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March 14, 2006

Dealing with Evil to End Evil
Posted by Derek Chollet

The death of Slobodan Milosevic has sparked loads of commentary, looking both forward and back: about the future of Serbia and international war crimes tribunals, whether reconciliation in the Balkans will ever be possible, and the West’s failures in that region during the 1990s.

But when thinking about the practice of American foreign policy, Milosevic’s ugly legacy -- and the ways we used him to end the war he had started in Bosnia -- illustrates one of the greater challenges of statecraft.  Throughout the Dayton negotiations in 1995 and far into implementation, American diplomats bargained with--and to a great extent relied upon--individuals like Milosevic, who bore direct responsibility for the worst crimes against humanity in Europe since the end of World War II.  While Milosevic would not be indicted for war crimes until 1999, the Americans knew at the time that his hands were dirty, placing them in the moral dilemma of dealing with evil to end evil.

Such dilemmas were hardly new to international diplomacy or unique to the Balkans.  The architect of America’s Balkan policy during the 1990s, Richard Holbrooke, often cites the example of Raoul Wallenberg and Folke Bernadotte, two Swedish leaders who negotiated with two of the most notorious Nazis, Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler, during World War II to save thousands of Jews.  For years, American diplomats also negotiated with figures like Yasir Arafat, or even once worked with and supported dictators like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein against mutual enemies like Iran.

Yet these precedents did not make the dilemma any less troubling – then or now. 

During hours of negotiations in 1995, American diplomats dealt with Milosevic but they did not let him off the hook.  They knew about his culpability, and frequently pressed him on the subject.  The Serb leader refused to acknowledge Serb war crimes as legitimate issues, countering with lectures on crimes committed by Muslims and Croats and the impact of sanctions on his people.  Milosevic also denied that he had any control over those Serbs who had committed atrocities--which was ridiculous considering that when it served his interests, he could make war criminals like Ratko Mladic or Radovan Karadzic appear in Belgrade at a moment’s notice.
Yet the demands of implementing the Dayton peace agreement often conspired to prolong the crisis.  For Dayton to work, Milosevic had to be made into a legitimate partner for peace--and despite negotiators’ best attempts to keep the pressure on him, this process of empowerment inevitably obfuscated his guilt.  American negotiators often returned to Belgrade to secure his agreement to some aspect of Dayton’s implementation.

Many said that Milosevic was not only the arsonist of the Balkans, but also its fireman. As long as the international community needed his help in Bosnia, it remained difficult to press him too hard in other areas, like political repression inside Serbia or his ethnic cleansing campaign against ethnic Albanians inside Kosovo that ultimately led to the 1999 Kosovo war.

Yet it is difficult to imagine how a Bosnia peace agreement could have been accomplished in 1995 without working with Milosevic.  And while the aftermath of empowering such an odious person is one of Dayton’s greatest tragedies, it is also clear that without the Bosnia peace agreement--which established a precedent of justice and set an example for international intervention to enforce accountability--Milosevic might not have been sitting where he died last Saturday, alone, behind bars.    


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