Argument

The Two Faces of Ratko Mladic

How Serbia has become indifferent toward the man who lost the war, his honor, and his freedom. 

When Ratko Mladic appeared at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in mid-May, he bore little resemblance to the Mladic that the world knew from TV news, documentaries, and photos taken during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Here, in The Hague, he was gray-haired and looked like a ragged, worn-out old man -- a shadow of the strong, cocky army commander he once was, accused of perpetrating genocide and other terrible crimes.

Seeing him in such different form, as the defense portion of his trial finally began, it was easy to wonder: Is this really the notorious "butcher of the Balkans," who oversaw the slaughter of thousands upon thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica? Was this slightly confused grandpa the same man who had been among the most-hunted people in the world for more than a decade, with offers of millions of dollars in rewards for tips on his whereabouts?

It seems that two images of Mladic, from almost 20 years apart -- the one in The Hague now and the other in Srebrenica in 1995 -- provide a useful illustration of what has happened not only to him, but to the treatment of the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

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In July 1995, when Serbian troops under his command marched on Srebrenica, Mladic was 53 years old. He was self-assured; he had already earned the "butcher" nickname -- and seemed proud of it. Mladic held his head high, a slight, ironic smile hovering on his reddish face that glowed with sweat as he walked on a hot day along Srebrenica's empty streets.

TV cameras from Republika Srpska Television and the Serbian Television recorded it all. (They were the only TV stations present, reporting on the "liberation" of the town.) Speaking into the cameras, Mladic triumphantly announced not only victory but also revenge: "We are presenting this town to the Serbian people," he said. "Finally, the time has come to get even with the Turks for the first time since the uprising against Ottoman rule." (Here, he was presumably referring to the battle of Kosovo Polje that took place in 1389.)

Nearby, in Potocari, where a U.N. battalion of 400 Dutch men was stationed, some 30,000 refugees from surrounding Muslim villages were looking for protection. When Mladic arrived in Potocari, accompanied by a TV crew, he started distributing chocolate bars to children, telling their parents not to be afraid because "nobody will do them any harm." It was a perverse gesture, considering that, at the same time, buses were driving thousands of men -- fathers, brothers, husbands -- to summary executions. (At first, the bodies were buried where the men were killed. Later on, however, as was revealed during the trial of his deputy commander, Radislav Krstic, in 2001, Mladic gave orders for the remains of some 8,000 people to be dug up and dispersed in different locations, in order to hide them.)

Other footage shows that Mladic was fully aware of his power: He has an encounter with colonel Thom Karremans, the commander of the Dutch U.N. battalion. "Do you smoke?" Mladic asks, offering Karremans a cigarette. Karremans says he does not. But he takes a cigarette while Mladic laughs straight to his face. "Do you want to drink something, a beer?" Karremans politely declines his offer and even tries to explain why he does not drink. But Mladic again laughs, sarcastically, and says, "But surely you will drink!" In the next scene, the two men are seen drinking together.

Military victory was not enough for Mladic; he also wanted to humiliate his enemy. 

At the time, Mladic was very popular in Serbia and the Serb-dominated parts of Bosnia. Yet his "glory" for taking Srebrenica did not last long. That November, the Dayton Accords sealed the end of the war in Bosnia. The next year, Mladic went into retirement and began receiving a pension for his service. Times were changing.

Still, Mladic moved freely about Belgrade for several years. He was a symbol of Serbian patriotism -- not a war criminal, but a war hero, a legend. And he reportedly enjoyed the protection of the Serbian army's leadership, the government of then-President Vojislav Kostunica, the secret police, and even his country's Orthodox Church. 

In 2002, once Serbian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest, Mladic went into hiding. For years, people speculated as to his whereabouts, and as the ICTY proceeded with its work, his extradition became more or less a prerequisite for Serbia joining the European Union.

All this points to a critical shift in efforts at reconciliation, one that is still ongoing today: Previously, there had been no visible political will throughout the Balkans to engage in such efforts. But in the past few years, a new impulse to at least check off the right boxes when it comes to cooperation and justice has emerged among a generation of politicians who seem determined to lead their countries into Europe's embrace. Along the way, the past deeds of a figure like Mladic have mattered less and less to people, including many of those who once revered him.

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In the early morning of May 26, 2011, in the small Serbian town of Lazarevo, Mladic was quietly waiting to be arrested. He had packed and dressed and, according to a witness, when the police came, he offered them a plate with cheese and ham and glasses of homemade brandy. Serbian hospitality prescribes that you offer food to guests. Although these men who came to get him were no guests, Mladic had nothing against them. They were only fulfilling their duty -- as he himself had done long ago, he might say.

His arrest spurred a veritable avalanche of news coverage. In Serbia, Mladic was hailed again as a hero; in Bosnia and Croatia, he was cursed as the butcher. The media seemed most interested, however, in how he looked. And no wonder: The man who finally showed his face in public after so many years was barely recognizable. His bullish, sturdy appearance from better days had turned into a thin and fragile one -- making him look much older than 69. So-called "serious" newspapers reported his diet almost daily while he was in prison. Serbia's Politika wrote that "he ate butter and jam for breakfast, hake and mashed potatoes for lunch, and chicken with boiled vegetables for dinner." Another Serbian paper, Kurir, reported, "According to the recommendation of the doctors, everything is unsalted. Breakfast: eggs, melted cheese, and tea. Lunch: soup, peas, and chicken. Dinner: chicken with potatoes." The public was promptly informed that, while waiting for extradition, Mladic asked his defense attorney to bring him strawberries.

