- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Slobodan Milosevic was once seen as a tough, ruthless and shrewd Serb nationalist who would nonetheless co-operate with the West to achieve reasonable solutions if he was only shown respect. In fact, he was a cautious political opportunist who changed his ideology to suit political necessity, who retreated in the face of military or diplomatic firmness, and who lost every large conflict he began.

He was a fox posing as a lion but not a clever fox. And he survived as long as he did only because the hounds continually chased their own tails — the West’s ever-changing obsessions with stability, recognized borders, ethnic nationalism, multiethnicity, and international justice.

Like most dictators, Milosevic was really a cynical power-worshipper. He became a nationalist after years as an orthodox Yugoslav communist because communism was failing and apparatchiks like himself needed a new ideology to legitimize their power. Serbian nationalism provided him with it.

In 1987, he made a speech telling the shrinking Serb minority in Kosovo that he would not allow the Albanian majority to take their historical heartland province from them. He became a Serb national hero overnight. Within two years, he was president of Serbia and the real power in a Yugoslavia descending into collapse. The first installment of the long-running post-Yugoslav crisis arrived in 1991 when Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence.

The West duly made the first of three major mistakes in dealing with Milosevic. Anxious to maintain stability and existing frontiers and to discourage ethnic nationalism, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker reacted to the declarations of independence with the famous statement that “We have no dog in this fight.”

Milosevic took this as a green light from the West to halt the departure of Croatia and Slovenia by force. He lost these first conflicts when, among other problems, the mothers of Yugoslav conscripts (showing greater backbone than Western leaders) objected to their sons being used as cannon fodder.

The second mistake came with the Bosnian war: treating Milosevic as a potential peacemaker. Though Milosevic was covertly supporting the Bosnian Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Muslims of Bosnia, a succession of Western emissaries treated him as the “key” to a peaceful solution. They hoped he would “deliver” the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table in return for promises of Muslim territory.

Former British Foreign Secretary David Owen even entertained the delusion that Milosevic was “leading Serbia back into the European family” against the resistance of Serbia’s “hard right.”

Not surprisingly, the war dragged on until the massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 stimulated the U.S. to impose a much tougher policy on its reluctant allies.

Bill Clinton’s envoy, Richard Holbrooke, swept aside the previous futile Western policy of working through Milosevic and inflicted previously “impossible” defeats on the Serbs through U.S. air power and military support for the Croatian army. Now that Greater Serbia was shrinking, Milosevic promptly became a man of peace. He delivered the Bosnian Serbs to the Dayton conference and helped Mr. Holbrooke force them to disgorge their earlier territorial gains in a settlement that secured the very independent Bosnia that Milosevic had tried to crush.

The third error was the West’s response to the Yugoslav army’s descent on Kosovo to ethnically cleanse the province of Albanians in 1998-99. This was a legitimate war of interest to depose a dictator who had started four Balkan wars and who was a plain regional threat. But Mr. Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrapped it with liberal justifications as a “humanitarian intervention” to oppose ethnic nationalism and to defend the concept of multiethnic statehood.

They waged a harsh bombing campaign on Serbian infrastructure to enforce these phrases. This unusual Western firmness put Milosevic in a tight corner. He returned to an earlier political identity as a Slavophile to get Russian support. But the most Russia under Boris Yeltsin would do was help him negotiate a withdrawal from Kosovo and an end to the conflict.

This victory for NATO, however, was compromised when its war for multiethnicity ended in the rise of the ethnic nationalist Kosovo Liberation Army and some reverse ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Kosovar Albanians. Both Bosnia and Kosovo remain, in effect, NATO protectorates and unsolved political problems.

But these embarrassments were too late for Milosevic. The Kosovo withdrawal had destroyed his last few shreds of credibility as either a Serbian nationalist or as a strong leader. He fell from power not long afterward when his attempt to steal another election unraveled.

Once Milosevic had lost power, he lost also the aura of tough political shrewdness that had so impressed his Western interlocutor-admirers. He became a shunned figure.

The Russians failed to give him sanctuary. And the only real argument in Serbia was whether he should be tried before a Serb court or before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague.

Maybe the West then made a fourth mistake: not to let the Serbs put Milosevic on trial in Belgrade. It would have ensured a speedy legal process, recognized that Serbia had restored a democratic rule of law, exorcised Serbia’s ultranationalist demons and begun to repair the country’s relations with the West. Instead, the same Western governments and international bodies that had wanted to establish multiethnicity in Kosovo also wanted to establish the principle that even heads of government suspected of war crimes would in future face prosecution before an international court.

It is far from certain such a legal regime would be the deterrent to crimes against humanity that its advocates hope. As Helena Cobban points out in the current Foreign Policy magazine, Milosevic was not deterred from the Kosovo war because he had seen NATO troops arrest war criminals in Bosnia. He himself had been threatened with prosecution to no apparent avail. Still, the West put enormous pressure on the new democratic Serbian government to extradite their former jailer. And four years ago he arrived in his Dutch cell.

It took the Nuremberg Tribunal 11 months to try the 22 Nazi defendants. After four years, Milosevic was just beginning his defense. It cost South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission less than $4,300 a case to process 7,116 amnesties. The Milosevic trial has costs running into the tens, perhaps the hundreds, of millions. It long ago lost its audience outside Serbia. But Milosevic’s feisty performance in court, transmitted to Serbia via television, has disseminated his charges of Western hypocrisy, blown on the embers of ultranationalism and continually obstructed better relations with the West. His death is a diplomatic blessing, even if it denies his victims the righteous satisfaction of a guilty verdict.

And how much does that really matter? Consider the judgment of Richard Holbrooke, one of the few Western statesmen not successfully manipulated by Milosevic: “Here’s a man who once ruled Yugoslavia, started four wars, lost them all, saw the territory he controlled dwindle, got thrown out of power by a popular uprising in 2000, was packed off in a helicopter to The Hague in 2001 and spent the rest of his life in a padded cell in a jail and never was going to see daylight again.”

Whatever the judgment of the ICTY might have been, the verdict of history on Milosevic is clear — and damning. Unfortunately it will hardly be favorable on most of the Western statesmen who dealt with him.

John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of the National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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