- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

Many Americans can hardly wait for the upcoming trial of former Serbian Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevich. The new Serb regime extradited him to The Hague to be tried before an international tribunal there for crimes committed by his troops during the conflicts that tore through the Balkans in the 1990s. The trial is expected to be great theater.

A few skeptics wonder whether such trials by international bodies responsible to no one nation make much sense, but the politically correct view is that they do. That's no doubt why former President Clinton signed a treaty which, had it been ratified by the Senate, would have accepted the idea of a permanent international criminal court with jurisdiction over acts committed by U.S. citizens and soldiers.

The Senate hasn't ratified what Mr. Clinton sought, but the international community insists that once sixty nations sign on, this court will be able to assert jurisdiction regardless of what the Senate does or doesn't do. The Senate's response late last year was to pass something called the "American Service Member's Protection Act" to shield members of our armed services from the reach of the new court when it opens for business.

The problem is that the act doesn't go far enough. It may give U.S. citizens some protection from the reach of the new court, but doesn't shield them from being hauled before the court that is about to try Milosevic. So it's possible and perhaps even likely that a U.S. citizen or even a former president like, say, Bill Clinton, might be hauled in to answer for what happened in the Balkans nearly a decade ago.

Sound far-fetched? It isn't. And the fact that we thought we were the "good guys" in the Balkans is irrelevant. Even now, there are those who are demanding that Mr. Clinton, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and others be targeted for investigation by Yugoslavian war crimes Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte for acts committed in the mid-1990s.

At the time, Bosnia was this country's biggest foreign policy problem. To avoid committing U.S. ground forces to the region, the Clinton administration in August 1995 got the Croatian army to launch a massive ground offensive known as Operation Storm against Serb positions in Croatia and Bosnia. Croat forces routed the Serbs, but the evidence suggests that Washington dreamed up and controlled the whole operation.

The Observer of London claims that Mr. Clinton gave the Croats the green light for the attack, and Mr. Holbrooke reveals in his memoirs that we controlled the entire operation. We apparently told the Croats when to launch their attack, which towns to take and where to stop. Mr. Holbrooke makes clear that they did just what we wanted. He even quotes then-U.S. Ambassador Robert Frasure as to our motive, "We hired these guys [the Croats] to be our junkyard dogs because we were desperate."

And therein lies the problem. We may well be held responsible for the acts of our "junkyard dogs." Mrs. Del Ponte has described the operation as an ethnic cleansing campaign designed to drive hundreds of thousands of Serbs from their homes, and recently indicted a Croat general, Ante Gotovina, for his role in it. Gotovina isn't accused of personally committing or even ordering any crimes, but of bearing "command responsibility" for crimes committed by others.

This could prove to be very bad news for former President Clinton. After all, the ultimate "command responsibility" for Operation Storm may well have rested with him, and the Gotovina precedent may make it possible to bring similar charges against him.

Mr. Clinton would, of course, be expected to deny everything, but denials won't wash in light of what those close to him have said in the years since. Based on Mr. Holbrooke's admissions alone, a prima facie case might be made against Mr. Clinton and others in his administration. After all, they ordered the operation launched, knew how the Croats were acting during the operation, directed their forces to specific targets and had the ability to call them off.

Some argue that if Gotovina is to be tried because he had "command responsibility" for what happened, Mr. Clinton should be forced to face the same charges. The politically correct in Europe seem to agree, and therefore expect Mr. Del Ponte to launch an investigation that could ultimately lead to the former president's indictment. If one accepts the logic behind the Gotovina indictment and finds Mr. Holbrooke credible, one would be forced to the conclusion that she may have no choice but to go after Mr. Clinton.

The real question is whether such tribunals ought to be able to roam around punishing world leaders who authorize the use of armed force when anyone who carries out their orders misbehaves.

It's tempting for a salivating, die-hard Clinton hater to skip over that question, but even if such a trial would make for good theater, it ought to be avoided. If it isn't, no future president will be able to go to sleep at night without worrying about what some corporal somewhere might be contemplating.


David A. Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union.


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