American Enterprise Online
March 20, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd

Under the guise of holding Yugoslavia together, he dismembered it and then destroyed it. After promising to forge a greater Serbia, he turned his homeland into an international pariah. Along the way, he and his henchmen razed ancient landmarks, turned villages into rape camps and killed between 150,000 and 250,000 of their fellow citizens. To atone for some of those sins, Serbia handed him over to a war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where the unrepentant, unapologetic, unreformed, unpunished Slobodan Milosevic died nine days ago. Last weekend, he was buried southeast of Belgrade. 

Milosevic’s peaceful passing provides an opportunity to revisit several lessons that should inform US policy.  

Sovereignty is not a license for crime.

Regimes and leaders that behave in the manner of a Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein have forfeited the protections and privileges of sovereignty, regardless of the UN’s feckless legalisms and corrosive impartiality.  

The principle should be no different than the sliding scale between individual rights and public safety in America: Police cannot break into a home and violate a citizen’s little sphere of sovereignty without cause. But once they have that cause, once they have evidence that a citizen is brewing meth or beating his wife or plotting terror, that sphere of sovereignty can be pierced.  

Likewise, the protections of sovereignty evaporate as a regime violates international norms of behavior, until finally, those protections are gone. This is not some new concept. As Theodore Roosevelt put it more than a century ago, there are certain atrocities, certain crimes, that invite action and intervention. “The cases must be extreme in which such a course is justifiable,” he said. “What form the action shall take must depend upon the circumstances of the case; that is, upon the degree of the atrocity and upon our power to remedy it.”  

In Yugoslavia and Iraq and Afghanistan, the cases were extreme enough to invite intervention long before it finally came.  

War-crimes trials should not be broadcast until the trial is concluded. 

Monsters like Milosevic, Saddam and their ilk do not need or deserve a platform to spew their vile ideas and defend the indefensible. One of the reasons Milosevic’s trial dragged on so long was his ability to play to the cameras and frustrate the court with absurd motions and claims. Reading from the same playbook, Saddam last week called on Iraqis to “resist invaders” and mocked the tribunal as a “comedy court.”  

Rather than being aired live, such trials should be taped and released as appropriate. This isn’t censorship. After all, the Nuremburg Trials were not beamed across the world—or Germany—in real-time. As Court TV noted on the fiftieth anniversary of Nuremburg, “There were many days when nothing was filmed.”  

Moreover, it pays to recall that the most important, influential cases in the United States—those heard and decided by the US Supreme Court—are not televised. Yet somehow the American people, who are more addicted to TV than any other nation on earth, cope with these deliberations and decisions being handed down (gasp) in writing.

In short, the trial of Saddam Hussein should be videotaped for the millions of Iraqis who want to see justice done, but it should no longer be beamed live into Iraqi homes, where Saddam’s rants and stunts have the effect of undermining the new government.   

While we’re on the subject of justice, let’s take a look at the kind of justice Milosevic received during his five years in The Hague. According to the BBC, he had a private room with a fax machine, computer and satellite television. He had daily access to “a gym, a recreation room and an outside courtyard.” The BBC described the cell as “comfortable and informal,” adding that Milosevic and other inmates could “telephone their families for seven minutes a day, cook for themselves, paint or play the piano or guitar.”  

Slate’s Julian Davis Mortenson description of the UN’s Hague Detention Center was even more eye-opening: “The accommodations looked like nothing so much as a string of dorm rooms in a college residence hall,” according to Mortenson. “With radios, coffee machines, and full private bathrooms, the cells looked at least as comfortable as your average Super 8.” For his crimes, the Butcher of Belgrade could play ping-pong or darts or chess or volleyball or soccer. He could read from a library of books, build models, dabble in ceramics, learn the ins-and-outs of computers. “It was all startlingly cheery—even homey.”

In other words, given the hell he visited upon his subjects and his neighbors, Milosevic didn’t receive anything close to justice. He lived more comfortably than most of his subjects—and died far less painfully than any of his victims.

Saddam’s cell is reportedly not as comfy, but it’s not exactly what most of us would think appropriate for someone known as “the Butcher of Baghdad.” Unlike Milosevic, he’s kept in solitary confinement. But CNN has reported that Saddam has perks like a small outdoor garden, books and an air-conditioned cell. One doubts the American and coalition troops who ended his pogroms and rolled back his regime have much time to garden or read.  

Sometimes the people do share responsibility with their government.

US presidents invariably say, “Our quarrel is not with [insert people group or nation here].” Bush 41 said it about Iraq and Panama; Clinton said it about Serbia and Somalia; Bush 43 said it about Iraq and Afghanistan. That quaint notion is sometimes flatly wrong. Some nations do share responsibility for the actions committed by their leaders, in their name. Serbia circa 1995 was a case in point.  

Recall that as the winds of change blew open the Iron Curtain from 1989-1991, the people of Serbia faced in Milosevic nothing more frightening or evil than what the rest of Eastern Europe overcame: While the Serbs cheered Milosevic’s megalomania, the East Germans defied the Stasi secret police, the Russians reversed a KGB coup and faced down the mighty Red Army, and people from Budapest to Prague fought back memories of 1956 and 1968, when tanks and bullets crushed other revolutions.  

Yet Serbia decided to follow a xenophobic demagogue into post-Cold War Europe. While Sarajevo and Srebrenica and Dubrovnik and Pristina bled, Milosevic’s subjects shrugged. They knew what he was doing in Bosnia and Croatia and later in Kosovo. But they didn’t stop him. Indeed, many of those who toppled his government in 2000 once cheered his promise to return Serbia to its 14th-century glory—a promise laced with hate and bloodlust.   

We need not hold this against Serbia forever, but in the 1990s, our quarrel was very much with the Serbian people. Likewise, now that proto-Palestine has elevated Hamas through democratic means, the Palestinian people bear responsibility for the actions of their freely elected leaders.  

Finally, whether the EU’s political leaders like it or not, the US must lead.

If nothing else, Milosevic’s war proved that Europe cannot function as a force for regional or global stability, at least not collectively. In this way, the Balkans would serve as a preview of what was to come in Iraq. 

When Yugoslavia began to descend into civil war in 1991, the Europeans seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to prove they were ready to lead. It was, as one European diplomat declared, “the hour of Europe.” Washington took the hint and stepped aside. But as historian William Pfaff observes in The Wrath of Nations, the Europeans were “unable to act collectively and refused to act individually.”  

After four years of feckless diplomacy and 250,000 deaths, the hour of Europe had past. The United States reasserted itself in late 1995, brought the Yugoslav war to a rapid conclusion and made sure to avoid a repeat in Kosovo by leading from the outset.  

One cause of the Balkan debacle was Europe’s reliance on, and misplaced confidence in, soft power. Soft power, as opposed to hard power, seeks to leverage economics, diplomacy and multilateral institutions while eschewing military force. Sometimes it is effective; sometimes it isn’t. As others have noted, after two world wars and a cold war, it may be the only kind of power Europe knows how to use.  

This was never more apparent than in the months leading up to the Iraq War, which proved that certain European states had learned nothing from a decade of diplomatic failure in the Balkans. Thanks to French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, it took eight weeks for the UN Security Council to agree on a resolution requiring Iraq to comply with existing resolutions. But resolving only to be unresolved, as Churchill once said, the French and Germans refused to authorize military action to ensure compliance.  

Even though some EU governments are talking tough about Iran, they did the same in Iraq and Yugoslavia. Perhaps the best we can hope for when push comes to shove with Tehran is an EU that doesn’t stand in the way of action.