LONDON — The death of former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic brings back bitter memories. Here was a man shaped in the mold of a 20th century European dictator, obsessed by dreams of racial superiority, unconcerned about the methods his subordinates might use to fulfill his will, oblivious to the hideous suffering his policies were causing.

At my only meeting with him, in 1991, these characteristics were obvious. It was during the shelling of Dubrovnik, that jewel of 17th- and 18th-century architecture on the Adriatic coast, by Serb forces. Why, we asked Milosevic, was he allowing such desecration to happen, day after day? Did he not appreciate that Dubrovnik was almost as priceless in terms of architectural heritage?

But Milosevic was blind to these arguments. For him it was all a question of crushing the Bosnian Muslims, who, he claimed, were entrenched in Dubrovnik with massive stores of weapons and munitions, and who should be blasted out before they increased their toehold on the mainland. Did we not understand, he shouted after us as we left the room, that “the Muslis,” as he called them, were once again invading Europe, that the Bosnian Muslims (mostly converted by Turkish occupiers centuries earlier) were being supported by cohorts of reinforcements from the Islamic world?

Such were the crazed thoughts of the Serb leader, who as the old Yugoslavia broke up following the death of Marshal Tito, was determined to assert racial domination over Croats, Slovenians, non-Serbian Bosnians and the Albanians of Kosovo alike.

In all these efforts he failed in the end, but not before rivers of blood had flowed, not before the phrase “ethnic cleansing” have been given new and terrifying currency, and not before armies of refugees had been sent fleeing across Balkan Europe, creating colossal problems for struggling international agencies, especially the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR under then-High Commissioner Sadako Ogata.

Yet if the actions and attitudes of Milosevic led directly to major tragedy, an equal tragedy was the incredible slowness of Western policymakers to recognize the man for what he was and to address pure and visible evil squarely.

At first the European leaders thought they could handle the situation and that it was just a question of stepping in and parting the combatants in yet another Balkan civil war. There were sickening phrases about “a level killing field” and warnings about being careful not to favor one side or the other.

Various countries contributed U.N. troop contingents, but these were almost all under strict instructions not to take sides and not to intervene when the Serbs and their supporters attacked. The crescendo in this policy of evenhanded detachment was reached when the pro-Serbian forces stormed into the Bosnian Muslim town of Srebrenica. The United Nations had seemingly assured the people of Srebrenica that they would be protected and a Dutch contingent of soldiers was on hand to ensure safety.

But the policy of noninvolvement dictated that the Dutch troops should not intervene, indeed withdraw, as the invaders swept in. The result was genocide — a massacre so evil and so revolting that at last the wider world began to push the timid policymakers into taking decisive action against Serb aggression.

The United States stepped in at last where the dithering Europeans had failed. The Bosnian Muslims at last received the arms that were long overdue, the Croatians, whom Milosevic had attacked ruthlessly, were re-trained and reinforced and the Bosnian-Serb supply lines (many of them direct from Serbia itself) were bombed.

Only then did Milosevic and his Serb commanders pause in their killing frenzy and agree to come to the discussion table. Eventually Croatia and Serbia made peace, Bosnia was partitioned between Serbs and Muslims (and some Croatians as well), and the tensions in Kosovo rumbled on and continue to this day with the position unresolved.

With hindsight, that wonderful clarifier, the lessons of this ghastly episode are quite simple, as simple as the lessons of the 1930s and the rise to power of German dictator Adolf Hitler.

Evil men do evil deeds. The more power they have, the greater the horrors they inflict. If international institutions are too obsessed with “balance” and cannot bring themselves to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, when it stares them in the face, then coalitions of the bold and the honest have to be formed to act decisively.

This is what happened in the end with Hitler. It is what happened in the end with Milosevic; it is what happened in the end, after years of delay, with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

Can we construct international institutions strong enough and upright enough to act more speedily next time against blatant evil. Will the U.N. ever acquire sufficient muscle to do the job? Or must we now invent new and better institutions, bringing together the responsible democracies, to police the world?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.