Then people learned that he also wanted a TV set and a book by Leo Tolstoy. Newspapers competed in wondering about his ailments -- heart problems? lung problems? diabetes? three brain strokes? dementia? -- and his many medications. One report said that because of a stroke, Mladic could not move his arm. Another paper expressed worries about his health because, before being arrested, he had lived in a humid room. 

And so on, ad infinitum.

Much less important to write about, apparently, were the indictments at the ICTY. Charges were mentioned abstractly, obliquely, quickly. The same trend continued after Mladic was extradited and faced his trial, which began on May 16, 2012: The domestic media have covered the event at a bare minimum. (They have also spared the Balkan public details of his menu in The Hague.) The trial, it seems, has largely ceased to interest many more than the relatives of Mladic's alleged victims and representatives of some humanitarian organizations. 

It is no secret why: On the one hand, the ICTY has always been unpopular among many people in the Balkans, who have either been incapable or unwilling to put alleged war criminals on trial at home. But more broadly speaking, war is an unpleasant business that everybody would like to forget as soon as possible -- particularly one in which many citizens who are still alive were complicit. 

Compare how Mladic's trial has been received to the coverage of Radovan Karadzic's encounter with justice just a few years ago: After the former president of the Republika Srpska was apprehended in 2008, with his long white hair tied in a ponytail like an old hippie, all of Serbia passionately followed his sessions in that faraway court. They even staged protests in the streets protesting his arrest.

That isn't happening this time, with Mladic. Too much time has passed, and too many things have changed. In 2014, Serbia is more interested in other matters.

*** 

But this, apparently, is not what Mladic thinks. On the contrary, he believes that he is still somebody important, and he has tried his best to impress the public, by acting contemptuously toward the court -- mimicking the arrogant, mocking behavior of the late Slobodan Milosevic. He has sought to show that he was the victim of an international conspiracy against Serbia; his only "crime" had been to defend his own people.

In 2012, upon entering the ICTY for the first time, Mladic did something that, unfortunately, was not captured by cameras: He raised his hand quickly and drew his finger, like a knife, across his throat. It was a threatening gesture. Immediately, speculations rose among those who saw it over whom the gesture was meant to threaten. Was it meant for the public -- the relatives of victims -- on the other side of the bullet-proofed glass? Or did it mean, "I ordered killings"? Or, "We killed them and we will do it again?"

Anyway you interpret it, it was a demonstration of the obscenity of which the man is still capable.

As his trial has gone on, now advancing slowly through his defense, Mladic has kept the same smirk on his face. It stays, alongside his self-importance. He is now occupied with denying this or that fact, commenting, protesting. But he still looks like he's fading -- with age and something more intangible. At times, he has behaved like a bad pupil almost, at others like a man whose bloodied hands only become bloodier the more he tries to wash them clean.

While attempting to show that he matters, he is really reminding the world that he is a loser -- a man who lost a war, his honor, his freedom. And it seems, in the long run, he has also lost the respect of Serbians as their attentions have turned elsewhere.

"I can only be tried by my people," he declared at the beginning of his trial. And in a way, he already has been: by their indifference toward him and what he did -- an indifference that with time, hopefully, will turn into shame.

EPA/MARTIN MEISSNER POOL

Argument

A Democracy Made of Straw

Why did it take two administrations to learn that Baghdad doesn’t work like Washington?

Vice President Joe Biden always had a clear idea of America's exit strategy in Iraq. President Barack Obama gave Biden the vexed Iraq portfolio in mid-2009, and when I flew with the vice president to Baghdad that summer, he explained to me that Iraq's sectarian leaders were, at the end of the day, politicians, like him, and faced the quandaries all politicians face. With an election looming the following year, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had to hang on to his base while appealing to Sunnis and Kurds. "If he wants to stay in power," Biden asked, "how does he do it?" Sectarianism was a losing proposition in a multi-confessional state like Iraq. With a great deal of American help, Biden believed, Iraqis could learn how to use politics in order to settle disputes without bloodshed. Now that Iraq is teetering on the edge of civil war, or at the very least, state fragmentation, that faith looks very naïve indeed. It's fair to wonder if Biden was kidding himself, or me.

In The Dispensable Nation, Vali Nasr offers a harsh account of Obama's foreign policy. The scholar and former administration official argues that the White House was not committed either to promoting Iraqi national unity or to strengthening democratic institutions, but rather to "ensuring a state strong enough to permit U.S. withdrawal." The evidence is clear enough. The president's senior military officers had proposed that, after "active combat" operations ended in mid-2010, the United States would leave behind a residual force of at least 35,000 troops to help train Iraqi forces and suppress militias. The White House, eager to shift focus to Afghanistan and acutely aware of the public's disgust with America's unending role in Iraq, kept pushing that number down until it reached 3,500. When Iraqi leaders balked at the proposed terms of a status of forces agreement which would permit that force to remain, the administration decided to pull all troops out of the country. At this point, the White House had little choice but to claim that Iraq was prepared to stand on its own two feet. Iraqi politics became the administration's deus ex machina.

