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John Feffer: Mladic v. Bin Laden: A Tale of Two Raids

Both were responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, one was killed and the other was brought to the international court.

Mladic v. Bin Laden: A Tale of Two Raids

by John Feffer (Huffington Post)

They were both responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in causes they believed were righteous. They both occupied top spots on the World’s Most Wanted list. They were both the subject of raids that were years in the making and required extensive intelligence work.

But in all other respects — and particularly in the messages they sent to the international community — the operations against Ratko Mladic and Osama bin Laden couldn’t have been more different. It wasn’t a foreign power, but the Serbian police that conducted the pre-dawn raid to capture the former Bosnian Serb military general who was responsible for the shelling of Sarajevo and the massacres in Srebrenica. Rather than kill Mladic, the police took him into custody. And instead of dealing with the perpetrator domestically, the Serbian government has announced that it will send him to The Hague to be tried for war crimes — 16 years after his indictment was handed down.

Hollywood is already preparing a movie on the search for bin Laden that will dramatize the targeted assassination of the al Qaeda leader, and thereby amplify the message that this was a just and worthy enterprise. The capture of Mladic was, by contrast, anti-dramatic. A team of special police showed up in the northern Serbian town of Lazarevo and confronted the old man as he was about to go for a pre-dawn walk. He handed over his two guns and gave up without a struggle.

Mladic and bin Laden were responsible for a comparable number of deaths. But Mladic didn’t kill any Americans. So nabbing the war criminal was not a top White House priority, though the CIA spent years tracking the man around former Yugoslavia. Instead it was left to Serbia to choose how diligently to pursue Mladic. Until 2000 and the ouster of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the war criminal lived more or less in the open, protected by supporters in high places. It took a while, but eventually those who favor the rule of law gained the upper hand in Belgrade.

The timing of the arrest was perhaps a little too perfect. The European Union had been pressing Serbia to clear away this major obstacle to EU membership, with the head of EU foreign policy Catherine Ashton in Belgrade the very day of the arrest. And the ruling party of Boris Tadic was looking at an uphill battle in the 2012 elections.

Regardless of the motivations and the outside pressures, the Serbian government opted to do the right thing. And as Merdijana Sadovic writes at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the arrest was an opportunity for the Serbian media to take a long hard look at the past: “RTS television showed several documentaries about the crimes committed in Srebrenica in July 1995, the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo, and reels of archive footage showing Mladic as an unpredictable and arrogant commander displaying no respect for the UN troops deployed in Bosnia, no empathy for civilians, and no mercy for his enemies.”

The backlash within Serbia has been comparatively muted. On Sunday, several thousand hardcore nationalists, including soccer thugs and neo-Nazis, rallied in Belgrade, but these numbers pale in comparison to earlier demonstrations of ultra-nationalist fervor. Still, polls from before Mladic’s arrest suggest that opinion was roughly divided between those who approved his arrest (34 percent) and those who regarded him as a hero (40 percent). Tadic was taking a certain political risk by nabbing this half-hero.

Ultra-nationalist Serbs are not the only ones who have rallied behind Mladic. That great Islamophobe Pamela Geller, the force behind the protests around the Park 51 Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, has been trying to rally support for Mladic and his other Serbian colleagues charged with war crimes. “The crime they are all morally charged with — above and beyond anything legal or technical — is daring to fight back when Muslims attacked,” she recently wrote. There were, of course, atrocities committed by Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has indicted several of them. But the aggressors were the Bosnian Serbs, backed by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic. Geller is not just wrong, but wrong at the level of Holocaust denial.

It was once commonplace for the right wing to accuse the left of implacable naiveté, of willful ignorance of evil. A utopian belief in the perfectibility of humanity suggested to right-wing critics, particularly those coming out of the Christian tradition, that the left and its attempt to remake society failed to acknowledge the fallen nature of mankind. Such utopianism followed a direct line from the guillotine to the gulag to Pol Pot’s attempt to turn Cambodia back to Year Zero.

But the right’s belief in the imperfectability of humanity led to similarly disastrous consequences, from carpet bombing to blindness in the face of genocide. During the unraveling of Yugoslavia, for instance, Secretary of State James Baker justified the U.S. non-response with his famous phrase, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.” We simply stood back and watched evil play itself out.

