Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:11 pm on 18 May 1999.

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Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate 8:11, 18 May 1999

Then why have the Liberal Democrats not pointed out that glaring, shocking, disgraceful lacuna in the Government's strategy? Instead, the right hon. and learned Gentleman indulged in a foolish attack on Her Majesty's Opposition. He tried to ascribe my views on the Chief of the Defence Staff to the Opposition Front Bench. I am just a Back-Bench member of the Defence Committee. I believe that my judgment has proved correct. Our strategy has failed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) pointed out graphically.

In unprecedented newspaper articles, the Chief of the Defence Staff defended the Government's strategy as the best option available, repeating the immortal words to govern is to choose". Permanent under-secretaries do not write newspaper articles in support of their Ministers' policies. Ministers write articles to defend Government policy. The Chief of the Defence Staff made a foolish, unfortunate decision to write those articles, probably prompted by pressure from the No. 10 press office.

In the early stages of the conflict, the politicians hid behind the military. The Secretary of State for Defence did so in the Chamber. Pretty quickly, the military started to distance itself from its political leaders. On day 2 of the campaign, General Wesley Clark made it clear that it was impossible for the use of air power alone to prevent the humanitarian catastrophe and the eviction of Kosovar people from their homes by the Serbian military forces. General Naumann made the same point when he retired as chairman of the military committee. Now General Colin Powell is making clear the dissatisfaction of the American military establishment with the conduct of the war, as has General Shelton, the American Chief of Staff, in front of the Senate committee.

The central failure of the Chief of the Defence Staff was his inability to persuade the Prime Minister that the military strategy had precious little chance of success and was a disgraceful gamble that should not have been made. The central failure of the United Kingdom was in not persuading President Clinton of that glaring truth, which we are now all too familiar with.

Two months later, as the ground option evaporates, we urgently need an exit. It is too late for the Prime Minister to wake up to the military truths. Force should never have been used except in the pursuit of clear and achievable objectives. It is a modern military maxim to get inside the enemy's decision-making cycle. Without ground troops, it is no good the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary coming to the House to tell us that they have destroyed a brigade worth of artillery or tanks. The destruction of that equipment is not related to the decision on when to abandon Kosovo. That decision will be taken by President Milosevic and our strategy will not force him to take it.

We do not have an objective that we know that we will achieve. We are committed to a strategy of endless bombing and Serbia is committed to a strategy of the endless absorption of punishment. What a policy to pursue against a country with a myth of heroic sacrifice at the core of its national identity. We are stuck with a strategy as creditable as that pursued at Passchendaele, but this time it is not the generals leading a reluctant Prime Minister, but the reverse.

It is clear that our allies want a way out. That is likely to lead to a deal in which the edges are blurred—blurred on the future status of Kosovo; blurred on whether the Kosovars will be able to return to their homes in safety; blurred on the future of the Kosovo Liberation Army. Do we expect the Kosovo Liberation Army to disarm if it is to be returned to the sovereignty of Yugoslavia?

We have fundamentally misread the nature of the conflict.

The Kosovars have resorted to what is, in effect, a war of liberation, following the failure of decades of democratic aspirations towards their route of self-determination. I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), who seems to believe that Kosovo is irrevocably a part of Serbia. Kosovo was invaded by Serbia in 1912, and was established as part of Serbia at an international conference in 1913. However, there has not been a majority of Serbs in Kosovo in the modern era—not for hundreds of years. Yugoslavia's status was established by the treaty of Versailles in 1919. The status of Kosovo within Serbia and Yugoslavia was the product of probably a few minutes' consideration at the end of the second world war by the Communist party of Yugoslavia.

The events of 1974 and 1979 have made sure that there is de facto and de jure a case for Kosovo that it should be allowed to fulfil its routs of self-determination. We have to choose between two principles. Having broken international law in attacking Yugoslavia, let us now stand up for the principle of self-determination.