July 13, 2001

Making a hero out of a smalltime hood

With the arrest and coming show trial of Slobodan Milosevic, we have several years of the most unpleasant prospects ahead of us. First of all, don't think it's going to end with Slobo: already the Bosnian Serbs are being pressured to give up Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, accused of "war crimes" in Bosnia, and we can look forward to ceaseless demands for more and more alleged "war criminals" to be extradited and sacrificed on the altar of the International Tribunal for War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia (ICTFY). When all resistance to Albanian military aggression is deemed to be a "war crime," every Slav is a potential "war criminal." If Carla the Implacable had her way she would put them all in the dock.


Oh yes, it's going to be insufferable, and it'll last forever. As the Balkans explode in yet another Albanian-driven crisis, this time in Macedonia, the show trial in The Hague will rationalize Western intervention as a "preventive" measure. The self-righteous pronunciamentoes of Carla Del Ponte, the partisan piety of Christiane Amanpour, the exhortations of "human rights" imperialists of the right and the left to extend "democracy" and "the rule of law" to every corner of the globe – this braying chorus of hags and nags is going to be deafening, and continuous. The air is already thick with propaganda. In a sense, we will all have to re-live the days of the Kosovo war, not only in following the details of the trial, but also in separating truth from fiction, and distinguishing facts from the party line. In short, it'll be like old times again – only worse, much worse, not only for the Serbian people, but for American non-interventionists.


As I pointed out in two previous columns, propaganda is the whole point of this show trial: to stigmatize and criminalize Serbian nationalism by associating it with Milosevic and his neo-Communist supporters. The target, of course, is President Vojislav Kostunica, a nationalist who is also a liberal constitutionalist: the NATO-crats hope that with Kostunica's political demise they can also bring about the abolition of Yugoslavia. News reports from Yugoslavia indicate that Kostunica and his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) are more popular than ever, with growing numbers of former Milosevic supporters deserting the old Socialist Party and joining the DSS in droves. The show trial will re-polarize a nationalist movement that was in the process of merging its "left" and "right" wings, and further undermine Kostunica's base. It will also put the Milosevic wing of Serbian nationalism in the spotlight, where its representatives will play out their assigned role as the Bad Guys. As in any WWF tournament, it's the villains – the growling, grimacing guys in black leather trunks – who draw in the spectators and generate the excitement. In this sense, the grimly glowering Slobodan Milosevic might just as well have been sent by Central Casting.


Yes, we have a lot to look forward to, none of it good. In addition to the pontifications of the War Party, who will claim that the trial justifies their war of aggression and legitimizes their phony Tribunal, we will have to listen to the rantings of Slobo's defenders – just as bad, in their own way, if not worse. Worse, because their denialism is absurd in the face of the unfolding evidence. A Reuters story released today [July 12], headlined "Academics Defend Milosevic," informs us that: "Slobodan Milosevic is innocent, evidence of mass graves is dubious and Serbs worldwide and their allies are ready to help defend him against NATO persecution, members of his international support committee say." Christopher Black, a Canadian lawyer and Communist Party activist, has organized the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic (ICDSM): "We are hoping to organize publicity campaigns, cultural campaigns – all sorts of methods to raise public consciousness about what's really going on."


Part of what's really not going on, at least from Black's perspective, is the unearthing of hundreds of bodies, complete with identification papers, in Serbia, and the exposure of what is being called "Operation Asanacija" – the digging up of civilians slaughtered in Kosovo and reburied in Serbia. The bodies of women and children, and even a fetus, have been unearthed in areas where the Serbian "special forces" had their training camps: the [London] Times claims 150, so far.


Virtually all the news stories on this grisly discovery have included inflated figures, ranging from 600 to 800, which are estimates for how many bodies they expect to dig up. But no matter how inflated these figures may turn out to be, the reality is that a great many bodies have already been discovered, and the evidence for the reburial operation is, in my view, perfectly credible if not yet conclusive. There seems little doubt that Slobodan Milosevic did indeed order the killing of hundreds of civilians during the Kosovo war, and then tried to cover it up – or else what are all those bodies doing in unmarked graves on Serbian soil?


Oh, but ICDSM honcho Christopher Black has an answer for that, according to the Reuters story: "'We've been hearing stories about mass graves since the start of the (Balkan) wars and every time you examine those alleged mass graves... they just disappear,' he said, appearing to take issue with the widely accepted findings of many investigators and forensic experts over the past decade." So, if we squint hard enough, and long enough, our vision will begin to blur, and we can "disappear" the bodies coming out of the ground in Serbia as if they had never existed.