But perhaps the most insidious U.S. response to evil has been the superhero approach. The world’s lone superpower, like Spiderman or Superman, would go after the world’s bad guys and simply do away with them. Washington targeted rogue leaders (Saddam Hussein), rogue states (North Korea), and just plain rogues (Osama bin Laden). We would cooperate with the international community when we could and, in Bill Clinton’s definition of a la carte multilateralism, act alone “if we must.” This doctrine of superhero-ism is utopian in its own way for its faith in the crusader’s ability to singlehandedly rid the world of bad guys.

Barack Obama has operated firmly in this tradition, most saliently in the targeted assassination of Osama bin Laden. Indeed, as Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Conn Hallinan points out, the bin Laden operation has formalized a whole new approach that dispenses with the notion of sovereignty and emphasizes the role of secrecy. “What would be the reaction if Cuban armed forces had landed in Florida and assassinated Luis Posada and Orlando Bosch, two anti-Castro militants who were credibly charged with setting bombs in Havana and downing a Cuban airliner?” he writes in The New Face of War. “Washington would treat it as an act of war.” In the comic-book world, only the superhero/superpower can break the rules on behalf of the greater good.

The apprehending of Ratko Mladic offers a different model of behavior. The Serbs ultimately did the job themselves in adherence to international standards of justice. They did so despite considerable public support for Mladic, misgivings about the balance of the ICTY, and frustration over the EU’s carrot-and-stick tactics. Imagine how different the situation in South Asia might have been if Pakistan, through a combination of inside determination and outside pressure, had apprehended Osama bin Laden and sent him to The Hague. It might have taken a few more years to orchestrate. But the benefits would have been enormous.

It is not naïve to prefer justice meted out by the rule of law versus justice meted out by the rule of superheroes. In a very pragmatic way, Serbia’s action strengthened respect for legal practices. Witness theupsurge in support for the Serbian policeman who used not a truncheon against a would-be ultranationalist arsonist at Sunday’s protest but simply the words, “So, you came here to demolish my Belgrade?” The peaceful arrest of Mladic, which signaled that Serbia is ready to become embedded in the web of rules and regulations of the EU, was a rite of passage. In contrast, the United States got its man, but demonstrated that it still hasn’t grown out of its comic-book phase.

Evil rarely comes in arch-villainous packages like The Joker. Evil is systemic, pervasive, and yes, part and parcel of modern U.S. policy from Hiroshima to Iraq. After another Memorial Day of mourning our dead, we should reflect on the Serbian path. It was not easy for Serbs to confront their own bloody history, grapple with their own legitimate grievances, and address the problem of evil in the form of Ratko Mladic. But this arrest helps move us closer to that legitimately utopian project of a world without war than the successful but deeply troubling operation against Osama bin Laden.

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  • Dan

    “With regard to the government of Pakistan, there is no shortage of issues I have with it, including for example its discrimination of Ahmadis.”

    Danios, you do know that Pakistani society tolerates and enforces discrimination of Ahmadis as well, right? I don’t know why you are defending a corrupt sorry excuse of a nation, it’s not Islamophobic to be critical of a country that thinks having higher population growth rates is a necessity for jihad and that every facet of life is dominated by religious fanatics.

    You complain about US violating Pak’s sovereignty, but never utter a word when Saudis do the same by funding backward madrassas that preach bullshit to its delusional and impressionable group of Pakistanis who are obsessed with Arabizing the entire country. Pakistanis will often put up with taking it up the rear by Saudi Arabs but cry foul about the Westerners.

    It’s pitiful.

  • Elaine

    “After all, it is America that violates Pakistan’s sovereignty day in and day out (acts of war) and kills hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilians in drone attacks (even greater acts of war). ”
    Danios Says:
    June 2nd, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    And Osama bin laden was violating Pakistan’s sovereignty as well, just like the Pakistani Taliban did when they attacked the Naval base in retaliation for the Navy trying to crack down on Taliban sympathizers. Pakistan is unfortunately a mess of corruption and I don’t know why you can’t admit it.

  • Nasser Oric

    Fair enough, it was a mistake to post that Pakistan comment; besides its off topic. Anyway the fact that some Bosnians have been convicted does not mean that they committed ‘atrocities’ it’s the equivalent of defense lawyer for a pedophile rapist saying that “but my client and his so-called victim are both criminals the ‘victim’ once jay walked!” Turkish nationalists also use similar tactics they claim that Armenians “did the same” which wasn’t true; the Bosnians and Armenians had a severe shortage of weaponry, both victimized groups lacked the means to carry out atrocities.

