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Their War Criminal Problem — And Ours

The media finds it worrisome when ultranationalist leaders are fêted overseas. Then they do exactly the same thing at home.

A memorial service for John McCain in Phoenix, Arizona. (Adrian Borunda / Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić gave a speech in Kosovo where, among other things, he called the late Serbian strongman and war criminal Slobodan Milošević, who died in 2006, a “great Serbian leader,” adding that “he certainly had the best of intentions, although our results were much worse.” It was a hell of a way to describe a corrupt, nationalist autocrat who helped engineer the break-up of his own country while abetting campaigns of mass rape and genocide.

The speech naturally raised eyebrows in the region, not least because Vučić — who cracked down on opposition media as Milošević’s information minister — is meant to be a “reformed” ultranationalist. It wasn’t just regional voices, however: both the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Washington Post published articles noting the outrage from Serbia’s neighbors over the comments. Both were pieces of straight reporting, but the obvious takeaway from each — and indeed, what other takeaway can there be? — is that one should be disturbed by the praise being given to an authoritarian war criminal.

This isn’t a new theme in Western establishment media, which has long been sounding the alarm over the rehabilitation of Milošević within Serbia. In the mid-2000s, Serbian prosecutors and courts took steps to shield Milošević and his family from justice for a variety of criminal acts, while sympathetic politicians rounded on the family’s critics. Newspapers warned that the election of a nationalist government to power, coupled with Milošević’s own clever manipulation of public opinion, had contributed to a revival of public standing for both himself and the values he championed.

Meanwhile, Western outlets and prominent officials warned that Serbia’s refusal to deal with its past, coupled with the work of friendly media in the country, had aided this rehabilitation. This year, Milošević’s former party called for the erection of a monument to the onceunpopular strongman in the Serbian capital. His former allies, including Vučić and convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj  recently won control of nearly 80 percent of seats in parliament, and have found themselves appointed returned to prominent positions.

It’s hardly controversial to point out that this is not good. There are few, if any, in US or other Western establishment media circles who would disagree that the rehabilitation of war criminals and the return to prominence and power of his former acolytes is a worrying trend.

So why does the press fail to apply this same analysis in the United States?

Rehabilitation

Since 2009, former president George W. Bush — who’s been found guilty of “crimes against peace” by the Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission and has to be careful where he travels for fear of being slapped with an arrest warrant — as well as his advisers and supporters, have all successfully rehabilitated their own public standing after escaping prosecution.

Bush’s own dismal public approval ratings have made a complete turnaround, largely due to gains among Democrats and independents, helped no doubt by viral photos showing Bush literally being embraced by the Democratic establishment. Bush, who in 2015 was so politically toxic that his brother was hesitant to use him in his campaign, is now capitalizing on this renewed clout and wielding his regained political influence, fundraising for Republican House and Senate candidates in the hopes of helping Trump maintain a congressional majority.

Meanwhile, Bush officials and supporters have maneuvered themselves into positions of power and influence. Intelligence officials like John Brennan and Michael Hayden, knee-deep in implementing (and attempting to cover up) Bush’s use of torture and mass surveillance, are now media darlings. A former Bush-era torturer is now the head of the CIA. John Bolton, a Bush official once considered even by many Republicans to be too extreme to serve as UN ambassador, is now Trump’s national security adviser. And now one of his former lawyers is up for a Supreme Court seat.

It doesn’t stop there. Bush’s former speechwriter now works at one of the country’s most esteemed publications, itself edited by a journalist who published discredited reports in support of Bush’s war in Iraq. The founder and editor of a militantly pro-Bush, pro-war magazine, is now fêted by liberal publications and works with prominent Democrats on issues of national security. His outlet, which was responsible for pro-Iraq War propaganda in the early 2000s, has become one of Facebook’s official fact-checkers. And the Center for American Progress, an arm of establishment liberalism, has teamed up with the Bush-aligned, pro-Iraq War American Enterprise Institute.

In other words, the remnants of an unpopular, discredited, and extreme nationalist government in the US that were responsible for an illegal war and associated crimes have been rehabilitated, largely at the hands of the country’s liberal establishment, and now continue to wield influence over political discourse and policy in the country. You don’t exactly have to strain to see the parallels with what has happened in Serbia.

It isn’t just that media in Western countries largely fail to hold those countries to the same standard as so-called “backward” countries (full disclosure: I am Serbian); the US media was actually instrumental in this rehabilitation, as even pro-Bush news outlets acknowledge.

