April 4, 2001

Let the Serbs Handle Slobo

It might turn out to be fortunate, although I see no evidence yet that the timing was other than coincidental, that the current Serbian government arrested Slobodan Milosevic the same week the Bush administration was confronted with its first major foreign-policy incident with the downing of a U.S. spy plane near Chinese territorial waters. With all US eyes turned toward China, the 24 crew members aboard the highly secret (and supposedly sophisticated) E-3 surveillance plane, there is only a little energy left to demand that Serbia send the old scoundrel to The Hague.

In fact, the apparent jailing of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic by the government that replaced him via the ballot box last Fall could mark an important step forward in the life of Serbia and whatever else is left of the former Yugoslavia. Even though the pursuit of Milosevic does seem to be part and parcel of a sincere commitment on the part of Serbian leader Vojislav Kostunica, the timing of the raid on Slobo’s house and the apparently jurisdictional confusion surrounding the drawn-out incident make the incident less clear-cut in nature than one might have desired.


The fact that the arrest was so difficult and that it was apparently undertaken to meet a U.S.-imposed deadline takes some of the sheen off. But as Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute told me on Monday, "the new government wants to settle accounts with Milosevic more than anybody. He not only stole from Serbia but got the country into conflicts that have virtually crippled it."

The United States would do well to let the Serbian government handle the former dictator itself and not to continue to press its rather ridiculous and more than a trifle arrogant demand that the Serbs dispatch him at once to "that Kangaroo Court in the Hague," as Mr. Carpenter characterized the international war crimes tribunal. In fact, however, Mr. Milosevic, according to some news stories, might decide to be tried at The Hague because he just might face the possibility of a death sentence if convicted under Yugoslav law.


From the standpoint of relatively narrow Serbian interests, the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic might not be entirely beneficial. Assume, as Mr. Carpenter told me, that the arrest will be followed by an indictment for various crimes, including "economic crimes" against the Serbian people and Serbian law. Assume further that there is ongoing discussion of whether or not to extradite Mr. Milosevic to The Hague for trial, highlighting disagreement among Serbs who otherwise agree that Milosevic is a villain deserving of sever punishment.

All this will divert attention from the issues that have lately occupied international news organizations regarding the Balkans. The extremist Albanian groups, in some cases building on the Kosovo Liberation Army and in some cases on other organizations and impulses, have been causing all kinds of mischief in Kosovo, Macedonia and other countries or statelets bordering on Albania. This mischief was just starting to be fairly widely acknowledged and even deplored by right-thinkers everywhere.

But the news media have a short attention span and limited resources. If they devote more of their attention and resources to the ongoing struggle over whether Slobo is sent to The Hague – or even to his ongoing trial in Serbia if that is how things shake out – then less attention and resources will be available for coverage of Albanian mischief.

All of this provides ample reason for the United States not to play too large a role in deciding where and how Mr. Milosevic is tried for the various crimes he has committed. It will take a certain amount of hypocrisy for the United States to stay out of it, since Congress last year passed a law cutting off aid to the government in Belgrade unless it turned Milosevic over to the Hague before than. But the Bush administration has already performed the requisite verbal maneuvers, certifying that Belgrade has made sincere efforts to punish the former dictator.


That makes the decision to arrest Milosevic, even though it might not have been a simon-pure decision, quite possibly a relatively noble undertaking. Despite the likelihood that attention to Milosevic will divert attention from the machinations of their enemies, the Serbs have decided to make an attempt to bring Milosevic to some rough approximation of justice.

The fact that Milosevic might be charged not only with ordering murders and involving Serbia in conflicts that have had a good bit to do with unraveling whatever there was of a decent way of living in Serbia, but with the supposed economic crime of causing inflation and undermining the economy is ironic. Perhaps I should be pleased to contemplate the possibility that a socialist dictator will be charged with causing inflation.

It would be even more fun, of course, if causing inflation were more widely recognized as a crime against the people over whom one presumes to rule, and the precedent were used against other leaders – perhaps even putatively democratic leaders – who cause inflation. If this be a crime, virtually every government leader in the world has been guilty of it. Let the indictments fly and the lawsuits proliferate!


Not that I think that is likely. The capacity for hypocrisy among the so-called leaders of the free and unfree world is virtually unlimited. Let the courts do what they will against a defeated and discredited leader. The infection of treating stupid economic policies as criminal acts – even though in an existential sense they could very well be viewed that way – is unlikely to discomfit other leaders, especially the bloated NATOcrats who so desperately want to get their hands on Milosevic while supporting economic policies almost as stupid (and criminal?) as his.

The US has certified that Yugoslavia has done enough to bring Milosevic to justice to keep the aid flowing. This nicely elides the question of whether the US government should be sending aid to Yugoslavia or any foreign government. Ted Carpenter says that in some sense payments extracted from US taxpayers and sent to Serbia might be viewed as war reparations. It might be comforting to think that, but if the payments are not openly acknowledged as reparations paid to a Serbia wronged and harmed by the illegal and unconstitutional Kosovo bombing campaign – fat chance of that – they will not accomplish any positive good.

I would prefer, then, acknowledging that foreign aid is almost always harmful to the ordinary citizens of countries to which it is sent (though it sometimes maintains despots in power and reinforces their power) and ending it altogether. But that it a consummation unlikely to develop any time soon.


Having acknowledged that reality, however, one can still offer a muffled cheer or two fro what seems to be the de facto position of the United States – despite the howling of zealots like Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy – of letting the Serbs handle Milosevic for now. Maintaining a judicious distance from Mr. Milosevic’s ultimate fate is the right thing to do.


One more item, an observation from my recent trip to Washington to observe and report on the oral arguments in the US Supreme Court on the federal government’s civil injunction against the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Cooperative, which had been dispensing medical marijuana to certified patients after voters approved prop. 215 in 1996 (a subject on which I might write later for this venue).

Last Friday morning, as I was crossing the Capitol grounds on the Supreme Court side of the building, I saw a fairly sizable demonstration – 300 to 500 people – assembled to protest against US involvement in the civil war in Colombia and involvement in Latin America in general. The speakers mostly indulged in fairly standard rhetoric about the US only defending evil corporate interests and keeping the poor people down. But at least they were there.

Wherever I broached the subject in Washington – not everywhere I went because I was focused on other issues as well – I encountered uncertainty and trepidation about the determination of the United States to invoke the Holy War on Drugs as a justification for ongoing involvement in the ongoing civil war in Colombia. Almost everybody, across the ideological spectrum, feared that there was not only no exit strategy but no involvement strategy. Most people believe it will turn out badly and body bags will start coming back to the United States before long.

But so far almost nobody but the far left has gone so far as to organize protests or even to organize a letter-writing campaign. The war in Colombia may turn out to be more dangerous to this country than anything happening in the Balkans or the South China Sea. But so far little has been done to try to stop it or slow it down. Most people in Washington seem paralyzed at the idea of resisting.

Too bad.

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Text-only printable version of this article

Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the forthcoming book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column now appears every Wednesday on Antiwar.com.

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Alan Bock

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