- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

ZAGREB, Croatia.
Former President Bill Clinton faces possible war crimes charges by the prosecutor's office at the U.N. tribunal in The Hague for the former Yugoslavia.
As the media remains riveted by the trial of former Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic, an overlooked but far more consequential case is that of Croatian Gen. Ante Gotovina. The Gotovina case threatens to destabilize Croatia; it also raises the possibility Mr. Clinton and several of his other top administration officials will be indicted by the Balkans war crimes tribunal.
The decision last year by the ruling coalition government in Zagreb to hand Gen. Gotovina over to The Hague tribunal has sparked a political crisis in this small country. While the general remains in hiding, the popularity of Socialist Prime Minister Ivica Racan has plummeted.
Gen. Gotovina was indicted in June 2001 by the prosecutor's office at The Hague on charges that he exercised "command responsibility" over a 1995 military operation that resulted in the expulsion of 150,000 ethnic Serbs from Croatia. Supported by the Clinton administration, Croatian forces launched a massive, three-day military offensive known as "Operation Storm" on Aug. 4, 1995, in which Croatia recovered territories occupied by rebel Serbs following the country's drive for independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Gen. Gotovina is not accused of committing or ordering war crimes, but simply of being in charge when alleged atrocities were committed.
However, by this standard, the Clinton administration is also guilty. Washington provided valuable military and technical assistance to Operation Storm. The Clinton foreign policy team rightly concluded that the only way to tilt the strategic balance of power in the Balkans against the Serbs was to arm and unleash the Croatian army.
Zagreb's lightening military offensive not only restored Croatia's territorial integrity, but more importantly helped to achieve the central goal of American foreign policy in the region: putting an end to Mr. Milosevic's dream of an ethnically pure "Greater Serbia." The operation significantly advanced U.S. interests in the Balkans, helping to pave the way for the Dayton Accords that brought peace to neighboring Bosnia.
Yet U.S. support and approval for the military offensive means the indictment against Gen. Gotovina could lead to the prosecution by tribunal at The Hague of Mr. Clinton and other administration officials on charges of having "command responsibility" for alleged war crimes that were committed during the operation. The prosecutor's office now is examining whether to investigate Mr. Clinton and former Ambassador Richard Holbrooke for their role in Operation Storm. It is only a matter of time before they are made to appear before the tribunal.
The Bush administration has become increasingly concerned with the implications of the Gotovina case for the United States. The State Department is now urging the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, to send cases involving Croatian military officials back to the domestic courts in Zagreb. But Mrs. Del Ponte has refused to cooperate, insisting that Gen. Gotovina be arrested and sent to The Hague.
That would be a mistake. The indictment is deeply flawed and should be dropped immediately. There is no evidence Gen. Gotovina acted improperly or oversaw war crimes. Most of the atrocities committed the murder of 500 civilians, the looting of property and the burning of 40,000 homes and barns took place after the operation was completed, when the recovered territories fell under the control of local police.
Moreover, the Gotovina case establishes an ominous precedent for U.S. foreign policy. The importance of Operation Storm was that it served as a model for Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Croatian military acted as the de facto ground troops for the United States in its effort to defeat Mr. Milosevic. A similar approach was taken in the war in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance provided the bulk of the ground forces during the Bush administration's campaign to topple the Taliban regime from power.
But if the theory of "command responsibility" is upheld in the Gotovina case, then the United States can be made accountable for the actions of its allies around the world. There will be nothing preventing the International Criminal Court from making U.S. officials responsible for isolated criminal acts that have been committed by Northern Alliance troops.
Ultimately, the Gotovina indictment threatens to limit Washington's ability to project its power around the world. In fact, the case is emblematic of the dangers inherent in international tribunals that have little transparency and are not rooted in representative institutions.
There can never be lasting peace and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia until justice has been done to the victims of the Balkan wars whether they be Croats, Muslims, or Serbs. There are still plenty of war criminals who remain at large. They deserve to be indicted and sent to The Hague. Neither Mr. Clinton nor Gen. Gotovina are one of them.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is an assistant national editor at The Washington Times.


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