniversary and views Kosovo as a test case, political analysts say.

In the back of many European minds is the fear of a domino effect, a war that expands to Macedonia and Albania and eventually drags in neighboring NATO members Greece and Turkey. Greece also belongs to the European Union.

Therefore, Italy is providing airstrips, while France and Germany, along with Britain, are providing hardware. And Blair is providing leadership--a role he savors.

The concern here is not that Blair is doing the U.S. bidding--as it was during the December strikes against Iraq--but that the United States could lose interest and disengage before Europe's problem is resolved.

Again on Wednesday, Blair reiterated that, in order for the NATO bombing to stop, the "ethnic cleansing" policy "has to be reversed and be seen to be defeated. That is the absolute precondition of NATO ceasing its action."

In TV interviews with ITN and Sky News, Blair said Milosevic must withdraw his forces from Kosovo, stop the expulsions and allow international forces to escort Kosovo Albanians back home.

"There must be no question of half-measures here," Blair said.

Cameron Watt, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said Blair has been consistent in the view that war in Europe is contrary to Britain's interests, that "war somewhere is a danger to peace everywhere." In that sense, he said, Blair's strong support for North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes to end the crisis in Kosovo is to be expected. Britain has been involved in the Balkans for nearly a decade since the troubles began.

The British public and opposition have largely supported Blair.

They have questioned whether NATO was well prepared for its military campaign and why the alliance did not foresee the disastrous consequences for Kosovo Albanians. They have asked how far the intervention should go. But few have questioned whether NATO should have acted at all.

"My own doubts about the bombing have been completely removed by seven days of pictures," columnist Roy Hattersley wrote Monday in the left-of-center newspaper, the Guardian. "A NATO victory is the only real hope of permanent relief and decent resettlement for the refugees. . . . Whether or not we should have started the war, we clearly have to finish it."

Jonathan Freedland, another Guardian columnist, said, "This is an important moment to see if NATO is worth a candle."

"If it is going to allow this in Europe's backyard, then it is pretty hollow. Britain is interested in an effective NATO," Freedland said.

U.S. and British policy converge here. Blair's close relationship with Clinton reinforces that mutual interest. The two see themselves as "in this together," political observers say, and Clinton refers to Britain as "our indispensable ally."

Britain sees itself as a military force, and Blair sees himself as a player, political analysts say. He is driven by a desire to be a strong international leader--which he cannot do on the economic front, with Britain opting to wait before joining the EU's monetary union.

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