It first started with sympathetic coverage of Bush’s post-presidential painting hobby. Then, as Trump began picking up steam, liberal news outlets and personalities previously critical of Bush began touting him as a responsible statesman for a speech he gave in 2001 calling for tolerance (a speech whose principles Bush’s government immediately subverted in practice). Bill Maher professed that liberals had “cried wolf” over their previous opposition to Bush, while Ellen DeGeneres invited Bush on her show for a humanizing, friendly chat.

Meanwhile, Bush officials — including John Brennan, Michael Hayden and Ari Fleischer (who lied an estimated 109 times in service of the Iraq War) — appear regularly on cable television as talking heads, and even on late-night talk shows, sometimes to cheers and applause. Pro-Iraq War pundits and former Bush boosters do, too.

This reached a crescendo recently during the funeral of John McCain, a neoconservative who steadfastly pushed for the wars of Bush and others. McCain, who also happens to be an architect of one of this century’s greatest war crimes, was hailed in a blizzard of hagiographic media coverage and flattering eulogies from across the political spectrum, and received a state funeral, becoming only the thirty-first person to lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda. (Even Milošević, by contrast, was denied a state funeral).

Attended by Bush, Dick Cheney, as well as various Democrats and other war criminals, one liberal outlet declared it “the biggest Resistance meeting yet.” CNN’s chief political correspondent said that the “angels were crying” when rain poured over the coffin. Media outlets and Twitter users swooned over a clip of Bush at the funeral, surreptitiously passing Michelle Obama a cough drop.

It Can Happen Here

To get a sense of just how strange this all is, consider how the funerals of warmongers and criminals in foreign countries are reported on. Back in 2006, NPR called the newly dead Milošević a “strongman” and his supporters “ultra-nationalists,” while noting that “there’s another Serbia which is indignant that the government allowed any kind of celebration for this former dictator.” It then helpfully quoted an “anti-Milošević declaration” from the newspaper Politika to illustrate this.

By contrast, when McCain died, the same outlet declared that he had been “honored as a principled politician, beloved father,” before copying out long extracts of the gushing tributes at his funeral, with nary a mention of any of the copious dissenting narratives published in the wake of his passing.

Likewise, the New York Times called the fifty thousand nationalist supporters who formed a public wake for Milošević “either his final victory or one last embarrassment for Serbia at his hands,” and noted fears that it would “mean a return to nationalist policies” in the country. No such insight was present in the paper’s coverage of McCain, which dwelled instead on his trip to Monaco in his final days (“McCain stood at a craps table, merrily placing bets and rolling the dice”), and on how his choice of eulogizers “spoke volumes about the man,” their words presenting him as a “one-of-a-kind figure the likes of which will not be seen again anytime soon.”

Calls from the Left to halt the public rehabilitation of Bush and his officials, and for media figures to accurately portray the blood-soaked records of politicians like McCain, are often treated as some kind of radical demand. They’re not. As is abundantly obvious, establishment media recognizes the harm of not doing so when it’s other, non-Western countries’ leaders in question.

While nominally objective news outlets freely refer to men like Vučić as “ultranationalists,” they would never do the same for men like Bush or Bolton, even though it’s a term that functionally describes their worldview — that of unencumbered US power acting unilaterally around the world in the ruthless pursuit of its own interests — pretty accurately. It’s fitting that the same week Vučić criticized Serbian officials for handing Milošević over to the UN war crimes tribunal, Bolton threatened an aggressive broadside against the International Criminal Court if it investigated US actions in Afghanistan. Such attacks are typical among nationalist and authoritarian leaders around the world, including Milošević himself.

Western war hawks, whether Bush or former British prime minister Tony Blair — another Western war criminal who continues to wield influence in his country’s politics, both personally and through his followers — are never the same as those violent leaders in strange, foreign countries. They’re good and decent men, men with “essential humanity.” They simply made “big moves” that weren’t always effective. Or they made mistakes. The fact that that’s exactly how other countries justify their own war criminals is apparently lost. Indeed, visit Milošević’s family home in the town of Požarevac, and you’ll probably hear from its current keyholder about how the strongman was a decent man who helped his neighbor fix his roof.

The history of countries like Serbia is actually instructive for countries like the US. They show the danger of rehabilitating extreme and criminal elements of national leadership, of whitewashing their legacies, and of re-elevating them to positions of prominence. Unfortunately, they’re lessons Western media doesn’t seem to believe apply to their own countries.

US outlets seem happy to draw analogies between Milošević and Trump. And based on Trump’s rhetoric, they’re valid comparisons. But it’s his Republican predecessor who in many ways is more deserving of the comparison — something the liberal establishment forgets at its own peril.