You can't negotiate with a war criminal

But a circus tent of NATO opponents, from Tom Hayden to Arianna Huffington, won't face reality.

Published May 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I had never spoken on an ethnically cleansed panel until last Sunday, when I was invited, at the last minute, to provide "balance" to a lineup of 26 speakers at the Nation Institute/Pacifica teach-in on the war in Yugoslavia. I felt like Alice in LaLaland. There were three Serbs on the speaker's list -- and not one single Kosovar or Albanian -- and few of the other speakers wasted time or tears on the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo. It seemed odd to hear apologists for genocide in a West L.A. synagogue, but hey, this was California.

I have a long record of calling for intervention against Milosevic. I argued for action by the West back when the Serbian tyrant was only practicing -- shelling cities like Vukovar into rubble, dragging hospital patients from their beds and shooting them, minor stuff like that. I had berated the United Nations and the West for their acquiescent complicity in Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of Bosnia -- as well as the genocide in Rwanda. And because they did not stop him earlier, it means that ground troops will almost certainly be needed to stop Milosevic, who is almost certainly going to be belatedly indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal Thursday.

His career shows that he will make any sacrifices, of Albanians, Bosnians or Serbs, to get his ends. In 1989, he had begun the break-up of Yugoslavia by withdrawing the autonomy of Kosovo and imposing a form of apartheid on the Albanian majority. With amazing forbearance, the Kosovars practiced passive resistance, encouraged by looking at what happened to the Bosnians, and by promises from the United States that they would be looked after.

In the meantime, Milosevic had started and lost one war in Slovenia and another in Croatia, and had caused the deaths of a quarter of a million people in the inconclusive Bosnian war. As the United Nations watched and the United States shouted but did nothing, he had ethnically cleansed whole swathes of Bosnia and Croatia, and connived as his "own" Serbs were in turn swept out of the Krajna. Eleven cease-fires were agreed to and then broken as "negotiations" continued. In short, I am more concerned about deliberate genocide in Kosovo than NATO accidents. And I do not think that negotiations will do more than give him a breathing space for his next atrocity.

This was not a view shared by my friends on the California left, it seems, with the honorable exception of the L.A. Weekly's Harold Meyerson, who dragged himself from his sick bed to make his point. To be fair, many in the audience were unpleasantly surprised at the company they found themselves keeping. Trotskyists and Serbian nationalists heckled and booed in two-part harmony during my presentation, demonstrating Belgrade-style freedom of speech. In comradely contrast, the California left was happy to cheer the Cato Institute's Christopher Layne, Republican Arianna Huffington and an assortment of rabid Serbs in the common cause of ignoring genocide in a faraway country about which, it soon became obvious, so many of them knew so little.

The stars of the show were Huffington, Rev. Jesse Jackson and California state Sen. (and former Chicago Seven defendant) Tom Hayden, strange bedfellows who were worth the price of admission. I watched Hayden as several speakers lamented the plight of the Palestinians, whose suffering, of course, has never merited NATO intervention against Israel. Hayden didn't squirm, even though he's still remembered for a visit he made with his former spouse, Jane Fonda, to Ariel Sharon's army as it bombed Beirut and provided cover for the massacres of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila. At least Hayden is consistent: Ariel Sharon, of course, also supports the Serbs.

Hayden seemed shocked to find that, unlike his beloved Irish Republican Army, the KLA is not made up of saints. Hayden supports Irish nationalism in expelling the British from the North, but he cannot sympathize with Kosovar Albanians. He calls Kosovo "the spiritual soul of Serbia," not caring that it is currently inconveniently populated by Albanians, who before Milosevic's recent moves against them made up 90 percent of the country.

The KLA has another big strike against it where Hayden is concerned: Its members are Muslims. A Turk must have jumped out the woodpile once and frightened the young Hayden. He referred to five centuries of war between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, and implied that the KLA was some sort of proto-Taliban. It is lucky for the Vietnamese that they were Buddhist Communists and not Muslim Communists, or Senator Tom might not have been there for them.

In comparison, Jesse Jackson, clad in a black safari suit, won my admiration by saying that what is happening in Kosovo is genocide and if bombing would stop it, he would support it. The applause was somewhat underwhelming, but the Serbian nationalists had the good sense not to jeopardize their new chumminess with California's liberals by booing him for his suggestion that the "Kosovoreans," as he called them, were having a bad time. He insisted on three points -- an end to the ethnic cleansing, a return of the refugees to Kosovo and a multilateral peacekeeping force -- which are precisely NATO's conditions for ending the bombing.