  • Danios

    @ Nasser Oric:

    I am not “pro-Pakistan”. I am not nationalistic toward any country and certainly not towards any government or ruler. I am a supporter of humanity, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, orientation, etc. I believe in speaking the truth, no matter who it is for or against. In general, this makes me anti-authority, since authority tends to abuse power as the maxim goes: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

    With regard to the government of Pakistan, there is no shortage of issues I have with it, including for example its discrimination of Ahmadis.

    As for Pakistan’s history of support for the Taliban, this is indeed well-known, as is America’s support for the Taliban. Like America, Pakistan’s support for the Taliban has reversed, evidenced by the fact that the Pakistani army is in a very brutal war against the Taliban.

  • Nasser Oric

    Also the Bosnian defenders did not commit ‘atrocities’ claims of Nasser Oric killing Serbs were demolished in court; it’s true that Bosnians have been sentenced in court but for very minor offenses Hasim Delic was “guilty” for being unaware that a few Chetniks got beat up, no sane person would call that an atrocity.

  • Nasser Oric


    Your pro-Pakistan sentiment is revolting; Pakistan’s support for the taliban is well documented,

  • Nasser Oric

    A rather inaccurate article take the last two sentences; Serbia hasn’t confronted its past the Chetnik nazi collaborators are very popular Serbia even paid ex-Chetniks pensions, they haven’t confronted the sheer amount of axis collaboration and Serbian involvement in the holocaust, support for neo-Chetnik war criminals remains high and there is the matter of the fascist neo-colonial entity of republika srpska. What legitimate grievances? Events that occurred in the 19th century?

    Besides evidence strongly indicates that it was an elaborate set up. I wouldn’t say Americans are unwilling to confront the past; contrary to dominant nationalism in Serbia there is a great hunger in the US to view America in the most negative light possible. Hell its part of pop culture.

  • Danios

    @ Kal:

    Many countries contributed aid to Pakistan during the flood. This does not make them allies. Furthermore, as is usually the case with humanitarian disasters much aid is pledged initially but only a portion of it is ever delivered (and this too in anything but a timely fashion).

    American humanitarian aid to the rest of the world is substantial (and praiseworthy) but still only a small amount compared to the billions of U.S. dollars spent to fund its military’s foreign occupations.

    Neither could giving some humanitarian aid allay the anger created amongst Pakistanis for the hundreds of civilian deaths caused by the U.S. military.

  • Mosizzle

    Last time when people responded to Kal’s lies about Palestinians, he went on another forum and said that Loonwatchers support Hamas.

    Now, he’s probably going to say that we support Osama.

  • Mosizzle

    “Pakistan should be groveling for forgiveness”

    Never. Pakistan, as a country of 180 million people, hasn’t done anything. More Pakistani civilians, policemen, soldiers, politicians have died at the hands of these vile terrorists than Americans. There could absolutely be some morons in the ISI that are supporting them, because the military establishment of Pakistan is notoriously corrupt, but to insinuate that there is a mass conspiracy in which the Pakistani public, politicians and the whole army are involved is idiotic. To then ‘top it off’ by acting like America is some god that Pakistanis must bow down to or else they will be “sent back to the Stone Age” is offensive.

    Please tell me, Kal, if it’s true that Pakistan, as a whole, has supported them, then how did the terrorists show their gratitude to the public and the army? Did the militants thank them by sending them flowers? Actually, following Osama’s death, terrorist attacks killed numerous civilians and soldiers. Can you understand why some Pakistanis might hate America? — think: Pakistani civilians are killed in retaliation for an entirely American operation. Who wouldn’t be angry at this situation?

    Pakistan is waging war against the very militants you claim that they are “working with”– a very intense and brutal war in which Pakistan has lost thousands of men, women and children. Videos can be found on the internet of militants beheading Pakistani soldiers and Pakistani soldiers torturing and then killing suspected militants. Does that sound like a “close alliance” to you? Does it seem likely that the military is secretly supporting and funding people who have openly declared their intention to kill Pakistani soldiers, overthrow the government and replace the Constitution?

