Comment: A Tale Of Two Tyrants

The United States was quick to catch Saddam Hussein, but appears to see no profit in bringing Radovan Karadzic to justice.

Comment: A Tale Of Two Tyrants

The United States was quick to catch Saddam Hussein, but appears to see no profit in bringing Radovan Karadzic to justice.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

"Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him": words of triumph from Imperial Pro-Consul Paul Bremer that shone like a silver lining through the dark clouds of black smoke over Iraq.

Just in time for the death of the 500th US soldier since President Bush declared hostilities over Iraq and his "mission accomplished".

Saddam Hussein - Ace of Spades and Lion of Babylon - had been captured squatting in a rat hole, a stone’s throw from one of his more opulent palaces. The feared tyrant was, after all, just an old man lacking the courage to come out shooting - as did his odious sons - or shoot himself, as he promised to do if the "Great Satan" got him.

I was in Samarra, on another slope of the so-called "Sunni Triangle", for the fallout. "It was a turmoil of emotions," exhaled a café owner called Ali Al-Alawi, breaking his smile to reflect on America’s crowning moment. "Why could he not have killed himself like Hitler, or died shooting? All those years we thought he was a bad man, but a real man. Now he is not even that. Now, some people protest that he has been arrested, others are gleeful, and the killing in my square is worse than ever."

The sight of a mass murderer reduced from the heights of his own self-delusion was a scene that played hard on anyone with a stake in the aftermath of the genocide in Bosnia, whether they belonged to the millions left bereaved or scarred by that conflict or whether, like me, they were visitors to the carnage who had been changed by it for ever. "A turmoil of emotions," indeed, as Mr Al-Alawi said.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, We got him": I suppose it would be Paddy Ashdown making the announcement, or Carla del Ponte. A buzz would echo around our heads: which "him"? Karadzic or Mladic?

It is hard to say which of this pair would be a more gratifying sight, stripped of his megalomanic immunity, his rhetoric and bloodlust, with a torch stuck in his mouth.

Imagine Radovan Karadzic (as is most likely), with that quiff of hair in a ragged tangle, that cocksure swagger turned into a stoop, frog-marched by a lowly guard. Or Mladic without the sadist’s smirk, that well-fed chin now bearded and prized open for dental inspection; those eyes, formerly dead from the administration of death, brought back to furtive life through shame.

These two men are incomparably more important to any reckoning in Bosnia than Slobodan Milosevic. The line managers of genocide, the case against them is overwhelming. They would not be able to turn their trials into TV chat shows.

There remains a chance that Dr K at least may feel rings of steel locked around his wrists. But - in your dreams. For there is a world of difference between a mass murderer whose capture is a political necessity to an upcoming American presidential election campaign and mass murderers whose violence was unleashed across a corner of the world Washington wishes would just go away.

There is a world of difference between a mass murderer in an Arabian land where the United States is determined to entrench strategic and economic interests fundamental to its plans for global hegemony - and mass murderers in a place from which President Bush is itching to remove the last GI as soon as he can.

There is a world of difference between a mass murderer whose "Wanted" poster is a symbol of America’s most brazen military enterprise since Vietnam and mass murderers wanted by a court in The Hague, which the US administration is desperate to wind up.

There is a world of difference between a mass murder sent for trial by a colonial legal system that the Americans can control and mass murderers brought for trial by an international legal system that the Americans seem determined to sabotage.

There will be no "Guantanamo Bay" for the camp guards of Omarska or the executioners at Srebrenica.

Some of the most dedicated and skilful prosecutors in the international criminal justice system are working at The Hague on the cases against Karadzic and Mladic. But they have yet to have their quarry delivered for trial.

Why not? Many things bind Saddam, Karadzic and Mladic, apart from their hobby of killing large numbers of people. One is that before they became wanted war criminals, they were on the receiving end of a great deal of conviviality from the same western powers that later hunted them.

The Americans do not like to recall that in the Eighties Saddam was "our man" in the region. Donald Rumsfeld’s visit to Baghdad to shake his hand - and hear out any intelligence or chemical weapon requirements he might have - is not the defence secretary’s favourite topic these days.

But whereas the West vilified Saddam after he began to meddle with oil-rich Kuwait, that was never the case with Karadzic and Mladic, with whom the initial "bon ami" was even warmer.

For three years, the great powers wined and dined Karadzic, flattering this tin-pot tyrant’s delusions of statesmanship.

For three years, the failed psychiatrist from Montenegro who grew a chip on his shoulder in Sarajevo, and is now wanted for genocide, was feted in Paris, Geneva and London, as the West’s appeasement of Pale and Belgrade lurched from one farcical "peace plan" to another.

How Karadzic must have laughed to himself when Lords Carrington and Owen, Cyrus Vance and the rest sat down for yet another dinner, clasped his hand, nodding and fawning, as he pledged yet another cease fire and as they pored over absurd maps and "solutions".

One such set of promises was accepted by the British conservative government in London in August 1992 only days after a crew from ITN and I had stumbled into the concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje.

There was Karadzic in town again for the second time in a month, shaking hands and making promises, only to board his plane and carry on the maelstrom of violence for another three bloody years, until its climax at Srebrenica.

