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Slobo’s Stooges By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"No one now disputes that stopping Slobodan Milosevic was the right thing to do,” wrote the Wall Street Journal this week, several days after the deposed Serbian strongman expired in his cell in The Hague. It’s an appealing sentiment, suggesting as it does that the man who presided over the deaths of 250,000 people in Yugoslavia in the 1990s died unsung and unmourned. In reality, however, even Slobodan Milosevic had his defenders. What is more, they are the same voices--largely on the far Left but also on the isolationist Right--who have now taken up the cause of Saddam Hussein.

Many of them congregated under the banner of the infamous International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic (ICDSM). Founded in March of 2001 as a personal cheering section for the indicted dictator, the group, whose 1,300 members included the Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, devoted its efforts to charging NATO leaders with “crimes against humanity.“ At the same time, the group cast Milosevic as the latest of the “freedom fighters and patriots” to fall victim to Western “imperial conquest.” In one of its more coherent statements of support, ICDSM asserted that Milosevic’s only crime was “to resist U.S. rule to terrorized slaves ruled by local fascists (conveniently labeled victims of oppression by the pro-NATO media) and all of it dominated by the U.S. and its allies, especially Germany and England.” Nowhere did the ICDSM bother to acknowledge the atrocities committed under Milosevic, from the shelling of Muslim and Croat civilians by Serbian paramilitaries, to the routine executions and rapes, to the wholesale destruction of villages and mass expulsion of non-Serbs that added “ethnic cleansing” to the lexicon of man’s inhumanity to man.


Emblematic of the apologists’ studied disregard for Milosevic’s murderous past was a 2004 letter protesting his trial, addressed to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Its author was none other than ICDSM co-chairman Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. Attorney General, all-seasons anti-American activist and, most recently, attorney for Saddam Hussein. Rather than address the specifics of the more than 60 charges against Milosevic, Clark assailed the very legitimacy of the trial. As Clark saw it, the “spectacle of this huge onslaught by an enormous prosecution support team with vast resources pitted against a single man, defending himself, cut off from all effective assistance, his supporters under attack everywhere and his health slipping away from the constant strain, portrays the essence of unfairness, of persecution.” Never mind that, in 2004, Milosevic had literally pleaded for the right to represent himself, over the objections of prosecutors troubled that his heart condition rendered him unfit for the task.


Unconcerned with the facts of the case, Clark advanced the claim that Milosevic had wanted only to “protect and preserve Yugoslavia” and sought to shift the blame onto “nationalist and ethnic groups…determined to dismember” the country--a spectacularly mendacious portrait of the man who had stoked nationalist and ethnic grievances to cement his hold on power and exterminate innocent civilians whose presence conflicted with his dream of “Greater Serbia.” For a more scrupulous account of Milosevic’s dirty work, one need only consult Samantha Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Of the campaign waged by Milosevic and his henchmen against non-Serb minorities, Powers reflects that “Theirs was a deliberate policy of destruction and degradation: destruction so this avowed enemy race would have no homes to which to return; degradation so the former inhabitants would not stand tall--and thus would not dare again stand--in Serb-held territory.”


No one, save perhaps Milosevic himself, expended greater efforts to cover up this destruction than Edward Herman. As a longtime co-author of Noam Chomsky, Herman, a former professor at the University of Pennsylvania, had a long history of furnishing excuses for Communist killers. In 1977, Chomsky and Herman had famously authored an article for the Nation exonerating the Khmer Rouge and scoffing at the accounts of its victims. In the Communist apparatchik Milosevic, Herman spotted a natural ally.


Accordingly, Herman spent much of the 1990s rehabilitating Milosevic’s reputation. It is a commentary on Herman’s commitment--to say nothing of his political views--that in 1995 he founded the Srebrenica Research Group to defend the indefensible: the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys by Serb forces in Srebrenica. Despite the preponderance of evidence attesting to the massacre--including forensic evidence and a list of deceased and missing numbering in the thousands--Herman’s group judged it, incredibly, as a fabrication of the imperialist West, intended to undermine socialism in Serbia. Later, in an essay for the 2000 book Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, Herman allowed that genocide had indeed taken place. In keeping with tradition, however, he reposed the blame not on Milosevic and his marauding military but on the NATO bombing campaign, writing that the "humanitarian bombing created more pain and ethnic cleansing than existed prior to the supposedly humane action."


Herman’s collaborator Noam Chomsky sounded a kindred theme. In his 1999 book The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo, a contemptuous attack on the notion that allied intervention in the Balkans could be considered a humanitarian action, Chomsky blamed the NATO bombing for the “destruction of the civilian society” in the former Yugoslavia. That Milosevic might have had hand in that this destruction was a proposition that did not delay the MIT radical.


Like Herman, Chomsky was not above flirting with genocide denial. For instance, he praised the work of fringe journalist Diana Johnstone, whose 2002 book, Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions, was among the most scandalous to be written about the conflict. Beyond proffering the standard revisionism of Milosevic’s reign, Johnstone, an advisor to Herman’s Srebrenica Research Group, denied the demonstrable fact that rape had been systematically committed by Serb forces and claimed that Serb-run concentration camps in Omarska and Trnopolje were really refugee and transit centers--the preferred propaganda line of the Serbian authorities--to which Muslims traveled for protection and could leave whenever they pleased. (Video and photographic evidence, as well as interviews with detainees, argued differently.) And these were not even the most farfetched of Johnstone’s claims.


