SOMETIMES IT IS AMAZING that anyone, anywhere, has the slightest shred of respect for the United States. How is it possible to feel anything but disdain for a superpower so effete that it refuses to retaliate when third-rate barbarians slap it in the face? Lesser nations go to extraordinary lengths to defend their honor and the safety of their citizens. Not us. We sit back and let the punks do as they please. Then we wonder why they keep doing it.
Latest case in point: the kidnapping of Christian Science Monitor reporter David Rohde. Yesterday, after anguished public pleading by Rohde's family and editors, the 28-year-old journalist from Maine was finally set free. But not before the world was once again reminded that there is no penalty to be paid for provoking the United States.
Three months ago, Rohde, a 28-year-old from Maine, became the first journalist to discover the mass grave of Muslim men and boys who were slaughtered in Srebrenica when the Bosnian Serbs overran it in July. His story in the Monitor on Aug. 18 -- "Evidence indicates Bosnia massacre" - reconfirmed that the Serbian aggressors in former Yugoslavia are guilty of the most monstrous European war crimes since the Nazis.
On Oct. 29 those very criminals abducted Rohde. He was grabbed by Serbian thugs in eastern Bosnia, slapped with trumped-up "espionage" charges, and locked away in a cell. And what did the United States of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, do about this assault on one of its citizens?
Why, the same thing it did to the vermin who snatched Terry Anderson, Alann Steen, Frank Reed, Joseph Cicippio, and all the other Americans who were held captive in Beirut. The same thing it did to the terrorists who lynched Marine Colonel William Higgins and tortured CIA station chief William Buckley to death. The same thing it did to the butchers who blew up 270 Americans on Pan Am 103 over Scotland in 1988. The same thing it did earlier this year when China abducted Harry Wu or when Iraq threw two American engineers into a dungeon for no reason.
But in Dayton, Ohio, just three days after Rohde was kidnapped by Serbian gangsters, the State Department literally rolled out the red carpet for Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian gangster-in-chief. (Dayton is home to the military base where the current Bosnian "peace" talks are being held.) An American hostage was rotting in a Serbian jail, and the Serb ultimately responsible was being feted in America. What's wrong with this picture?
On Tuesday, while Rohde was still in the clutches of Milosevic's goons, Reuters dispatched the following:
"US mediator Richard Holbrooke encouraged Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to take a break by leaving Wright-Patterson Air Force base, where he is sequestered with other Balkan leaders, for a shopping trip at a local mall. . . . The Serbian president and his entourage of Secret Service agents swept through the mall looking like an advertisement for trench coats. Local shoppers knew something was up. 'I bet that's Reba McEntire. She's singing in town tonight,' one woman said."
Even for the State Department, this is nuts. Instead of being greeted by an honor guard when he landed in Ohio, Milosevic should have been handcuffed. This man launched the genocide that has turned what was once Yugoslavia into an abattoir. The Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic -- the killer who supervised the mass murder at Srebrenica -- is Milosevic's handpicked henchman. When the US secretary of state vowed in 1992 that "a second Nuremberg awaits the practitioners of ethnic cleansing," Milosevic was identified by name as one who would be tried.
But Nuremberg II will have to wait. Milosevic and the Secret Service have gone shopping.
Good God. Even if we don't care about the horrific bloodshed Milosevic has caused, even if we aren't interested in disabling one of the premier war criminals of our time, even if we don't have the guts or the courage to make sure he and his Serbian predators reap no benefit from the atrocities they unleashed in Bosnia -- couldn't we at least have mustered the self-respect to rescue David Rohde?
With one phone call, Milosevic could have secured Rohde's freedom 10 days ago. We should have forced him to make that call -- at gunpoint, if necessary -- the moment he stepped off the plane.
But the United States is far too dainty to force a dictator to do anything. At a dinner Monday evening in Dayton, the wires reported, "the deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, raised the issue twice with Milosevic." Raised the issue, did he? Twice? Well, then. What more could be done?
Once, those who hurt Americans were hurt back. Once, we rose up in wrath if one of our people was kidnapped. Now we treat the kidnapper as a "peacemaker" and give him a lift to the mall.
When Terry Anderson, the last American hostage in Beirut, was finally freed in December 1991, US Ambassador Nicholas Veliotes said, "Sometime, some place, these people" -- the hostage-takers -- "have to be brought to justice." They never were. The result, of course, has been more hostages. David Rohde was the latest. He won't be the last.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)