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...