Serbia delenda est,” declared our postmodern, post-civilized rulers in the spring of 1999. Most European countries went along with the verdict. Like Muscovites in 1938, they were thankful that the nocturnal knock was not on their door, and prayed that acquiescence would absolve them of the suspicion of disloyalty. The alternative is to get Serbianized, and that prospect is truly frightening, as any visitor to rump Yugoslavia may testify.

To this long-lost native son, returning to Belgrade last fall was a melancholy experience. It brought to mind Robert Louis Stevenson’s warning that “there are few things more strange, more painful, or more salutary, than such revisitations,” with the traveler “smitten with an equal regret for what he once was and for what he once hoped to be.” The sight of this once vibrantly joyous, now impoverished and utterly ruined city evoked memories of school trips to Budapest, Prague, or Warsaw almost three decades ago. Back then, a Serbian teenager could only thank his lucky stars that his country was outside the Soviet bloc. Compared with those drab citadels of “real” socialism, Belgrade was a paragon of joie de vivre and reckless consumerism. Even on the eve of Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration, the city’s cafes were brimming with life, its streets with color, its writing with talent, its young with energy and hope.

Twelve years of Slobodan Milosevic, seven years of punitive sanctions, and 78 days of NATO bombing have changed all that. The city now combines an East European grayness and quiet desperation with the poverty and lawlessness of the Third World. Crumbling façades of once-elegant neoclassical buildings, belching Yugos long past their discard-by date, and improvised cardboard bazaars along the city’s tree-lined boulevards leave little to the imagination: Things are every bit as bad as they look. Eerie, burnt-out shells of structures bombed by NATO only add a surreal touch. The economy is in free-fall, inflation rampant yet again, infrastructure in tatters, social services nearly nonexistent, and median income one-tenth that in the United States.

“When I look at the indicators, I wonder how these people survive,” says Branko Milanovic, a Belgrade native and now an economist with the World Bank in Washington, D.C. Most workers did not have much to do even before NATO reduced the country’s factories to rubble, and now many try to make ends meet selling Rumanian gas from canisters on street corners or smuggling a few cartons of Bulgarian “Marlboros” to be sold in open-air markets. The black market flourishes: Even after having Kosovo snatched from it by NATO, Serbia remains under sanctions. This ruins the people but helps the regime maintain control, its loyalists growing rich through smuggling fuel, tobacco, timber, or fertilizer. The middle class has been wiped out, its offspring dispersed from Toronto to Johannesburg to Wellington. The intellectuals despair over the fact that the Serbs are fatally squeezed between the hammer of “the West” and the anvil of Slobodan Milosevic, a misshapen tyrant who will not flap his wings for as long as he can feed on the ever-shrinking innards of Inner Serbia.

That man, and his rabidly doctrinaire communist wife, embody all that went wrong with Serbia’s body politic over the past decade and a half Its power structure has not really changed since Marshal Tito’s days, but the key players have become infinitely more corrupt. Unlike his Croatian, Muslim, or Albanian counterparts, Milosevic had never been the “hard-line nationalist” of 10,000 Western editorials. He is a cynical apparatchik who cleverly exploited Serbian frustrations with Tito’s setup in order to grab power back in 1987, and to ensure the continued survival of the power structure. Only by kidnapping the mantle of nationalism could he accrue some legitimacy for himself and his party cronies, frightened by the collapse of communism in the rest of Eastern Europe. He subsequently betrayed his early supporters, of course, but by then it was too late.

As Dusan Batakovic, an historian active in opposition politics, says:

Milosevic is a true friend of the policymakers in the West in that he is also a deracinated, autocratic anti-traditionalist who fears all that is authentic —including nationalism. That explains the ease with which Milosevic sold the Serbs of the Krajina and Bosnia down the river, and abandoned Kosovo without a real fight. That also explains his attractiveness to the West—the usual rhetoric notwithstanding: In Washington they know that he’ll always cave in, that he is the standing guarantee of all Serb defeats.

Vojislav Kostunica, president of the Democratic Party of Serbia, agrees:

The U.S. administration will seek to keep Milosevic in power while continuing to degrade Serbia. Only after Montenegro, Sanjak, and Vojvodina are gone, or given some extraordinary autonomous status . . . equal to independence, Serbia’s impoverished rump may be finally deemed ripe for a new Gauleiter. But even then this is not certain, because the leaders of the West like to deal with Milosevic; he is so predictable.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S.-led war against the Serbs, with Kosovo occupied by NATO and duly cleansed of its remaining Serbs and other non-Albanians, it would be naive to assume that the Balkan crisis is finally over. Dr. Kostunica warns that Washington’s policy is an almost knee-jerk reaction: “to continue slicing the Serbian salami, contrary to law, morality, history, reason, and rational U.S. interests.”

The overwhelming perception among the people of Serbia—opponents of the regime included—of a fundamental anti-Serb bias in U.S. policy enables Milosevic to linger on in power in spite of the seemingly endless stream of disasters and defeats the nation has endured under him. The opposition is notoriously divided, but its leaders agree that NATO’s bombing of civilian targets last spring was an outrage. Ironically, they are asked by “the West” to shed such views and quietly accept the bombing as justified before their democratic bona fides will be accepted. Their reluctance to sign a statement to this effect meant that they were not welcome at a recent European Union summit in Luxembourg—which was misreported as their “boycott” of the meeting.

And so Milosevic stays, and sanctions stay. He needs them to survive, and they stay because he stays in power. As Simon Jenkins of the Times of London noted after a visit to Serbia:

As in Iraq, sanctions make the rulers rich and everyone else, the professionals, the merchants and the workers, poor. They pollute the political economy and degrade public order. The Marxist in Mr. Cook seems to think sanctions encourage the workers to rise up in revolt. They do the opposite. They increasingly offer Mr. Milosevic an excuse for extra-constitutional action. I could not find a single person in Yugoslavia who regarded sanctions as anything but counterproductive.

By collectively castigating the Serbs because of Milosevic and thus enabling him to remain in power, the U.S. administration ensures that Serbia will continue its descent into misery. Serbia is being deliberately reduced to the level of weakness of the other Balkan actors in an unsubtle exercise of divide et impera. But this bizarre scenario should not continue unchallenged. Of course it is wrong to demonize, ostracize, and starve a nation because of its rulers, even if they are every bit as bad as we are told Mr. Milosevic is. But besides being morally bankrupt, this policy is strategically irrational, and at odds with any sober definition of American interests in southeast Europe.

A new order in the Balkans that openly satisfies the aspirations of virtually all ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia—at the expense of some nine million Serbs—is inherently unstable. The Serbs may soon be forced to burn a pinch of incense at the altar of the New World Order, but they are unlikely to accept the brutal pax Americana in their lands forever. If they are given no stake in the ensuing order of things, their lingering revanchist ire will ensure another bout of bloodletting in the Balkans long after this abysmal presidency is relegated to the locker of America’s bad memories.