Until recently, events appeared to give substance to Biden's hope that politics could hold Iraq together despite the centrifugal pull of sectarianism. In a 2012 speech, Antony Blinken, then the vice president's national security advisor, said that the U.S. military effort had "created the time and space" for the advent of a new Iraqi political culture. In conversations over the years, Blinken, who later became the deputy national security advisor, often pointed out crises overcome without bloodshed. For example, in December, 2011, when Maliki sought to arrest Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, on charges of terrorism, Sunni leaders did what politicians do -- they cried bloody murder. They did not, however, commit murder.

Earlier this week Blinken agreed to talk to me on the record about what went wrong. He pointed out, first, that the crisis Iraq is experiencing -- invasion by Sunni extremists -- is not the political collapse the administration's critics had long warned of. Even in recent months, he pointed out, "virtually all of the actors have continued to try to work within the political system, within the four corners of the constitution, albeit pushing those corners to the max." Instead of political failure producing civil war, the external security threat represented by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, had pushed the political system almost to collapse. Maliki, he said, could have reacted to the threat in such a way as to bring the parties together; he has plainly failed to do so, and now Iraq's Sunni minority appears to be throwing in its lot with extremists and their Baathist allies of convenience.

Well, maybe. But if you say that your house of straw stood up just fine until the big bad wolf gave an extra big puff, you have conceded that you built a rickety house. Biden's faith that the intrinsic logic of political competition would lead to compromise doesn't stand up to scrutiny much better than George W. Bush's faith that "free" Iraqis would build a democracy. Americans keep getting surprised that people in tormented countries don't behave according to the laws of material self-interest. The logic of sectarianism, or tribalism, keeps trumping the logic of the collective good.

The other problem with the Obama administration's view is that Iraq is not really suffering from an external threat. ISIS is rapidly recruiting Iraqis, and it has been joined by home-grown Sunni forces which have laid low in recent years. The astonishing rapidity with which this small band of fighters has conquered much of northern and western Iraq is a testimony to Maliki's failure to persuade Sunnis that they have a place in Iraq; neither Sunni citizens nor soldiers have been prepared to risk their lives to protect the Maliki regime. Maliki has been undermining Iraq's governing institutions since he was re-elected in late 2010. Now the time has come to pay the piper.

Could the administration have prevented Maliki from returning to power, as Nasr and others claim? I doubt it. In The Endgame, an exhaustive history of the American entanglement with Iraq, authors Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor recount the failed attempt to broke a multi-sectarian compromise; Biden could not even get the Kurds, America's true allies, to play along. Could the administration, alternatively, have bribed, threatened or persuaded Maliki to stop marginalizing and repressing Sunnis? Again, this seems fanciful. Maliki proved beyond much doubt that in contemporary Iraqi politics a rational actor can keep his grip on power while pursuing a ruthlessly sectarian agenda.

Can he still? Iraq held parliamentary elections on April 30. The Iraqi Supreme Court has now certified the election, beginning a process which will terminate with the election of a speaker, a president and a prime minister. Blinken says that the threat from ISIS just might prove to be the "catalyst" rather than the "circuit-breaker" for some kind of government of national unity. "There is a logic to all three communities dealing with the threat posed by [ISIS]," he observed. "But that logic can take hold only if a government comes into being that is committed to bringing the country together and not splitting it apart." The administration is working with Iraqi leaders to shape the process, as it did in 2010. That is not an altogether hopeful precedent.

Last time around, the hope was that Maliki would govern along with Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister whose Iraqiyya party had actually won more seats than Maliki's State of Law. This time, the White House is cajoling Shiite leaders to jettison Maliki in favor of a less divisive and authoritarian figure. According to reports from Baghdad, Shiite leaders have begun to consider doing just that. The administration has, however, just agreed to send 300 military advisors to the country without demanding political reform as a quid-pro-quo. Obama probably felt that, with the Visigoths already rattling the gates of the capital, he could not afford to wait for the political jockeying to play out over the coming months.

Shiite militias and regular troops will almost certainly hold off the Sunni forces north of Baghdad, though the extremists may slip around the capital to besiege the holy Shiite cities to the south. The likeliest current scenario is a de facto Sunni-Shia partition, with the Kurds tightening their hold as well. Blinken concedes that it may be too late to preserve Iraq as a unitary state, but he points out that there's a world of difference between a "loose federation" and a perpetual civil war. An inclusive government which peels Sunnis away from the extremists will ultimately help facilitate the former; more sectarianism will virtually ensure the latter.

The Obama administration once hoped that the logic of politics would produce reconciliation in Iraq. Now it hopes that the logic of collective self-defense will do so. So far, it must be said, Iraq has operated according to a logic which Americans do not share, and perhaps cannot fathom.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images