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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Milosevic Far From Hussein




The announcement that U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke had clinched an agreement with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end the conflict in Kosovo obviously caught many observers off-guard. Western, Russian and Serbian media and politicians were still exchanging insults and preparing war statements when Milosevic again slipped out of the loop at the last moment.


Milosevic was clever enough to pull the trick that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein failed to in 1991. A former Republican White House official who served as adviser to George Bush once told me that the greatest dread in Washington was that Hussein would at the last moment accept the Soviet peace proposal and announce his intention to withdraw from Kuwait. Operation "Desert Storm" would have been postponed, the anti-Iraq coalition would have begun to disintegrate, and the heat of the fast approaching Arabian summer would have drastically reduced the fighting capabilities of Western troops. The engagement could have become a terrible calamity instead of a clear-cut military victory.


But Milosevic is obviously not Hussein. As an elected national leader he needs public support to stay in power like any Western politician.


There is no political opposition in Baghdad f all opposition figures are either in their graves or in exile. But Milosevic has to face political opposition from the right and left. During the standoff against NATO over Kosovo virtually all Serbs united behind Milosevic. However, the Serbian leader knew that if war were to begin in earnest, Western forces would pound his country with impunity. The population would most likely turn against him, his political opponents would rally and put him out of office and maybe into prison. It was genuinely misunderstood in the West that Milosevic was anxious more than anyone else to clinch a last-ditch deal with Holbrooke.


A totalitarian dictator always has more room to maneuver. If tomorrow Hussein makes a deal with Washington as he often did in the '80s and announces that the United States is Iraq's best friend, the same people who burn American flags in the streets of Baghdad will obediently demonstrate full support for renewed friendship. The situation is different in Serbia, where the vast majority of the population does not want to surrender Kosovo to the Albanians. Overall, Serbian policies will not change if Milosevic is removed.


But the West has demonized Milosevic out of all proportion. U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, the supreme commander of allied forces in Europe, said recently: "The whole world is asking: Why would a single man [Milosevic] want to risk the ravages of armed conflict and the destruction of his own country in order to maintain a regime of repression?" The good general apparently believes that if he leads the alliance to war over Kosovo, he will be facing "one man," not the entire Serb nation.


In 1991, Iraqi soldiers ran like rabbits out of Kuwait when Western tank divisions went on the offensive. Obviously they believed that this was Hussein's war, not theirs. Serbs will fight to keep Kosovo, whoever their president is.


The Albanian separatists will also fight for full independence. They will continue to harass Serbs and Albanian "collaborators" in Kosovo, no matter what agreements are signed. Like the Moslems in Bosnia during the 1992-95 war, Albanian separatists believe that seemingly hopeless armed attacks may cause a heavy-handed Serbian response that will in the end provoke a long-awaited NATO invasion.


But the West seems to be fully ignorant of the true consequences of its open-ended commitment first in Bosnia and now in Kosovo, at a time when standing Western armies have been drastically cut down after the end of the Cold War. A force like that brought to bear against Hussein in 1991 cannot possibly be gathered today.


NATO troops are not imposing peace in Bosnia as many Westerners seem to believe. The deployed force is simply to small for that. The warring parties themselves decided in 1995 to have a long ceasefire to prepare for future conflict. Today, the Bosnian Moslems have received enough tanks and guns from the West to start a new war and cleanse Bosnia "Serb free," as the Croats did in 1995 in Krajina while the West turned a blind eye. An Albanian-provoked NATO-Serbian clash would seem the best opportunity for the Bosnian Moslems to act. Before the Balkans inevitably blow again, the best possible policy Russia could follow is to disengage as soon as possible.


Pavel Felgenhauer is the defense and national security affairs editor of Segodnya.