The Magazine

Death of a Dictator

Good riddance to Milosevic--and to Saddam, too.

Mar 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 26 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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ALBERT WOHLSTETTER, better than almost any other American strategic thinker, understood Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian dictator who died at The Hague where he was on trial for genocide. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 1995, Wohlstetter drew a direct line between Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the Balkan butcher: "The successful coalition in the Gulf War . . . left in place a Ba'ath dictatorship . . . .That told Slobodan Milosevic, who is not a slow learner, that the West would be even less likely . . . to stop his own overt use of the Yugoslav Federal Army to create a Greater Serbia purged of non-Serbs."

Wohlstetter was not the only person to recognize the evil of Milosevic. Margaret Thatcher was a prominent advocate of direct and firm action against Serbian aggression. She recalled indignantly in 1999, "The West could have stopped Milosevic in Slovenia or Croatia in 1991, or in Bosnia in 1992." In 1995, Milosevic was slowed, at least, by the Dayton Accord, which, however, left Bosnian Serbs with most of the country and treated Milosevic, who had incited them to mass murder, rape, and wholesale vandalism, as a more or less respectable figure. In 1999, four years after Dayton, 33 prominent foreign policy experts, including John Bolton and Paul Wolfowitz, signed a statement calling on President Clinton to end the "pact with the devil" signed at Dayton and to intervene immediately in Kosovo, the last setting for Milosevic's theater of the macabre. So we did, and Milosevic was stopped.

He was deposed by his countrymen in 2000, deported to The Hague by the Yugoslav government, and put on trial before a special tribunal. At the trial he attempted to present himself as a prescient and courageous defender of the West against al Qaeda. According to him, the murder of elderly Muslim peasants in remote districts of Bosnia or Kosovo was a blow against Islamist terrorism. In 2002, he even tried to claim American government support for the allegation that "mujahedeen" had fought in Kosovo. In reality, while some 2,000-4,000 Saudi-backed "Arab Afghans" intruded into the Bosnian conflict, they failed to influence the course of the fighting, and their form of Islam repelled the European Bosnians.

And now the brute will be buried, leaving a legacy of some 250,000 dead (mostly Bosnian Muslims), thousands of victims of rape (also mostly Bosnian Muslims), and the economic and cultural wreckage of the former Yugoslavia. His vision of a Greater Serbia resulted in the reality of a Lesser Serbia, reduced to the country as it existed in 1911, plus war booty taken from the Hungarians after World War I (Vojvodina in the north) and two unhappily acquired possessions that may soon be gone, Montenegro and Kosovo. Montenegro, annexed in 1918, is preparing a referendum on secession from its current "federation" with Serbia for May of this year, and the "final status" of Kosovo, conquered by Serbia in 1912, is being negotiated by the international community.

Milosevic will be remembered as the man who, at the end of the 20th century, reintroduced mass atrocities into a Europe that had ostensibly banished them forever. Milosevic's retro political style included "ethnic cleansing" or mass expulsion; internment in concentration camps; grotesque torture and sexual terrorism; gratuitous slaughter of whole families, villages, and even the equivalent of a significant town--8,000 Muslim males at Srebrenica, and the systematic destruction of holy places and cultural landmarks. All was carried out by lawless gangs and "militias," in addition to the Yugoslav army.

Some Western "realists," looking for excuses not to act, could not help asserting the moral equivalence of Milosevic and his victims. But neither the Croats, nor the Bosnian Muslims, nor the Kosovar Albanians ever attacked Serbia or Montenegro. In an attempt at psychological distancing from the crimes of the Belgrade regime, some Westerners harped endlessly on Croatian and Bosnian Muslim collaboration with the Nazis in the Second World War, even though as many or more Croats were anti-fascist Partisans as helped the Nazis, and Bosnian Muslim clerics interceded on behalf of Jewish and Serb victims of the Germans.

Milosevic, the man pushed to the foreground by the crisis, was a mediocrity, like Saddam Hussein or, for that matter, his hero Stalin. Milosevic was a product of Communist rule in a remote provincial town, Pozarevac, in Serbia, and of a narrow, bureaucratic culture. There is no evidence that he cared about the Serb people or Serbian traditions; but he certainly loved authority over others. When he gained power, after working his way through the Tito party system, he used it to posture as a world-historical figure. But he was similar to Vladimir Putin in Russia: an empty vessel waiting to be filled by new ideologies or mafia business opportunities once communism ended.