Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

September 29, 2000

Reply to Tom Fleming: Your Reality Check Bounced

"I do not underestimate Mr. Milosevic’s desire to cling to power at the expense of his people," Bill Clinton declared the other day, "I have witnessed it, lived with it and responded to it first-hand." This from a man who bombed other countries in order to distract the public’s attention from his sexual escapades! This from a man who put his country through the ordeal of an impeachment trial rather than taking the dignified route and resigning his office! "The current manipulations being carried out to steal the victory of the Serb people are useless tricks. They must stop" – thus France’s President Jacques Chirac. This from a man is accused of running a vast political slush fund as Mayor of Paris during the 1980s! But such sanctimonious nonsense from our senior statesmen in response to Yugoslavia’s elections was only to be expected. More surprising has been the reaction of people who, one would have thought, ought to know better. Case in point: Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming’s recent attack on me in

Fleming’s arguments are bizarre. And I cannot pretend to have fully figured out what he is trying to say. Fleming elides over every important distinction. He starts off by informing us that Milosevic is really our man in the Balkans. Uncle Sam kept him "in power… as the man we love to hate. Milosevic has served US purposes all too well, in brokering the Dayton Accords, in provoking the conflict over Kosovo, in justifying the brutal sanctions whose principal effect is to keep Milosevic and his stooges in power and luxury." Bombing a country, destroying its industries, imposing a painful sanctions regime, indicting its leaders would seem a strange way to express one’s gratitude. Milosevic is "our man" when he is cooperating with Washington to broker the Dayton Accords. But he is also "our man" when he is not cooperating with Washington and "provoking conflict over Kosovo." And what do you know? He is "our man" yet again when he is being bad, and thereby "justifying the brutal sanctions" on Yugoslavia. Leaving aside the peculiarities, not to say incoherence, of the argument, it is nice to know that Fleming is now on board the official US interpretation of recent Yugoslav history. US policymakers, after all, love nothing so much as to personalize America’s conflicts with the rest of the world. The way to sell an imperial agenda to a distinctly skeptical public is by manufacturing new Hitlers – forever on the march, forever challenging the democracies. Milosevic was merely a recent addition to the club that at one time or another included Saddam Hussein, Colonel Qaddafi, Manuel Noriega, Ayatollah Khomeini, Osama bin Laden, and Kim Il Sung. But Fleming seems to think that this demonization of Milosevic was richly deserved. It is nice to know also that Fleming now accepts the official US line that it was Milosevic – not the Albanians, the KLA or their American patrons – who provoked the "conflict over Kosovo."

In contrast to Milosevic, on whom the United States looks favorably, there stands Democratic Oppositon leader Vojislav Kostunica, whom – if Fleming is to be believed – the "State Department hates." "You can tell this both from a long series of official statements about his ‘extreme nationalism’," Fleming explains, "and from the negative opinions expressed by the constellation of Washington think tanks that follow the State Department line. When I discussed Kostunica with several Balkans experts from the department, they were openly contemptuous: He was too anti-American, too nationalistic, and – above all – too honest. They did not think he would take their money, even if funneled through the usual sources – or would he? I had to tell them the bad news that he would not." This is really amazing stuff. Common sense and simple observation have no place in Fleming’s view of the world. Pick up a newspaper or switch on the TV and you come across US officials rooting for Kostunica. That must be for show only! The United States pours in more than $75 million to bankroll the opposition to Milosevic. The United States creates the united opposition. Zoran Djindjic (Kostunica’s campaign manager) – along with most of the rest of the Democratic Opposition – is on the US payroll. But Kostunica’s hands are clean. He stands in bold defiance of the United States. Milosevic, on the other hand, is "our man" even though just about every single public statement by just about every single US official for over ten years – not forgetting candidate Bill Clinton’s demand in 1992 that Milosevic be indicted as a "war criminal" – has been filled with hostility towards him that bordered on hysteria. If Fleming means that fierce US opposition has strengthened Milosevic’s position within Yugoslavia, then he is as much "our" man as Stalin was. After all, if it had not been for his brutal imposition of Communism in Eastern Europe, there would have been no NATO and no US domination of Europe.

