Try Milosevic in Belgrade

And keep the U.N. tribunal out of it.

I’ve never liked televised scenes of street demonstrations. The enraged/enraptured faces of the crowds always look the same. So do the signs, some of which, whatever the country, are invariably written in English for the benefit of foreign cameras. Worse, they never tell you what you really need to know: How many people were in the crowd, how many people were not in the crowd, how many people actually believe the slogans the crowd is chanting. I was reminded of my dislike for that particular television news cliché this weekend, when CNN accompanied its coverage of Slobodan Milosevic’s arrest with a few historical clips reminding us all how we got to this point. Naturally, there were lots and lots of street demonstrations, all showing Serbs calling for the head of Milosevic and full of references to “the people’s power.”

How quickly the paradigm has changed: Less than a year ago, the Serbs were still a Nation Teeming With Ancient Ethnic Hatreds. Now they are a Nation of Feisty Democrats, joyfully throwing off the shackles of dictatorship. But then, the media are only following the politicians. I happened to be at the State Department last fall, together with a group of youngish European politicians. One of the officials who was scheduled to brief them rushed in, spoke for five minutes, and then rushed out. She was, she announced breathlessly, off to rewrite the administration’s policy on Serbia. This was about three weeks after Milosevic’s fall.

This is not to say that things haven’t changed, of course. Whatever happens next, the new Yugoslav leadership has already earned its place in history with the arrest of Milosevic: It was politically brave, morally necessary (click here to read why), and admirably handled. Descriptions of the arrest—the best I’ve found were in the Daily Telegraph and the Washington Post—contain touches of black comedy (Milosevic’s daughter firing a pistol at the departing police car; Milosevic himself threatening to commit suicide; the arrest of the “obviously inebriated” chief of Milosevic’s private security guards) but also make it clear how quickly things might have deteriorated. Busloads of Milosevic supporters had been brought in to protest outside his house; anti-Milosevic football hooligans (that’s what the Telegraph calls them anyway) showed up to protest against the protesters. Fistfights broke out 200 yards from the ex-president’s front door. Given how many loose weapons there appear to be floating around the Balkans, it was a brave decision to step into that quagmire and make the arrest.

Still, to imagine that the whole nation has suddenly seen the light, repented its past, and decided to toss in its lot with the bright and shiny world of the European Union is as ludicrous as the notion, equally widespread a few years back, that every single Serb is a hate-filled thug. Which is why U.S. and U.N. policy on Serbia’s war crimes—a policy supported, I must say, by virtually every newspaper I have read—is so strangely wrong. Everyone from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato to the Washington Post appears to believe that the Serbian government, having taken a huge political risk by arresting Milosevic, should now take a bigger risk and hand him over to The Hague. Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague, greeted Milosevic’s arrest with a statement: “We ask the Yugoslav authorities for a clear, immediate and unambiguous commitment that he will be delivered to The Hague. … Milosevic’s arrest is a first step toward his transfer to The Hague, which we await as soon as possible.” In her case, this must have been a piece of straightforward bureaucratic territorial defense: Presumably, if Serbia doesn’t turn over Milosevic, then Carla Del Ponte eventually loses her job.

Or anyway, that is what must have been running through her mind. Otherwise, there is no good explanation: Surely Del Ponte knows that forcing the Serbs to cooperate wholeheartedly with a tribunal they believe (not without justification) to be a piece of Western political theater is almost guaranteed to produce an anti-Western backlash. The fact that Serbia is now a Nation of Feisty Democrats doesn’t mean that the Serbs have forgotten NATO’s bombardment of Serbia, which didn’t end that long ago, nor that Milosevic’s support has vanished completely. If the democratic government starts to squabble, if the moribund economy takes a long time to revive, the national mood which, by all reports, is still fairly wary of the West, could blacken further. For the record, I note that the police who arrested Milosevic were initially opposed by a unit of the Serbian army, which hardly bodes well for a trouble-free future.

But there is a more fundamental issue here too: Surely the point of putting Milosevic on trial is not merely to improve the self-image of all of those Western statesmen who feel, deep down, that it might possibly have been a mistake to bomb Belgrade. Surely the point is that the Serbs themselves will thereby confront their recent past, will learn the truth about the man whose activities were hidden behind a veil of propaganda, will begin to understand why it is that the world so long thought they were a nation of thugs. If the Serbs had not kicked out Milosevic themselves, then there might have been at least a theoretical reason to organize an international, war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia: Clearly, Milosevic was not going to indict himself. But if the Serbian government has evolved far enough to put Milosevic under arrest, I can’t see any reason why anyone else should interfere. If we really do want Serbia to change, not into a Nation of Feisty Democrats whose street demonstrations appear on the evening news but into a stable, reliable part of the Western system of trade and alliances, then it is the Serbs who should put Milosevic on trial, not a nebulous group calling itself the international community. And if the Serb authorities want to start with corruption and political assassinations, moving on to war crimes later (as some Serb officials have said they would like to), that seems to me to be their business. In any case, once Milosevic is in the dock, it is impossible to prevent the whole story from coming out.

As we’ve learned in Macedonia over the past few weeks, the Balkan wars have not yet ended: Nerves are still raw, border tensions have not ceased, enormous issues—the future of Kosovo, the possible partition of Bosnia—remain to be resolved. As we have learned in Latin America, telling the truth about the past crimes of an authoritarian regime is an essential part of national recovery. As we have learned in many parts of Eastern Europe, the failure to tell the truth about past crimes can create new complications of its own. For once, we ought to act on the lessons that we’ve learned, and not do more damage in the name of international “justice.”