A Petty Hitler
By WESLEY K. CLARK
March 13, 2006; Page A18
Published in The Wall Street Journal
Slobodan Milosevic's death in The Hague is a real tragedy for the international community. But most of all it will be a tragedy for the Serbs themselves. It will likely be another step in a series of historic Serb failures, martyrdom and isolation, all of which Milosevic himself grandly evoked to gain and maintain his power. I knew him as a nationalist leader and wartime adversary.
Along with the other Americans on Richard Holbrooke's 1995 Balkan peace talks mission, I spent countless hours with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. As NATO's then supreme allied commander, Europe, I haggled with Milosevic about war criminals and the Dayton Peace Agreement implementation in 1997, delivered NATO's warnings and threat in 1998, implored his cooperation in heading off renewed conflict, and then, when all else failed, I led the NATO military campaign which forced him to end ethnic cleansing and remove his troops and police from Kosovo. In 2003, I faced him again when I testified for the prosecution in his war crimes trial at The Hague.
While his death at The Hague ends his interminable trial, nothing is resolved. His death only compounds many of the difficult issues still facing the international community, Europe and Serbia itself.
In his 64 years, Milosevic was an army officer, a Communist, a bureaucrat, a banker and, above all, a Yugoslav Serb who used his skills and harsh nationalist rhetoric to parlay himself into the highest office in Yugoslavia only to then alienate and attack his fellow Yugoslav citizens. In four successive conflicts which he all lost, Milosevic used war as a means of plundering and disassembling his own country. He forced millions from their homes and caused several hundred thousands of deaths. He was rational and sometimes cunning, often a brilliant tactical negotiator but ultimately a fool of a strategist, whose reckless crimes included murder and genocide, and who has cost humanity as a whole and his own Serbs dearly.
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As a young man Milosevic was a dutiful communist and an outstanding student who scored top marks in school. His mother was a teacher who encouraged his studies but kept him away from sports. He fell in love with Mira Markovic, a personal favorite of Tito, who lost her mother during World War II in still unresolved circumstances. Her partisan mother was captured by the Nazis who interrogated, tortured, confessed and then supposedly killed her. More likely she was released only to be killed as a collaborator by fellow partisans. Milosevic himself lost both his parents and an uncle to suicide. But though he clearly had a dark side, I never saw Milosevic as a suicide risk -- he was too committed to himself and to his ideas.
During the many hours of our negotiations in the summer and autumn of 1995, we dined with him, chatted with him about history and geopolitics, and talked about everything from his experiences as a young man in America to his concerns for his family. Given his gruff, commanding manner, many joked during the Dayton peace talks that he was the real Godfather. But we quickly came to think of him more appropriately as a petty Hitler, an unlawful dictator capable of malice, murder and ethnic cleansing. Any arrangement with him had to be weighed morally: for its legitimization of Milosevic as well as its value in ending a bloody conflict.
During the Dayton peace talks, all of Milosevic's "qualities" were at display: his stubborn cunning and blustering outbursts, his often grandiose dreams of Serbia as one of the seven gateways of Europe, his patent disloyalty to his fellow Serbs and transparent lies about everything from Srebrenica to his attitudes toward other nations. He smoked and drank excessively, even as he complained about his blood pressure and his health. At the Paris signature ceremony for the Dayton negotiations, Milosevic was center stage, conversing with world leaders like President Bill Clinton. But he failed to deliver on many of his promises, especially regarding indicted war criminals like former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic. By the late summer of 1997, Serb resistance to NATO-led enforcement of the peace accords was rising and we called again on Milosevic for help. But he stubbornly refused to assist us. He still held dreams of a greater Serbia and he thought he had NATO's measure.
In the spring of 1998 he unleashed the next round of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, this time turning his Special Police against a prominent Albanian family in Kosovo, killing 60 of them, including women and children. For most of that year NATO struggled to find a balanced approach, alternating negotiations with intensifying threats to head off another war in former Yugoslavia. But Milosevic foolishly believed he could defy NATO warnings and launch a broad ethnic cleansing effort with impunity.
It was another strategic miscalculation by Milosevic. NATO followed through in its threats, unleashing a 78-day, gradually intensifying air campaign and threatened ground intervention. Coupled with Russian diplomatic assistance and his indictment for war crimes, Milosevic was forced to pull his forces out of Kosovo. It was yet another blow to his vision of a greater Serbia. When he tried the next year to win re-election, his opponents in Belgrade were ready -- demanding an honest vote and his resignation. Soon he was delivered to The Hague.
Predictably, his cause of death is being disputed by some of his Serb countrymen who blame the U.N. He will surely be lionized and glorified by the radical nationalists he so nurtured.
History's longest war crimes trial will never be concluded. Milosevic's many victims and their families will be denied justice. And the Serb people themselves will have one more escape from the awful truth of the crimes under Milosevic's leadership. His death comes at a bad time. Serbia is struggling to acknowledge its past and face its future. Indicted war criminals like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are still at large -- most likely living under official protection. The future status of Kosovo is unresolved and Serb participation in a resolution would be helpful. Another challenge will be Montenegro's upcoming referendum on its independence. And even as Serbia looks westward for help, its future alignment is still unsettled as the Serb people struggle to recognize how badly they have been deceived and misled.
Even during Milosevic's rule, many in Serbia yearned to join the EU and work with NATO. Its economic modernization would strengthen all its neighbors, including NATO members Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Its participation as a modern state would help promote political reconciliation and development throughout the Balkans. But all this means giving up the kind of hypernationalism that Milosevic trumpeted and fanned, and for many in Serbia, this has long been a mythology they have come to believe to offset the reality of deprivations, corruption and poverty.
Milosevic's death will likely bury the truth beneath another layer of charges and countercharges. His trial had been a long-running national TV drama in Serbia. The impact there of the evidence so painstakingly presented was blunted by Milosevic's star status at home and his grandiloquent and often irrelevant argumentation.
Now there will be no conviction and Serbia's weak leaders will have to cope with yet another obstacle in re-educating and reorienting their people. His death is as much a tragedy as his life. Both in life and in death, Milosevic has deprived millions of people of justice, hope and a better future.
Mr. Clark was supreme allied commander of NATO during the 1999 Kosovo campaign and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency in 2004.