Where is the evidence for US hatred for Kostunica? Fleming does not quote from the "long series of official statements about his ‘extreme nationalism’." Instead, he asks that we simply take his word for it. He has chatted with "several Balkans experts" from the State Department, and they were "openly contemptuous." But let us follow the logic of Fleming’s argument. Suppose he is right. Suppose the United States really "hates" Kostunica. What good will his victory then serve? The United States will simply continue with its current policy of "brutal sanctions." In no time, he will be presented in the media as yet another Milosevic, dangerously enamored of extreme nationalism and ethnic hatred. But he will be in a very weak position to defy the United States. After all, Kostunica’s election victory will have been interpreted in Washington as clear evidence that every nation has its price. Before the Serbs may have been hated, but at least they enjoyed a certain a grudging respect. Now the United States will conclude that the Serbs are like everyone else: Shower them with enough money and they will vote the "right" way. Moreover, the fall of Milosevic will be seen as vindication of last year’s bombing. The Serbs themselves have now rejected the man who, as NATO repeatedly insisted even as it launched its cruise missiles and B-2 bombers, was the source of all their problems.

The bombing had forced the Serbs to accept NATO occupation of Kosovo. Now they will be made to part with it. Bernard Kouchner has already declared that Kosovo must be granted independence, whoever is in charge in Belgrade. "Certainly Kosovars want democracy in Serbia, but at the same time, the majority in Kosovo want independence," he explained the other day. Does Fleming seriously think that Kostunica will be able to defy the United States and insist on retaining Yugoslav sovereignty over Kosovo? One demand will follow another. Milosevic must be handed over to The Hague. Vojvodina must be accorded special status. Perhaps the Sandjak as well. Then will come demands that Serbia puts its financial house in order. The Serbs will be made to swallow the familiar bitter IMF medicine of massive public spending cuts, closure of "uncompetitive" industries, and openness towards foreign investors out to do some "asset stripping."

Yet Kostunica’s American worshippers, including Fleming and his Chronicles colleague Srdja Trifkovic continue to indulge themselves in their puerile fantasies. In their view, Kostunica will both defend Serbia’s nationhood more vigorously than Milosevic and, at the same time, be a welcome figure in the chancelleries of the West. Here is Trifkovic recently praising Kostunica for "promising to bring Yugoslavia out of international isolation and criticizing the West for policies that, in his view, had helped Milosevic hold on to power. ‘We must normalize relations with the world,’ Kostunica said…. However, he said Yugoslavia must not become ‘anybody’s protectorate.’…. This is the voice that the State Department hates to hear: that of a civilized, reasonable, dignified, and self-respecting Serbia…. From Washington’s point of view, a Kostunica victory would leave Serbia under the control of a tough, implacable nationalist for another political cycle and many more years to come. It would derail US hopes of negotiating a broad settlement to Yugoslav issues on Washington’s terms." But if Kostunica intends to derail US objectives in the Balkans, should one not expect that "international isolation" – and worse – will soon be the fate of the "new" Yugoslavia?

Two weeks earlier, Trifkovic seemed to be suggesting just that. "Kostunica’s candidacy," he wrote, "has caused near-panic in those Western (notably American) circles that regard the survival of Milosevic as conditio sine qua non of their present and future Balkan strategy…. Since Kostunica looks like a man with a real chance, the attack against him is brutal. Kostunica is now described in State Department background briefings as an old fashioned Serb nationalist, a sort of ‘Seselj in coat-tails,’ and thus unacceptable as a partner of the ‘international community.’ His condemnation of last year’s NATO bombing and his refusal to commit himself to cooperation with The Hague ‘war crimes tribunal’ are pointed out as evidence of his unsuitability." It is hard to make any sense of this. If US officials regard Kostunica as "unacceptable as a partner of the ‘international community’," then why bother voting for him? Why risk chaos and the possibility of civil war, if the result will be no different than if Milosevic stayed in power. After all, if the sanctions remain in place, corruption will continue as much under a Kostunica regime as under a Milosevic one.

