Those of us who had some involvement in Bosnian peacekeeping efforts many years ago might be astonished to learn that, after all the propaganda, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) finally exonerated Slobodan Milošević of wrongdoing in the Bosnian War of the early 1990s. This result is nothing less than shocking. The full text of the judgment can be found here.
The Western press–chiefly that of the United States, Britain, and France–were united in painting Milošević as a new Hitler, plunging Europe into the worst carnage since the Second World War. He was portrayed as the architect of ethnic cleansing, a monster, and a sadist who needed to be destroyed at all costs. The truth, although it arrives decades too late, is something quite different.
The following quote sums up the general conclusion of the tribunal:
With regard to the evidence presented in this case in relation to Slobodan Milošević and his membership in the JCE, the Chamber recalls that he shared and endorsed the political objective of the Accused and the Bosnian Serb leadership to preserve Yugoslavia and to prevent the separation or independence of BiH and co-operated closely with the Accused during this time. The Chamber also recalls that Milošević provided assistance in the form of personnel, provisions, and arms to the Bosnian Serbs during the conflict.
However, based on the evidence before the Chamber regarding the diverging interests that emerged between the Bosnian Serb and Serbian leaderships during the conflict and in particular, Milošević’s repeated criticism and disapproval of the policies and decisions made by the Accused and the Bosnian Serb leadership, the Chamber is not satisfied that there was sufficient evidence presented in this case to find that Slobodan Milošević agreed with the common plan. [Para. 3460]
In other words, Milošević was just one of several leaders who was involved in the Bosnian War, and he actually tried to limit atrocities, not provoke them. He quarreled frequently with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, according to the findings of the report, over Karadzic’s indulgence in brutality. Without doubt atrocities were committed during the war, but they were done by independent, local militia leaders who were not taking direct orders from Belgrade.
Both Milošević and Karadzic wanted to maintain the Yugoslav state, but Milošević always was careful to take a more cautious line in dealing with Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Far from seeking confrontation, he tried to achieve his goals through ways short of extreme violence:
The Chamber found that based on a conversation between the Accused and Milošević on 24 October 1991, it was also clear that Slobodan Milošević was attempting to take a more cautious approach while the Accused was adamant that the goal of the Bosnian Serb leadership was to ensure that they would establish full authority in their territories and that they would announce their own Bosnian Serb Assembly.
The Chamber also found that while Milošević expressed reservations about excluding Bosnian Muslims, the Accused was adamant that there were not even 10% of Bosnian Muslims who supported Yugoslavia and that they could not take such a risk. [Para. 3277]
Milošević even spoke out against ethnic cleansing, and sought to prevent it as best he could:
At a meeting in Belgrade on 15 March 1994 attended by Jovića Stanišić, Martić, Mladić, and the Accused, Slobodan Milošević stated that “[a]ll members of other nations and ethnicities must be protected” and that “[t]he national interest of the Serbs is not discrimination.” [Para. 3288]
These findings are totally at odds with what the American and European public were being told at the time. He was clearly against ethnic cleansing, as this quote from the tribunal’s findings shows:
In March 1992, in a meeting with international representatives, Slobodan Milošević described the situation in BiH as similar to “dynamite”, and if anyone favoured one of the parties, there would be hell but he had called the Accused and told him to “cool it.” Milošević also said that Yugoslavia hoped for intensive links with BiH. Later in the war, in meetings with international representatives, Milošević also made assurances that he would speak to the Bosnian Serbs, that he continued to condemn “ethnic cleansing” but that the world was “satanizing” the Serbs without condemning actions by the other parties. [Para 3280]
Has the mainstream press picked up this story, and publicized it with the same vehemence that they once sought to vilify Milošević? Has former President Bill Clinton, the man who led the drive to bomb Serbia, made any public statement about these new revelations? Of course not. That would violate one of the cardinal rules of superpower behavior: never admit any wrongdoing, and never trouble oneself with the facts.
Clearly, Milošević was no choir boy, and I make no intention to portray him as such. He certainly was a ruthless opportunist and showed a propensity for bad judgment and ill-advised action. But he was only one of many tough actors in the region, and he was pursuing what he believed to be in his country’s and people’s best interests. In the 1990s, Russia, Serbia’s traditional ally, was too weak to offer Serbia much more than rhetorical support. There was no power that Serbia could turn to for help as a way to counter-balance the open-handed and generous support that the other belligerents were getting from Europe and the United States.
This gave the United States and other meddling powers the excuse they needed to intervene in the conflict and extend their spheres of influence in the Balkans.
Even more disturbing, perhaps, are the circumstances under which Milošević died. He had spent years in confinement and feared he was being poisoned. His requests to be flown to Russia for medical treatment were denied. The official 2006 report on his death confirms the presence of Rifamicin in his blood, a chemical that would have neutralized the effects of the heart medications he was taking at the time. The Tribunal knew of the presence of this drug in his system, yet never told him about it. Yet it was discussed with US officials at the time, behind Milošević’s back.
The vilification of Milošević continued even after the mid-1990s. A script was already in place in the public mind, and it could be counted on to serve its purpose when a pretext was needed to launch a war.
When the US wanted to bomb Serbia over the Kosovo crisis, it drew on familiar themes of ethnic cleansing (which we now know Milošević disliked and actually tried to stop.). The video below gives an idea of the kind of self-righteous moral posturing that, by now, has become the stock-in-trade for American leaders in their dealings with foreign nations. The moralizing is made even more grotesque by the fact that we now know the US and its allies were deliberately lying about Milošević’s role in the Bosnian War.
It seems it was in everyone’s best interest to see him quietly pass away from the scene. A public trial might expose uncomfortable truths.
The Milošević story is not unique. The same propaganda techniques are being used today to other official “enemies” whose only crime is to refuse to turn their countries and economies over to US multinational corporations. Other criminal acts include refusing to obey orders from Washington, or simply any manifestation of independence that conflicts with the interests of the sole superpower. The same sorts of lies were used to justify the invasion of Iraq, although in that case it was “weapons of mass destruction” that was the useful pretext.
When we look to the Syrian civil war, for example, we see the same tactics of vilification being used against Bashar Al-Assad. The propaganda lies have been continuous, and need not be repeated here. What matters is that the same techniques are in play: media propaganda campaigns combined with the corruption of international organizations to advance US interests. This combination is effective, and has been used over and over. Time will tell whether the public learns anything from its experience with past manipulations.
(To learn more about my experiences with the Bosnian peacekeeping mission, check out my book Pantheon.)