Go in now. Tony Blair must offer troops to Montenegro at once. He must not wait for a "humanitarian disaster" or a CNN camera crew or the collapse of some fudged deal with Slobodan Milosevic. The message screams at him from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. If he and Nato mean to set up puppet states across the Balkans, the moral and honourable course is to act before, not after, the massacres begin. If Britain dithers over Montenegro until after Belgrade seeks to crush its
elected Government, London's whole Balkan adventure will be shown up as a cynical playing to the gallery - as some believe it has been from the start. Meddling delayed is meddling made murderous.
Last week the elected ruler of this land, Milo Djukanovic, issued an ultimatum to Belgrade. Mr Milosevic should pull the Yugoslav National Army out of Montenegro or he would invoke an immediate referendum on independence. The outcome would probably be for independence. Mr Djukanovic expects an answer next week, and Nato backing for any unilateral break with Belgrade. The West backed Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. It cannot refuse the last of the components of the Yugoslav federation. As
for the reaction of Mr Milosevic - with an army of at least 20,000 in Montenegro - anybody can guess. In the past, he has backed down only after a fight.
Montenegro, straddling the mountains between Serbia and the Adriatic, is girding itself as next port of call of the Balkan Apocalypse. All the usual preliminaries are in place. Nato has sent a "stern warning" to Mr Milosevic not to tamper with Montenegrin autonomy. The State Department in Washington has offered "firm support". Robin Cook has threatened that, if Mr Milosevic overrules Montenegro's demands, there will be "severe consequences". He typically does not say what he means, but on past form he means bombing. The pundits gave warning that Croatia would be bloodier than Slovenia, Bosnia bloodier than Croatia and Kosovo bloodier than Bosnia. Each time they were right. But when the bombs and bullets start flying round the cloud-girt peaks of Tennyson's "rough rock-throne of freedom", the odds are on serious slaughter.
The road into Montenegro from Kotor on the Adriatic coast climbs recklessly to the old Montenegrin capital of Cetinje. It follows the same hair-raising track as was taken by Victorian travellers visiting the romantic figure of Prince, later King, Nikola Petrovic, who reigned for 58 years until 1918. An exquisite antique, he was honoured by poets and statesmen as Christianity's frontline fighter against the Turks. In 1877 Gladstone rose in the House of Commons and spoke for two and a half hours, eulogising Nikola's role as defender of the faith. Tennyson wrote an over-the-top sonnet, to which Gladstone wrote an accompanying essay. I found the king's inscribed copy, gathering dust on a shelf in his now-dejected Cetinje palace.
Tito moved the capital of Montenegro from what is now a sleepy mountain town to the ugly modern Titograd (Podgorica) in the plains. Cetinje's days of glory may yet return. The old palace still stands, more like an English villa than a royal seat, festooned with sepia photographs, swords, medals and captured Turkish banners. Round it are clustered a bizarre group of former embassies. The British is now used as music school, its garden run wild. As Vesna Goldsworthy wrote in her recent Inventing Ruritania, of all the Balkan statelets, Montenegro was the easiest to romanticise as "key to the Eastern question". From The Merry Widow to The Prisoner of Zenda, from Bram Stoker's The Lady of the Shroud to John Buchan's Greenmantle, it was the archetypal Ruritania.
Not so much a country, more a highland enclave, Montenegro is tiny, little bigger than Cumbria. Fifteen per cent of its population of 650,000 is composed of refugees, most of them fleeing Nato's "protectorates" in Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet the new capital of Podgorica crawls with pro and anti-Milosevic politicians and paramilitaries. Less affected than Belgrade by Nato sanctions, it is a paradise for black marketeers, mafiosi and warlords - call the merchants of chaos
what you will. They will do equally well from Nato-sponsored independence or from war.
An independence referendum would take Mr Djukanovic across the Rubicon. Having raised the banner of a return to his country's independent state, ceded to Serbia in 1918, he would never survive a climbdown. The blood feuds of Montenegro make Sicily placid in comparison. In 1991 it was Montenegrin reservists who laid waste Croatia's Dalmatian coast, looting the tourist resorts and bombarding historic Dubrovnik, burning hotels, villages and monasteries. To Tennyson (and
doubtless soon to Messrs Blair and Cook) these people kept their faith, their freedom, on the height, /Chaste, frugal, savage, arm'd by day and night. But angels they are not. Once the separatist gates are unlocked, God knows what horrors will pour forth.
These are great days for regimes in small countries. In Kosovo in June, Nato ruled out an independence referendum to secure a Serb withdrawal. That was mere window-dressing. The West pretends to want to see former Yugoslavia held together, though not under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic. Since the West's every action - from economic sanctions to war crimes indictment - entrenches Mr Milosevic in power, separatism is not just inevitable, it appears to be the
policy. Historians can argue whether the European Union's decision in 1991 to recognise Slovenia, Croatia and then Bosnia precipitated the Milosevic horror. It certainly aided his re-election.
What is clear is that progressive "Balkanisation" has been the consequence of each British move in the region. British troops are now policing protectorates in Bosnia and Kosovo, officially to stop ethnic cleansing and install democracy. They have done neither. The most "democratic" part of former Yugoslavia is today probably Serbia itself.
Nato may yet have a third protectorate on its hands in Montenegro. If Vojvodina, the partly-Hungarian and strongly anti-Milosevic province in the north of Serbia, develops ideas of grandeur, it may follow. Nor is that all. I assume that Foreign Office and Defence Ministry planners have their contingencies in place for an Albanian separatist war in Macedonia. Having crushed Greater Serbia and richly rewarded Albanian revanchism, Nato must now wrestle to contain the no less predatory monster it has unleashed, Greater Albania. And take no comfort from Nato's optimists. They said if they bombed Bosnia it would deter Mr Milosevic from attacking Kosovo.
The end of the Cold War has had an unexpected effect. By relieving world powers of the mind-concentrating terror of nuclear war, it has given free rein to short-termism. Diplomacy has dumbed down to the level of the idiot box, the soundbite and the punishment beating. Statesmen are no longer constrained to consider the consequences of their actions. If they have the force, they can do whatever looks good on the day.
The extraordinary cultural federation that was once Yugoslavia may have been doomed from the moment of Tito's demise. Its peoples may have been condemned by their own history to return behind tribal borders. Its fragile democracy may have been helpless in the face of clan rivalry and the settling of old scores. What is surely beyond argument is that Yugoslavia's misery has been compounded by Western intervention. A monstrous ruler has been cemented in place. Extremism has been
fostered, the economy ruined, the Danube blocked and one of the richest cultural landscapes in Europe laid waste. Gladstone hoped that the people of the Balkans would "ultimately determine their abiding condition for themselves". Not yet, apparently. Not by a long chalk.