Politics & Policy

War Crimes and Punishment

Karadzic, arrested.

So where was Radovan Karadzic all this time? Karadzic was arrested on a bus Monday afternoon in Belgrade, where, behind the cunning disguise of a long white beard, he had been practicing alternative medicine — an apparent career change from his previous occupations as sports psychologist and, later, as murderous president of the Bosnian Serb Republic.

Karadzic had never been too hard to find. In 1996 the BBC’s Robin Lustig drove to the gates of his home in suburban Belgrade and requested an interview. There were florid tales of how Karadzic, like some hero of an epic poem, had donned the cassock of an Orthodox monk and had scurried from monastery to monastery. But the truth turned out to be more mundane. We now know that Karadzic was a brutal thug who had lived rather openly in a country that had grown weary of suffering for his crimes.

It has taken too long, but there are important lessons in how Karadzic was finally captured. In the twelve years since the Dayton Peace Accords forced Karadzic from power, Serbia’s options on the international stage have gradually narrowed. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both deserve credit for promoting democracy in Serbia while limiting the options successive Serbian governments. This often required forcing the Serbs to face hard truths. It also required standing up to Serbia’s powerful would-be patrons, especially Russia, whenever they suggested that Belgrade might negotiate an easy way out.

The track record is clear: Every time the U.S. stood firmly against Serbia’s ultranationalists and its apologists abroad, it destabilized Belgrade’s recalcitrant regimes. Tragically, this is a lesson that American administrations took too long to learn.

In 1991, when Serbia began attacking other Yugoslav republics that sought independence, the first Bush administration dithered, imposing an arms embargo on the entire former Yugoslavia. This half-hearted quest for “stability” ultimately helped only those who already had guns — Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army. Candidate Bill Clinton decried the “butchers of Belgrade,” but President Clinton maintained the embargo, fiddling with European schemes to partition Bosnia into Swiss-style cantons. Meanwhile Milosevic’s allies carved out their own blood-soaked fiefdom.

When I interviewed Radovan Karadzic in 1993, he sat comfortably in a country home in the hillside town of Pale. From there he could see watch his soldiers strangle Sarajevo. Karadzic spun his tawdry conspiracy theories: the U.S. only complained about the treatment of Bosnia’s Muslims, he opined, because it wanted to curry favor with the oil oligarchies of the Middle East. But Karadzic himself seemed bored with these justifications, and why shouldn’t he have been? He had already repeated them ad nauseam in comfortable Swiss hotels where international negotiators had pleaded for his compliance. He had nothing to fear and thus no case to make. “We know you are not going to bomb,” he told me.

At the time Karadzic’s forces had surrounded enclaves of ethnic Muslims in Eastern Bosnia that the United Nations had declared “safe havens.” In July 1995 the Serbs finally put an end this charade, capturing the blue-helmeted peacekeepers as hostages and rounding up all able-bodied Bosnian Muslim men. Over the next month these 8,300 men were executed by dozens and hundreds at a time — lined up along riverbanks and shot from behind; hoarded into warehouses and killed with machine guns and hand grenades; held prisoner in school gymnasiums until bulldozers could finish digging their mass graves.

After the Srebrenica massacre the U.S. set a new course, one that saved lives and forced changes in Serbian politics. In August 1995 Clinton finally lifted the arms embargo and unleashed NATO air strikes, bombing the Serbs to the bargaining table. For the first time, Milosevic looked weak. Serbia noticed. The following year Serbs protested Milosevic’s annulment of local elections. After three months of mass demonstrations, Milosevic handed Belgrade over to its first non-Communist mayor in 50 years.

The U.S. kept up the pressure. In 1998 President Clinton bypassed a deadlocked U.N. Security Council and orchestrated the NATO bombing of Serbian forces that were descending on the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo. Clinton also struck at the heart of Milosevic’s regime, bombing government buildings and bridges in Belgrade. The attacks outraged the Serbs and their allies in Moscow. Russian president Boris Yeltsin blustered, even dropping paratroopers to seize Kosovo’s main airport. But Clinton held firm, liberating Kosovo before Milosevic could slaughter again. And again, Serbs took note of the dictator’s weakness. In August 2000 they protested Milosevic’s attempt to steal a presidential election, eventually driving him from power and delivering him to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

Since Milosevic’s removal, Serbia has often been tempted to try to reclaim the dark victories he promised. Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition leader who replaced Milosevic as president, often hinted that the Serb-dominated parts of Bosnia ought to be brought under Belgrade’s writ. The Serbian Radical Party pledged that Serbia would never bow to international pressure over fugitive murderers or lost lands.

As long as Kosovo’s status seemed in flux, such ultranationalists flourished. In presidential elections held earlier this year, Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic won the first round with nearly 40 percent of the vote and later served briefly as speaker of the Serbian parliament. Only an awkward coalition of democrats, former Communists and moderate nationalists kept him from real power.

But that awkward coalition actually benefited from the international community’s firm line. In February, when the Bush administration recognized Kosovo’s overdue declaration of independence, critics worried that this insult to Serbian pride would inflame nationalist sentiment and fuel the Radicals’ rise. But with Kosovo’s independence settled, the Radicals’ virulence looked like an embarrassing leftover of a best-forgotten past. In May’s parliamentary elections Serbs voted instead for a coalition running under the telling name “For a European Serbia.” The U.S. and EU had long made clear that Serbia could not return to international respectability as long as war criminals wandered freely in Belgrade’s streets. With talks on EU membership hanging in the balance, the Serbian government finally brought Karadzic in.

Serbia still has a long way to go. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general who orchestrated the worst atrocities of the Yugoslav wars, including the Srebrenica massacre, remains at large in Belgrade. No doubt he too will soon be captured, now that the Serbian government is eager to prove that it is willing to play ball according to civilized rules. Of course, delivering war criminals can also serve to obscure the past. Many Serbs would like to scapegoat Karadzic and Mladic as sorcerers who held them in their thrall. But the Serbs relative indifference to Karadzic’s arrest suggests that they are beginning to reconsider their recent history.

In the meantime, we might also draw some bipartisan lessons from the way Karadzic was finally driven from his home above Sarajevo to arrest on a Belgrade bus. While the U.S. fiddled through peace talks with men of manifestly ill will, murderers such as Karadzic and Milosevic seemed invulnerable. But when American presidents of both parties were willing to challenge such thugs — even in face of international criticism — their regimes crumbled and their people revolted.

There are obvious and enormous differences between American engagement in the Balkans and the Bush administration’s actions in the Middle East — crucial differences of the size of commitment, of treasure spent, of soldiers’ lives shattered or lost. But are there not also some telling similarities between how American leadership ultimately brought peace to the Balkans and the role the U.S. now plays in the Middle East? Sometimes, it seems, America can best promote peace by refusing to dally with dictators. Sometimes justice can best be done by insisting that free peoples be able to choose their leaders, and those leaders in turn govern with an eye to the boundaries that the civilized world respects.

We may wait still years until the Palestinians elect a government that turns over terrorists for trial. If the Iraqi government crumbles or falls into vicious hands, we may yet pay a still higher price for removing Baghdad’s own war criminal from power. But despite the hopes of many, the alternative to strong American engagement is not always peace. Too often instead it is a bored and brutal tyrant, spinning lies from a perch above the lives he destroys.

Chandler Rosenberger is a lecturer in International Relations at Boston University. He covered the Yugoslav wars for National Review.


The Latest