The World According to Slobo

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Milosevic in court at the Hague

Milosevic is going to try to push the anti-terrorism button. He'll frame much of his defense around the idea that in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, he was facing the same Islamic terrorism against which the U.S. has since gone to war. In the case of Kosovo, he'll argue that the operations he ordered were legitimate actions by a sovereign state to crack down on Muslim terrorists — meaning the Kosovo Liberation Army. And he'll sound a similar theme on Bosnia, saying that there, too, the local Serbs were fighting a war against foreign Mujahedeen fighters and other terrorists. He'll also probably try to distance himself from the Bosnian war, arguing that he was not responsible for the actions of the Bosnian Serb leadership. But that's a tricky one to sustain, since Milosevic himself signed the Dayton peace accord on Bosnia.

Besides Muslim terrorists, the other villain of his piece will be NATO. He'll argue that the alliance's interventions were illegitimate interference in the affairs of a sovereign state, in pursuit of a new world order in which the U.S. was an arch imperialist trying to extend its control to every corner of the globe.

He plans to call as witnesses some key Western leaders, such as President Bill Clinton and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, in an attempt to show they were aware of the situation on the ground from a much earlier stage than they acknowledged. He'll claim they acknowledged to him that the region faced a threat of Islamic terrorism. Here he's referring to the fact that more than 1,000 fighters from all over the Arab and Muslim world came to help the Bosnian Muslims against the Serbs. They called themselves "mujahedeen," and many of them were itinerant veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Serb leaders at the time described their fight as one against terrorism, and even today pro-Milosevic propagandists use the term "Taliban" to describe their enemies in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Milosevic's worldview, in which the Serbs are perpetual victims of the aggressions of their neighbors and of American imperial designs, is unlikely to find much traction in the West. But his arguments may resonate with many Serbs, who still believe that the Kosovo Albanians were externally-funded terrorists. Still, even among Serbs who blame the wars of the 1990s exclusively on others, there's a growing acknowledgment that Milosevic was not a passive bystander, and that he pursued criminal policies. The discovery of mass graves in Serbia last summer offered incontrovertible proof that war crimes had been committed. But whether the trial proves to be Serbia's cathartic reckoning with its recent past will depend on who comes forward to testify. If insiders from the regime agree to testify against Milosevic, their evidence will speak for itself. And that will force most Serbs to acknowledge his criminality, even if that doesn't necessarily change their worldview.