For Ottawa Citizen by Juliet O'Neill
June l3, 1999.
Retired Canadian diplomat James Bissett was ever so unlikely as a darling of Canada's anti-war movement, such as it is, thinly spread and barely heard above the roar of 11 weeks of NATO bombing and rhetoric.
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He's 67, grandfather to eight children, a man having spent half a lifetime behind governments desks, more accustomed to the quiet and private discourse that takes place in a small office than to the fervent microphone-magnified stuff of community halls and university campuses. Indeed, the former ambassador to Yugoslavia declined invitations to speak at the noisy daily demonstrations across from Prime Minister Jean Chretien's office and the American embassy, organized, by Serbian-Canadians, sporting bulls' eye target button on their chests. They chanted-bitter epitaphs through their megaphones, denounced Mr. Chretien and U.S. President Bill Clinton and other NATO leaders as murderers, and accused Canadian peacekeepers of connivance in the expulsion of Serbs from Croatia a few years ago. Not at all Mr. Bissett's style.
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However, copies of one of Mr. Bissett's opinion pieces, published in the Citizen and denouncing NATO's policy as "imbecilic:' were distributed without his knowledge or authorization at some of the demonstrations. One of his neighbors came out of a show at the National Arts Centre one evening to find a copy placed under the windshield wiper of her car and others in the parking lot. And word spread of a talk he gave at the Canadian Institute for International Affairs opposing the war. "I felt obliged to speak out on this one," he said. "Somebody had to kick a hole through all the self-righteous preaching." Having dared to declare himself on the politically incorrect fringe of people cringing at what Alberta Senator Douglas Roche termed the oxymoron of the century - "NATO's humanitarian bombing campaign" - Mr. Bissett soon found himself in some demand on the anti-war speaking circuit.
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He wound up at podiums in places as diverse as Toronto and Prince George, B.C., preaching mostly to the converted, he admits without hesitation, but preaching nevertheless. "You tend to get a lot of Serbs out who want to hear somebody support their cause," he discovered. "But you get a lot of Canadians as well and Greeks tend to show up. Greeks oppose the war strongly". The speaking engagements were arranged for the Ad Hoc Committee Against the War through contacts of farmer-politician David Orchard, the anti-free trade crusader who ran against-Joe Clark in the last Progressive Conservative party leadership race. The committee membership was strong on academics, University' of Toronto history professor Michael Bliss· among the prominent. Mr. Orchard opposed the war, as did former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who was in government when Mr. Bissett served as Canada's ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1990-92, when the Yugoslav federation was breaking up. Mr. Bissett persuaded then foreign minister Barbara McDougall to let him stay on in Belgrade when the United States and Western European countries had withdrawn their diplomats to put pressure on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to butt out of Bosnia.
For a few months back then, Mr. Bissett was the West's only face-to-face diplomatic conduit to the man now indicted for war crimes. He saw him frequently and describes Mr. Milosevic as a product of the old Communist-era elite, driven solely by power and privilege, not the interests of his nation's people. Mr. Mulroney pulled Mr. Bissett out at the behest of the United Nations secretary general in a bid to complete Mr. Milosevic's isolation by the West. Mr. Bissett, who is not a pacifist, has been fascinated by his anti-war experience: what it's like to bite the hand that fed him (the Foreign Affairs Department) and what it's like to go public against the grain of dominant opinion in support of the war.
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You know, lynching in the southern states was popular as hell, but it was illegitimate and illegal," Mr. Bissett said in an interview. "So the fact that most people supported the bombing doesn't really bother me that much." For one thing, he said, most Canadians have had no up-close experience, only tiny television pictures, of bombing - the gruesome blood and guts of death and disability, of the elderly and the hospitalized people who can't get up and run for cover. He saw the horrors of bombing close up in Chechnya when he worked, after retiring from the Canadian foreign service, for the International Organization for Migration, helping repatriate Russians to their home republic after the Soviet Union collapsed into 15 separate states.
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"NATO opted for violence and bloodshed over diplomacy," he said. "We've lost the moral high ground. I'm ashamed, disappointed and astonished that it could actually happen at the end of the 20th century, that our modern western democracies are so prepared to resort to force and to give up everything they stood for since the end of the Second World War."
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Mr. Bissett takes some comfort in the belief that the war has been less popular than one would gather from the weight of news coverage and opinion in the mainstream media or from the dearth of lively debate in Parliament or other public forums. In Winnipeg, when he was a guest on a talk show, he understood that no public figure in the Manitoba capital, home to Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, had spoken out against the NATO bombing. He was the first to do so. Virtually everyone, who called in - a blue-collar audience, he thought - was hungry for a voice of authority opposing the war.
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"I'm not an apologist for Milosevic and I don't want to be identified as an apologist for what the Serbs have done in Kosovo," Mr. Bissett said. "They've violated human rights, there's no question about that. They have overreacted to the Albanian concerns in Kosovo. They have used classic military tactics to put down the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), the same as the Americans used in Vietnam: burn the village and disperse the people." However, Mr. Bissett said, the NATO bombing have left us with a much greater human and political catastrophe. "NATO's mid-life crisis has guaranteed that we're starting the new century as we started this one - with violence and bloodshed," he said. "We're back to the situation where armament and power are going to rule the day. I think it will be seen in history as a dreadful, historic miscalculation.