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 single-handedly 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 the upsurge 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.