The U.S. President Has a Serbian Precedent

He defied the United Nations in a futile war he claimed had to be fought against Islamic terrorism. With the notable exception of Russia, the rest of the world assailed his chauvinism and was dismayed when he won significant majorities and secured re-election. His belligerent policies, made on behalf of a country once known for its tolerance, did lasting damage to his nation’s good name.

Slobodan Milosevic was not a subtle man, and he was steadfast in finishing the job he had set out to accomplish. In Slobo’s world, Serbia was playing its historic role as defender of Christendom as the Ottoman Empire crept back up the Balkan peninsula through Bosnia and Kosovo. To the horror of cosmopolitan Belgrade, the further Slobo drove the country into isolation, the more support he seemed to draw from the Serbian heartland. When they travel abroad today, Serbs are still confronted with stereotypes forged during nearly a decade of war.

When I started reporting on the Balkans 10 years ago, I was tempted to view the region as some sort of basket case. Serbia was a creepy place, guided by a mediocre man riding a wave of nationalism and paranoia. The opposition was dispirited and incoherent. Never would I have imagined that the United States, the only country I can call home, would end up having anything in common with Milosevic’s Serbia.

I guess I should have taken a hint during the aftermath of the November 2000 U.S. presidential vote, which came on the heels of Milosevic’s ouster after he tried to steal one election too many. The satirical U.S. paper The Onion ran a story on Serbia’s deployment of peacekeepers to the United States, “to aid the troubled North American nation as it struggles to establish democracy.”

Even before George W. Bush took office, the standing of the United States was slipping in the eyes of the world – and things have gone from bad to worse. For all Bush’s talk about America’s messianic mission, the United States comports itself no better than the next rogue state. The moral high ground is underwater.

What is America’s excuse for re-electing a man who has made torture, a war of aggression and the abandonment of the Geneva Conventions the hallmark of his presidency? There is no excuse. But the reason is simple: Americans are just as susceptible to the virus of nationalism as Serbs or Albanians.

Milosevic styled himself as a turbo patriot and the greatest defender of the Serbian people. It’s instructive to recall that now he’s sitting in a prison cell in The Hague, reviled by his own people and remembered by the world as an above-average warmonger. So much for Bush’s conviction that history’s judgment will wait until long after we’re dead.

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