As in her regular articles, published in the far-Left magazine Counterpunch, Johnstone also denied that a massacre had taken place at Srebrenica. On no credible evidence, Johnstone claimed that Srebrenica, far from an ordinary village, was a “Muslim military base.“ As for the thousands of Muslim men who were never again found alive, Johnstone assured her readers that this was an invention of “Muslim authorities” that had failed to reveal the whereabouts of these men, “preferring to let them be counted among the missing, that is, among the massacred.” Johnstone conceded that a “large, unspecified number of these men were ambushed and killed as they fled in scenes of terrible panic,” but discounted its significance. Srebrenica, she concluded, was a “‘massacre’ such as occurs in war when fleeing troops are ambushed by superior forces.” In other words, what happened at Srebrenica, was not, as the historical consensus had it, a mass execution of civilians, but a lopsided clash between two military forces.


Chomsky initially defended Fools' Crusade on the merits if its argument. In a signed letter to the leftist Swedish magazine Ordfront, co-authored with fellow radicals Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy and others, Chomsky endorsed Johnstone's book as an “outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.” Chomsky further pronounced it “quite serious and important.” In an interview with the Britain’s left-wing Guardian, Chomsky further identified himself with Johnstone’s malign theory, describing the Srebrenica massacre as “probably overstated.” Emma Brockes, the journalist who conducted the interview, also noted that, just as Johnstone had done, Chomsky dismissively placed the word “massacre” in quotations. Unlike Johnstone, however, Chomsky lacked the courage of his convictions. When the interview appeared on October 31, 2005, Chomsky remonstrated that he had never doubted that a massacre had taken place. Rather, he now insisted, he had only defended Johnstone’s right to free speech--a face-saving defense plainly incompatible with the facts. Even so, the Guardian, after first defending the story, caved to Chomsky’s complaints and published an undeserved apology.


Not all of Milosevic’s defenders were as reluctant as Chomsky to be seen as whitewashing his crimes. “The most notorious ‘atrocities’ for which Milosevic is accused never happened,” declared a 2001 petition denouncing the “witch-hunt against Slobodan Milosevic.” Its signatories included the Communist writer Michael Parenti, ICDSM Vice-Chairman Jared Israel, and William Blum, an inveterate conspiracy theorist who has earned the favorable notice of Osama Bin Laden. The radical press proved equally charitable. Accepting at face value Milosevic’s self-serving claims to victimhood--the Serbian dictator had long portrayed himself as the target of a “New Fascism” even as he was its leading exponent--the Marxist-Leninist Worker’s World editorialized that “Milosevic has earned the respect of working-class activists worldwide.” Writing in the 2002 edition of the New Statesman, Milosevic votary Neil Clark stated that his “worst crime was to carry on being socialist.” Not to be outdone, Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center, a reliable champion of anti-American regimes, has now released a statement waxing nostalgic over Milosevic’s death and sobbing that the “peoples of the Balkans and of the world will be indebted to him.”


In condemning the NATO campaign against their socialist hero, the far Left found an ally in the isolationist Right. Pat Buchanan, writing in 1999, euphemized Milosevic’s genocidal campaign against non-Serbs as an admirable attempt to “hold onto a province that is the birthplace of Serbian nationhood,” and chided the “New World Order,” led by the United States, for intervening in the internal affairs of another country. When notorious conspiracy theorist and Antiwar.com editorial director Justin Raimondo wasn’t alleging a “longstanding US plan to destabilize the Balkans,” he was unabashedly rooting for Milosevic to beat his rap for war crimes; the title of a 2002 Raimondo column cheered, “Go Slobo, Go!” Nor did these pundits reconsider their sympathy for Milosevic. Commenting on his death this Sunday, paleoconservative columnist Paul Craig Roberts opted for posthumous revisionism. “Milosevic,” he claimed, “was caught up in the post-Soviet era break-up of Yugoslavia,” and “was damned for trying to protect Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity.” On both extremes of the political spectrum, Milosevic was the victim, never the victimizer.


Missing from the far Left’s encomia and the far Right’s excuse-making is any honest reckoning with Milosevic’s blood-soaked legacy. After a decade of ethnic conflict in the Balkans, much of it directly incited by Milosevic, the UN Criminal Tribunal counted 11,334 bodies in 529 gravesites, with as many as 6,000 missing. Many of them were the victims of the Vojska Jugoslavije, the Yugoslav Army, which terrorized and was responsible for the deaths of untold civilians. According to a detailed 593-page report by Human Rights Watch, the army was commanded by Milosevic until October of 2000. Nor will it do, as Milosevic’s defenders attempt, to equate the genocidal tactics of Milosevic’s armies with the undeniable atrocities committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army and the tragic errors of NATO’s bombing strikes. As the journalist Alec Russell, a former Balkan correspondent, has reported, more than 90 percent of the of the war crimes in the former Yugoslavia were perpetrated by Serbs.


If there is any sadness in Milosevic’s death, it is that the world was denied an official verdict to formalize the judgment long ago rendered by history. More regrettable is that until the dictator’s dying day there were those who, out of political sympathy, plain-old anti-Americanism, or both, were willing to forgive him everything.


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Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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