But even Jesse had an American's fuzziness with history as he justified his belief that you can negotiate peace with serial mass murderers. He insisted that the "peacemakers" ended slavery -- which hardly does justice to either the "terrorist" John Brown or all those guys at Gettysburg. But then, he never claimed to be an expert. When a Toronto Globe reporter took him to task for shaking hands with Arkan at the Belgrade Hyatt earlier this month, Jesse wanted to know exactly who Arkan was and what he did. Told that he murdered people, wholesale, and had been indicted as a war criminal, he replied, "I'm just an American. I didn't know anything about that." If only the rest of the war opponents had his modesty and honesty!

Arianna Huffington, of course, has never been known for modesty. Or consistency. I didn't hear the die-hard Republican express any retrospective regret for her party's various invasions of Grenada and Panama or incursions into Nicaragua. But she did criticize her fellow Republicans for caring more that President Clinton had oral sex on Easter Sunday than that NATO bombed Belgrade during Orthodox Easter. Of course, one hesitates to ascribe tribal motives to Huffington (nee Stassinopoulos), but there is the Greek Orthodox connection. She did not seem the slightest bit upset that instead of eating their Easter eggs, good Orthodox Serbs carried on killing and dispossessing Albanians during the holiday. As far I can remember her only mention of Kosovars was when she quipped about the array of NATO mistakes, "What's next? a Kosovar in a pear tree?" No mention of the Kosovars dead in the ditches or shivering in the muddy fields of Macedonia.

The rest of the teach-in showed the bizarre range of jejune arguments against NATO intervention. The Serb Voters' Alliance's Bill Doric did not refer to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo at all. He seemed to be suggesting that since Serbian-Americans had won lots of Medals of Honor, any suggestion that what Belgrade was doing was wrong was the equivalent of anti-Semitism. A Serbian doctor was so deeply overcome at the damage to the ozone layer caused by NATO bombing that she could not remember that over a million people had been thrown from their homes by Milosevic. Cluster bombs dropped by NATO are wrong, while Serbian land mines all around the border are, well, unmentioned.

The speakers who did mention nasty things happening in Kosovo often did so to make the point that reports about them were exaggerated. They seemed more outraged by comparisons between the Holocaust and the Kosovar refugees' suffering than they are by the suffering itself. "It's raining, and people are uncomfortable," acknowledged Richard Walden of Operation USA, "but it's not as bad as it was in Rwanda." Saul Landau, rejoicing in the almost self-parodying title of Hugh O. La Bounty Chair of Applied Interdisciplinary Knowledge at Californian State Polytechnic University, Pomona, at least admitted he was "bothered" by what Milosevic was doing. Bothered? The verb is intriguing. Landau seemed "bothered" about genocide, but incensed that Belgraders can't watch their racist government's propaganda on TV because of cruel NATO bombers.

And this being Los Angeles, some of the speakers threatened to hit the Democrats where it hurts -- in their campaign coffers -- to retaliate for their stand against genocide. Lila Garrett, the president of Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, recounted how she had told House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt that she would raise no money for Democratic candidates until they had repudiated the president over NATO's war. She had presumably raised money all through Clinton's bombing of Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, and kept it up while he scrapped welfare, signed NAFTA and presided over a hecatomb of death-row inmates. But now that he had been trapped into waging war on a government committing genocide, she had qualms of conscience.

As I left, happy to have been the most booed and heckled speaker, I worried about this nation's political health. These people, on the left and right, really had not noticed the war in the Balkans for the last nine years. It was so easy for them to throw slogans at the issue, and dust off their arguments about Vietnam, but no one grappled with the moral and geopolitical issue at hand: how to stop someone from killing and exiling a whole people.

I'm surprised to find myself at odds with many former allies, and allied with the likes of Madeleine Albright, whose successful attempt to stop intervention to curb the genocide in Rwanda, for instance, I bitterly criticized. But at least the Clinton administration is redeeming itself slightly with its comparative courage on Kosovo. I don't foresee such redemption for those who, once again, are willfully looking away from Milosevic's murderous Balkan master plan.

By Ian Williams

Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776" is due in late August 2005 from Nation Books. His last book was "Deserter: Bush's War on Military Families, Veterans and His Own Past."

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