Observer - Consistency is overrated, especially in leaders

The language of moral certainty has raised too many expectations

Thursday December 9, 1999

Political leaders spend their lives making imperfect choices. Sometimes they have to choose between options that are all bad. They are driven to do a terrible thing, because the alternative was more terrible still. Yet, having made the choice, they think they must pretend it was not merely good but the only one a decent leader could possibly have adopted. An inverse ratio of truth to rhetoric invariably applies. The more agonising and imperfect the decision, the richer the hyperbole that describes its incontestable rightness in every particular.

The most recent major example of this law at work was the bombing of Kosovo. Here was an extremely difficult decision for the members of Nato. They knew it was dubious in law and perilous in effect. Several of them wanted it not to happen, and even those who strongly supported it, like Britain, knew that it might never dislodge Milosevic, while inflicting a lot of damage on innocent Serbs and Kosovans. Once it started, however, there was no stopping the exuberance of Messrs Blair, Cook and Robertson in defending it. The bombing became a sacred duty. A task of utmost controversy and doubt was transformed into the humanitarianism of the new world order. The decision, from being a hideous choice, became a heroic enterprise.

Another seeming law of political conduct is that leaders must always be seen to be consistent. This is what the public has been taught to expect. Leaders lay down their principles, and stick to them. Everything must be seen to fit into a consistent framework.

But this can bring problems. Having made such a shining virtue of the decision to bomb Kosovo - the choice no man could avoid - the claimants to consistency have been put on the rack over the Russian siege of Grozny. If Kosovo could have been framed as merely a bloody mess, Robin Cook wouldn't have had to spend yesterday morning being knocked around the ring by John Humphries, working from the premise that Grozny, where we have witnessed more frightful scenes than in Pristina, merited the same commitment from the good guys.

The grandeur that was spun around Kosovo, in other words, has caused much confusion. What's imperative in one place is surely not negligible in another. If Kosovo, why indeed not Grozny? Such contradiction isn't confined to backers of the Kosovo war. The opponents of it seem just as muddled.

They may be as appalled as anyone by the medieval behaviour of the Russian government, preparing with millennial weaponry to raze Grozny to the ground. But when they take derisive note of the west's inconsistency, what exactly are they saying? That Nato's military defence of Kosovo might be retrospectively justified if followed by similar mobilisation to protect the Chechens? Or that the impossibility of intervening everywhere makes it a crime to intervene anywhere? Or perhaps the barbarities in Grozny somehow justify the do-nothing stance Tam Dalyell, Alice Mahon and others took when Kosovo was being bombed?

They can't really mean that. Yet they get close to saying it when they claim that Nato, in Kosovo, taught the Russians how to conduct aerial bombardment of a civilian population, and thereby sacrificed any authority to tell them to desist in Chechnya.

This is a facile argument. The Kosovo bombing was less precise than it should have been. Its outcome has had many of the bad consequences, along with some good ones, that made the decision-makers flinch before a desperate choice of evils. But Nato at least attempted to discriminate. It took some care with its targeting. It was supported by the Albanian nation on the ground.

The Russian onslaught against Grozny, by contrast, is an indiscriminately barbarous exercise in ethnic cleansing. Far from coming to the aid of a brutalised ethnic group, Moscow now claims to extinguish its remaining responsibilities by declaring that if the old, the lame and the starving are bombed to death next week, it will be their own fault.

The truth the Grozny- Kosovo parallelism illuminates is not that Nato's approach to Kosovo was good and its approach to Chechnya bad - or vice versa - but that politicians lay claim to the wrong models of leadership. The interventionist doctrine is as pernicious as the anti-interventionist anathema. The pretence to consistency is unsustainable, and the need to make it is a false requirement. The cement of moral principle that is supposed to bind together interventionism and consistency needs to be mixed with the greatest caution.

Tony Blair had a go at doing this in his Chicago speech at the height of the Kosovo bombing. In the small print, he suggested that any new doctrine must pay attention to practicalities as well as principles. There could not be intervention everywhere, and the world needed to think out the rules of the new game.

What was most arresting, however, was Mr Blair's assertion of the moral duty to intervene, within these conditions, wherever an ethnic group was being intolerably oppressed. This was the speech's emotional charge, designed to claim the high ground and secure domestic political support for bombing that had not yet achieved its purpose.

As moral obscenities, the fates of Chechens and Kosovans are on a par. But as political challenges to the west they are quite different. In the new order, we learn, some very old rules continue to apply, the first of which is the supremacy of interest over morality. Though lauded by Blair (and in this space) as a humanitarian exercise, Kosovo was really worth fighting for because it abutted Nato-land: the Milosevic strategy threatened to destabilise Nato members: the deep military interest of the alliance was at stake: the enemy was puny: and success was therefore calculable, without too many uncomfortable repercussions.

Even then it was vastly expensive, and very slow to work. The choice had to be made, but was not heroic in anything except the propaganda of the moment. It could never be a model for much else, least of all a place as far away, as remote from ongoing assistance, as sensitive to another nuclear power, as unimportant to the interests of the alliance as the mountainous Muslim enclave of Chechnya.

This is a grim reckoning. Every picture out of Grozny grinds the conscience of those who watched Kosovo happening. It obliges Mr Cook and Mr Blair to stumble through a vocabulary of impotence that mocks the exultant rhetoric they produced when the Satanic Serb had been forced back to Belgrade. On the whole, I remind myself, it will be better if we do not in future use the language of universal morality to raise too many expectations.,2763,112480,00.html