Without pausing for breath, Trifkovic continues: "If the West is finally serious about replacing Milosevic and allowing Serbia to find its place in the community of nations, it should tell Vuk Draskovic to call off his farce and get on board with everyone else against the despot. It should hint that accusations of his complicity with the regime would be taken very seriously if he does not do so. Western diplomats should indicate their awareness of his many skeletons in his closets…. This might work because Draskovic, a deeply insecure man, cherishes Western acceptance." Hang on a minute! Is this not the very imperialism that Chronicles supposedly opposes? Yet here is Trifkovic urging the West to take over the politics of Yugoslavia. The remarks about Draskovic are extraordinary. What does he mean by "accusations of his complicity with the regime would be taken very seriously"? Should he too be shipped off to The Hague? Has Chronicles now taken to championing international tribunals?

Interestingly enough, in a June 1997 article in Chronicles, Trifkovic inadvertently let the cat out of the bag. He admitted the absurdity of the idea that Slobodan Milosevic was the reason Serbia found itself confronted by an intensely hostile US-led West. He mentioned Milosevic’s 1992 offer to resign if that would in any way improve Serbia’s international position (a somewhat surprising act for a man invariably characterized as a "power-mad despot"). "Without any political price, or indeed commitment, it was possible to undermine Milosevic," Trifkovic writes, "by hinting that…change at the top in Belgrade could contribute to a re-examination of the overall American attitude to the Serbs in general, and to the issue of recently introduced UN sanctions in particular. Washington’s response was the exact opposite of this. In an interview with the National Public Radio, two days after Milosevic’s statement, Ambassador Zimmerman commented… that it was ‘of no consequence’ to the United States who was in power in Serbia; but that whoever it be, he would have to observe the will of the ‘international community,’ which in Zimmerman’s scheme of things means the United States. In effect, Zimmerman confirmed and endorsed Milosevic's claim that the problem was not him per se, or his power structure, but the rigid unwillingness to validate any Serb claims in Washington." Exactly. So what then is the point of Trifkovic and Fleming endlessly railing against Milosevic, and fantasizing about how the West really does have the best interests of the Serbs at heart?

And this is where we come to the piece of legerdemain – the suggestion that Milosevic "sold out" the Serbs to American interests. "So what is the secret of Milosevic’s success in making himself indispensable?" Trifkovic asks tendentiously (Milosevic is nothing of the kind), "The answer is simple: his readiness to play the role of the New World Order Gauleiter in the Balkans. The Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia, unwilling to submit to Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic but unable to resist without help from Serbia itself, were doomed to defeat once Milosevic decided that they could pose a threat to his undisputed authority. In the words of Vojislav Kostunica,… ‘Milosevic decided some time in early 1993 that he would rather have total control in a very small Serbia, than risk competition from Pale and Knin. The logical outcome of this was his preference for the Croatian victory in the Krajina, and for the Muslim hegemony in Bosnia. That explains why he did nothing to help the Serbs in Croatia, and that’s why he has sold the Bosnian Serbs down the river at Dayton.’ By betraying the struggle for self-determination of the Serbs west of the Drina, by calmly stabbing them in the back, Mr. Milosevic has shrewdly purchased the lasting benevolence of those who run today’s ‘Western democracies.’" So while the West for years denounced Milosevic for his alleged shameless exploitation of Serb nationalism, it turns out he was "our" man all along busily destroying Serb nationhood. And who attacks him for his supposed "betrayal" of the Serbs? Why, it’s Fleming’s and Trifkovic’s hero, Vojislav Kostunica – the man preparing to "bring Yugoslavia out of international isolation" and to "normalize relations with the world."

What Serb nationalists, particularly those living abroad do not seem to realize is that Milosevic probably got the best deal he could from the Western powers. Germany and the United States encouraged the break-up of Yugoslavia, while picking its clients among the secessionists. The Germans plumped for the Croats and the Slovenes; the Americans for the Moslems of Bosnia and Kosovo. The Serbs, identified as the nation most eager to hold Yugoslavia together, were cast as the villains. Confronted by such overwhelming power, Milosevic had little choice but to preserve the integrity of Serbia and avoid armed attack. From 1992 on, the prospect of NATO's bombing Serbia was very real. Milosevic had been wily enough to postpone it for as long as he did. The idea that a leader more "nationalist" than Milosevic would have succeeded in defending the Serbs of Krajina or in attaching Serb Bosnia to Serbia proper is puerile fantasy.

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