London The war in Kosovo is a turning point for his generation and for the NATO alliance, Prime Minister Tony Blair says with the calm implacability he has used to reshape British politics and institutions in his two years in power. Seated by a window at 10 Downing, he is mentally measuring Slobodan Milosevic for a political coffin like those into which he has stuffed his foes at home.
There will be no respite for Serb troops, no negotiations with Milosevic, and no quitting until Kosovo's refugees return home protected by NATO-led ground troops, Blair asserts with crisp determination. This week's NATO summit in Washington must make these points irrevocably clear to the Serb leader, he adds.
Blair will be a key voice at the 19-nation, two-day summit that begins Friday. He will press the view that the alliance must defend basic human values in Kosovo, and elsewhere in the future. NATO must not limit its role to defending the territory of its members.
"There are real strategic interests at stake in the Balkans," the prime minister told me. "But I believe that a real sense of moral purpose is also motivating NATO. We either allow ethnic cleansing to succeed or we say that the world community has an obligation to stop this most violent form of nationalism. Our job is to go in there and reverse it and defeat it," he continued.
The horrors of Kosovo will accelerate a debate about an international right to intervene that Blair said should be held at NATO, the United Nations and other international organizations.
"People are recognizing that if there is a serious problem with the Brazilian economy it develops into a serious problem for the British economy or the European economy or the American economy. It is similar with security problems."
Working in shirt sleeves in his airy office and sipping a mid-afternoon tea, Blair was eager on April 15 to keep the spotlight on Milosevic and not allow the accidental NATO bombing of Kosovar refugees to disrupt the allied air campaign.
"The idea that we should take lessons in humanitarian care for refugees from a guy who has been butchering them, having soldiers rape them and mutilate them would stand morality on its head."
That's war crimes territory, I noted. Aren't you saying that NATO should be seeking to arrest Milosevic rather than keep a door open for him to make a deal?
"I do not regard this as a negotiation. We have set out objectives and made demands. The campaign will go on until he meets them. Yes, I agree, it is difficult to see long-term stability while this man's policies remain active in the region."
His contempt for and concern over Europe's weak performance in Bosnia and again in Kosovo last autumn drives Blair's determination to build up the military capacity of NATO's European members. He confirmed in our conversation that he had favored sending British troops into Kosovo last October as part of an international force. (Washington squelched any discussion of the idea.)
"I was always in the forward end of the troop on this, because I always thought if we didn't intervene sooner, we would have to intervene later."
Blair was more cautious when I asked about the use of ground troops for combat now, an idea opposed by his friend and political ally President Clinton. But Blair projected a sense that he expects events to move NATO in that direction:
"We have all options under review. We constantly revisit them. But we have made it clear that our plan is not for a land invasion to fight our way into Kosovo. We have set ourselves the task of using ground forces to allow the refugees to return. But it is important for us to keep the maximum flexibility in our own thinking and strategy, and not to feel obliged to discuss every last detail of it publicly."
He then counseled me not to rush past the obvious: "The key point is that we would be doing this air campaign in any event, because it would take some time to assemble an effective ground force."
Blair turns 46 on May 6. Many analysts here believe that only an unexpected calamity -- such as economic depression, or perhaps a war in the Balkans turning bad on him -- can keep this personable baby boomer from leading Britain for the next decade.
Kosovo is an initiation, he concludes, surfacing the high moral sense and killer instinct that cohabit in Tony Blair: "This is the first time that my generation has had to come to terms with the fact that it is necessary to use force on certain occasions to do what is right. I do believe that in the end if a course is right it will win. I also believe we have the capability in NATO to make sure that we do win."
-- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.