Yes, we have indeed been hearing about mass graves and "genocide" for quite a long time, all through the Kosovo war. Yet nothing on the scale we were led to believe was ever discovered in Kosovo proper, where a total of about 3,000 bodies were found, including hundreds of slain Serbs, Gypsies, and others. As the war wound down, so did the claims of the War Party about the number of Kosovar casualties: first it was 100,000, then 50,000, and finally this was reduced, in the war's aftermath, to 10,000. Unable to back up their hyperbolic accusations of "genocide," the Tribunal had to settle, in the end, for an indictment accusing Milosevic of ordering the deaths of some 340 people. It was a big letdown, a stunning anticlimax to years of expectations that he would be charged with genocide. While there is talk that the charges may be expanded, this is easier said than done, and, in any case, this radical scaling down of the charges against a man who was supposed to be the 21st century equivalent of Hitler has made the Tribunal and its Anglo-American amen-corner look a little silly.


Unfortunately, this is matched if not surpassed by the silliness of Slobo's defenders, whose denialist rhetoric makes the "human rights" imperialists look like paragons of logic and reason. According to the denialists, Milosevic is entirely innocent, not a typical Balkan gangster but a hero whose only crime was to defend his country against NATO, and they demand his immediate release – not to be tried for the various crimes he is accused of in Serbia, but to be freed, and, perhaps, reinstated as the true President of Yugoslavia. (Kostunica "stole" the election, according to Mr. Black, just like George W. Bush "stole" the election from Al Gore.)


Antiwar.com was born, as many of you know, as an effort to get past the propaganda and discern at least some portion of the truth about what was really going on during the Kosovo war. We learned, during those months, to be skeptical of atrocity stories, to question everything put out by government sources, especially our own – but also to question the sometimes extravagant claims of the Yugoslavians, which were often no closer to the truth. If Western "news" stories were mostly NATO press releases printed verbatim, then the "news" coming out of Belgrade was in many instances no more accurate or dependable. Milosevic's propaganda machine was crude, clunky, and unconvincing, no match for NATO'S sophisticated wartime public relations operation – and even less so these days.


If you doubt that, you have only to check out the ICDSM website, where visitors are treated to a huge picture of a thuggish-looking guy in a black tee-shirt waving his fist in front of a crowd of banner-wielding young men similarly attired. On first glance it looks like a Hitler Youth rally, or, perhaps, Mussolini's march on Rome, but the accompanying copy tells a different story:

"Pictures from Friday, June 29th Demonstration in Belgrade. This included people from the Radical Party, the Socialist Party, Serbian Renewal, Serbian Unity as well as other parties plus tens of thousands of people who might have voted for the DOS [Democratic Opposition of Serbia] authorities but are now furious that these leaders have kidnapped the former Yugoslav head of state, Slobodan Milosevic, and shipped him to the discredited Tribunal at The Hague."


As to why anyone posing as a defender of the Serbian people would advertise a connection with the Serbian Radical Party – which, unlike the determinedly multiculturalist Milosevic and his commie wife, really does openly advocate ethnic cleansing of non-Serbians from the former Yugoslavia – is waaay beyond me. I would also note that the main target of the ICDSM seems to be not the Tribunal, or its legitimacy, but President Kostunica and his party, whom the ICDSM accuses of conspiring with Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic before "they illegally kidnapped President Milosevic." Material posted on their website accuses Kostunica of presiding over a "coup": no mention is made of Kostunica's spirited denunciation of Slobo's extradition, and there is little detailed analysis of the Tribunal or its authoritarian methods.


We are, however, treated to a bizarre "biography" of Slobodan Milosevic which makes no mention of his election defeat at Kostunica's hands, although it dutifully reports the "sweeping victory" he enjoyed in the 1992 Serbian state elections. In the never-never land of the Slobodan Milosevic Fan Club, he is still "President Slobodan Milosevic," and is reverently described as "a leading personality in the Republic of Serbia whose name is associated with the establishment of its constitutional-legal unity and the most important state and national interests of our country and its citizens." If they can wish away all those bodies coming out of the Serbian soil, then referring to the defeated Slobo, languishing away in his prison cell, as "President Milosevic," the Thomas Jefferson of Yugoslavia, is but a small matter.


The ICDSM is comic-opera stuff, not really to be taken all that seriously – except as an example of what to avoid. In denying that Milosevic was or is a figure of towering Hitlerian evil, it was obvious to most people that his relatively smalltime evil was entirely ordinary for that part of the world. In rejecting the war propaganda of the NATO powers that portrayed the Serbs as engaged in a "genocidal" campaign of "ethnic cleansing," I never believed they were entirely blameless, either. Antiwar.com's position was – and is – that it wasn't our fight, and that the US should have stayed well out of it. While we rejected the Serbian "devil theory," which ascribed all responsibility for the conflict and wanton killing to Belgrade, neither did we believe that the Serbs were angels.