That massacre was carried out on orders from and in the presence of the Bosnian Serb General to whom an American of similar rank, now running for President, gave his pistol as a gesture of respect.

But Wesley Clarke was not the only one. They all saw Mladic as an officer and as an equal. Like the enamoured British general Michael Rose, and Janvier of France, they were easily enticed to share suckling lamb with this butcher and call off the air strikes that could have saved Srebrenica.

I asked Janvier after the massacre what kind of man Mladic was. "He is a soldier doing what he thinks is right, fighting for his people," was the reply.

Even Rose's successor, General Rupert Smith, credited with some degree of intolerance of these men, was at the table with Mladic and the mayor of Srebrenica only days before the massacre. The latter was never seen again.

So, yesterday’s pet allies, today’s war criminals - after the event.

Saddam’s worst atrocities were committed in the late Eighties against the Kurds while he was one of America’s favourite Arabs and against the Shiites in 1991, whom they Americans urged to rise but did not help.

They needed Saddam out of Kuwait but not out of power. "The Americans took a brick out of the wall, and saw that the wall may be about to fall down. So they put it back," an Italian diplomat in Iraq said at the time.

I followed the trail of destruction south from Baghdad that resulted from America’s decision. Reportedly some 300,000 Shiites were killed. Last May, 12 years on, I watched their bound and blindfolded skeletons being dug out of mass graves (the echo of Srebrenica deafening) - under the supervision of the American military that had abandoned them in 1991.

The worst atrocities of Karadzic and Mladic were also committed while they were being treated as a serious diplomatic player and professional soldier respectively.

It seemed unbelievable at first from the ground. First the butchery along the river Drina, and the mass deportations and a hurricane of violence through the north-west. Then the concentration camps, mass rape, the relentless bombardment of towns and villages full of women, children and the elderly cowering in cellars and the siege of a European capital twisting to torture; the populations of "safe havens" delivered to slaughter.

And all the while Karadzic and Mladic negotiated with by politicians and diplomats oozing "amour propre" over some latest wheeze, each as impotent as the toy soldiers of the "protection force" they sent to keep a peace already shattered into shards. Every opportunity was seized to protect Karadzic and Mladic rather than their victims, by sabotaging the forces of resistance.

Apart from the arms embargo imposed on that resistance, there was the endless obfuscation of the obvious; political pornography peddled by seedy "intelligence" officers, claiming the Bosnians, and not Mladic and Karadzic, were perpetrating massacres in the Bosnian capital for propaganda purposes.

Vile lies, where truth was so simple. What would it take before the West could see these criminals for what they were?

The answer was Srebrenica, but only just and second time round. That led to a few air strikes, and to some matey boozing between Milosevic and Richard Holbrooke which stopped the Bosnian offensive to liberate the territory from which they had been "ethnically cleansed", before leading also to a treaty giving Karadzic and Mladic most of what they wanted.

Some people see something seamless between the intervention denied to Bosnia (or Rwanda) and the invasion of Iraq, and between the imperative to capture Karadzic and Mladic, and that to capture Saddam. They overlook the fact that there was no intervention against Karadzic and Mladic, but that - eventually - there was against Saddam. That Karadzic and Mladic have been allowed to slip the net for years, while Saddam was hunted down in months.

They are different narratives. The interventions in Bosnia and Rwanda would have occurred in the eye of the storm and while the genocide was ongoing. Intervention on a Monday would have spared slaughter on a Tuesday. In Iraq, the very worst of what was happening was already over. That had taken place against the Kurds, while Iraq was America’s ally, and after America refused to go to Baghdad in 1991.

In Iraq, the regime of terror remained, but genocide had abated. The regime was set to totter, and Iraq might have remained part of Arabia instead of becoming a military barracks and commercial investment for the United States.

Some continue to delve to find similar strategic US interests in the Balkans but the arguments do not convince. Bosnia bore far more relation to Spain in the Thirties than to Iraq today. Sarajevo was the Madrid of our generation; and Srebrenica our Guernica.

Bosnia and Rwanda should have been fields for intervention conducted on the basis of political and moral ideals - which is why they did not happen.

Similarly, the arrest and trial of Mladic and Karadzic is a matter of justice and justice alone - which helps to explain why they remain at large.

Iraq along with Israel provide the pivot to every plan that the neo-conservative group now propelling the Bush administration has come up with over the past 12 years - geopolitical, theological, commercial and military.

It matters that this US administration is in a relationship of perpetual motion with the energy industry, and that beneath Iraq lie the world’s biggest untapped oil reserves.

And it matters that this is an administration built on an alliance between evangelical Christianity and right-wing Zionism, and that a US foothold in the heart of Arabia can deal a crushing blow to the Palestinians, by letting Israel off the leash. This is the cause that is most dear to the neo-cons in Washington.

In this grand scheme of things, the killing of hundreds of thousands of Bosnians does not matter. That is why neither Ashdown nor del Ponte have yet had the pleasure to announce: "Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him."

Ed Vulliamy is a senior foreign affairs correspondent for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers. He has followed the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Iraq and won seven journalism awards.

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