    If some elements of Pakistan’s notorious intelligence agencies decided to support him (although I see no motive for doing so), then why should average Pakistanis have to beg for forgiveness? Why should the families who have lost their loved ones to terrorists have to accept responsibility for the failure of their government and bow down to America for “aid”. That is “if” — and it’s a big “if” — the Pakistani government and military actually risked invasion and total destruction by America by supporting a known terrorist.

  • Ahmed

    I don’t know where Kal gets his facts from. Even in a war, killing someone who is unarmed is a crime.

  • Kal

    Yeah a crappy ally that has helped the country after the devastating floods of last year:

    The reason why most of the aid to build schools and infrastructure in Pakistan is not being used is due to bureaucratic hold up. Corruption within the civilian government has prevented beneficial projects from being completed. The US has tied aid to fulfilling certain parameters as it doesn’t want to see it being wasted by elites in Pakistan.

  • Khushboo

    Kal, OBL was UNARMED so he did not “have to be killed”. Pakistanis have been killed trying to help the US. No billions of dollars can make up for the death of innocent civilians! Each life is priceless! I can’t believe how cold-hearted we’ve become! ;(

  • Danios


    The “aid” the United States gives is attached with strings (i.e. servitude to American interests). First, most of it is “reimbursement”, which means that it is reimbursing Pakistan for expenditure used to fight America’s war of terror. As famous Pakistani politician Imran Khan put it: “This is not our war” and that they don’t want America’s “aid”.

    If Pakistan is a crappy ally to America, then America is even crappier ally to Pakistan. After all, it is America that violates Pakistan’s sovereignty day in and day out (acts of war) and kills hundreds of innocent Pakistani civilians in drone attacks (even greater acts of war). What does one expect from an “ally” that constantly threatens to attack and invade Pakistan (as revealed in Pervez Musharraf’s book)? Now THAT’s a crappy ally. Oh yes, but Pakistan should be GRATEFUL to such a war-mongering ally!

    This is what I wish someone would tell Jon Stewart, who sadly adopted right-wing propaganda against Pakistan.

  • Kal

    Khushboo, the war between the Serbs and Bosnians is over, so Mladic had to be captured to stand trial as he no longer is an enemy combatant during war time. The war between the U.S. and Al Quaida is not over and is still going on. Therefore, the shooting of Bin Laden was justified as he is an enemy combatant and a clear and present danger to America. The intelligence shows that Bin Laden was communicating with his affiliates in Yemen and North Africa and in midst of plotting more attacks. He had to be killed and the operation was in accordance of international law. Pakistani sovereignty was violated, but it was a necessary measure to kill a mass murderer. Instead of threatening the U.S., Pakistan should be groveling for forgiveness for being an incompetent ally and for American aid to not be cut off.

  • Brother

    Should’ve killed them both in my opinion. Both caused major problems for the Muslims.

  • Al

    Kal: He wasn’t armed though, so he was in a non-combative position. UBL’s death was one of malice,vindication, and cover-up.

  • khan4

    Kal: I would have liked for him to be captured alive, but it wasn’t to be.

    It wasn’t meant to be because he knew way too much of our operations. Also, he could garner sympathy during a trial. It was just less of a hassle to kill him on the spot.

  • Khushboo

    then Kal, why was mladic not killed? Why does he get a trial??

  • Kal

    Read the Geneva Convention Al. You have no idea what you are talking about. Killing Osama Bin laden is the same as killing an enemy soldier. No trial was necessary. I would have liked for him to be captured alive, but it wasn’t to be.

  • Al

    “UBL is an enemy combatant.”
    True, and enemy combatants deserve trials in international court, according to western cannon.

    Kal- You sound like an American Exceptionalist through your statements… I may suggest that this may not be the form for you-

  • Kal

    Also, waiting for the Pakistani ISI to eventually get its act together and capture him is completely hopeful and irresponsible. Obama did the right thing in ordering the action. If Bin Laden had pulled off another terrorist act, Obama would have had blood on his hands for not pursuing him.

  • Kal

    Osama bin laden was an enemy combatant. International law was not violated in his killing. Elements within the Pakistani military establishment support the Taliban, Al Quaida, and other terrorist organizations. Pakistan would have never went out of it’s way to apprehend Bin Laden. The David Headley case in Chicago only further underscores Pakistan’s support of terrorism, as seen in the Mumbai massacre.

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