We are therefore unsurprised to learn that Milosevic probably killed hundreds, and certainly not tens of thousands as initially claimed: nor does this change our position on the legality or morality of the Kosovo war. The near certainty that old Slobo is a relatively minor gangster, and indeed a murderer, does not make the case for the Kosovo war: on the contrary, the evidence so far proves that the war accelerated and expanded Milosevic's murderousness, and that without it the casualties would have been much lighter. We also note, with some satisfaction, that the myth of Serbian "genocide" against the Albanians has been partly dispelled by the paucity of the formal charges so far leveled against Milosevic.


Remember, though, that a show trial is not supposed to be all that convincing: it doesn't have to be, in order to hold the world's attention or gain widespread sympathy. The Moscow Trials, in which various former top Soviet officials were accused of fantastic crimes by Stalin's henchmen, weren't all that convincing either: everybody knew the "confessions" of Bukharin and others were phony, yet millions believed the charges. The aim of such a trial is not to convince onlookers that there is any fairness in the proceedings, but to show them that the judges have the power to enforce their decisions.


The seizure of Milosevic, you'll note, was followed by declarations from Croatia and even the hardline Bosnian Serbs that they would extradite their own accused war criminals to The Hague as fast as possible. As a display of naked power, the trial of Slobodan Milosevic is already proving its value. No wonder Carla Del Ponte is saying the trial could last for ten years: she and her cohorts want this sword of Damocles hanging permanently over the heads of any leaders who dare resist the Eastward expansion of the EU-NATO alliance.


If the prosecution and the Tribunal – they are one and the same – doesn't come off all that well, what with their secret evidence, masked witnesses, and ready admission of hearsay evidence, then the defense is even less sympathetic. With Christopher Black and the ICDSM thrown into the picture for comic relief, claiming that Milosevic didn't touch a single hair on an Albanian head, the scene is set for a real farce in The Hague. As the last Stalinists in the world – Ramsey Clark and his American Commie co-thinkers, Christopher Black and the Communist Party of Canada, and old-fashioned dupes like the surrealist playwright Harold Pinter – rally around the last Stalinist in Europe, the trial of Slobodan Milosevic takes on the air of one of Pinter's surrealist plays, in which the actors utter gibberish against a forbidding backdrop of stark unreality.


The canonization of St. Slobo is a phenomenon, I'm afraid, that is not confined to the far Left, but has even infiltrated the non-interventionist Right. Taki complained the other day that poor old Slobo "has been made out to be as nasty a tyrant and schemer as there is, but it's all a creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – i.e., it's pure unadulterated bullshit. In fact, I'll go even further. Milosevic deserves respect and admiration for his defiant demeanor before the kangaroo court in the Hague." This is an indication of just what we have got ourselves in for. The spectacle of the ominously authoritarian Tribunal seizing and jailing the ex-leader of a defeated nation, and vowing that they'll convict him even if it takes ten years to do it, has created such a backlash of contempt that even Milosevic begins to look "admirable."


But non-interventionists must have no illusions about old Slobo, whose grossly exaggerated crimes are, in spite of that, all too real. He was, indeed, a nasty tyrant, and no decent person can or should defend his record: indeed, for non-interventionists to base their case for Western disengagement from the Balkans on a defense of Milosevic personally and politically would be disastrous. For this would have to mean that every body dug out of the raw Serbian dirt, every bone fragment, every murder unearthed would stand as a refutation and a reproach – a position the War Party would dearly like to see us in. The case against US intervention in the Balkans, in Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter, cannot rest on the argument that the leaders of these countries are really benevolent or even "admirable." The world is full of leaders who are far from admirable, yet that hardly means we need to troll about overthrowing them.


The case against US intervention is being made in the headlines every day, as the Albanian genie we let out of the bottle continues to rampage through the Balkans. This, and not Slobodan Milosevic's supposedly admirable qualities, is the truth the Tribunal is trying to obscure. Our policy was supposed to secure "peace," but instead it has sown the seeds of a much wider war: this is the chief lesson of the Kosovo war, one that doesn't require whitewashing Milosevic before it is learned.

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Archived columns

Canonizing St. Slobo

The Rape of Japan

Lani Guinier in Macedonia

Milosevic's Martyrdom

Classic Raimondo: The British Were Coming!

'The Trial'

In Defense of Slobo

Macedonia, R.I.P.

FDR Unmasked

Living in Infamy

Bush Plays the Russian Card

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The 'New' Unilateralism

Chaos in Katmandu

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McCain's Mutiny

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The Resurrection of Gary Powers

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Richard Cohen, Moral Cripple

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Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com. He is also the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (with an Introduction by Patrick J. Buchanan), (1993), and Into the Bosnian Quagmire: The Case Against US Intervention in the Balkans (1996). He is an Adjunct Scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Libertarian Studies, and writes frequently for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard.


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