Nearly lost amid the fantastic PR (so far) and blind luck of Barack Obama’s Middle East tour – and the horror show that has been John McCain’s pathetic, flailing response to it – an astonishing story has developed in deepest Serbia this week. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who oversaw the rape of Sarajevo, the massacre at Srebrenica and the slaughter of more than 100,000 Muslims during the early 1990s, was finally captured in Belgrade after years in hiding.

Radovan Karadzic as New Age healerThe sizzle in this steak is partly in the circumstances: Karadzic, living under the name Dragan Dabic, was masquerading as a long-haired and bearded alternative-medicine guru who claimed to be able to treat everything from impotence to autism. (Thank goodness for that client who demanded an investigation after his erection not only lasted longer than four hours, but spent the whole time watching Judge Wapner and insisting it was “a very good driver.”)

Seeing Karadzic’s pompadour and sloe-eyed mug again, after all these years, couldn’t help but place Obama and McCain’s squabbling over Middle East politics into a fresh context. After all, here was a guy who, at the time of his disappearance in 1995, had been supervising a ruthless campaign of ethnic cleansing for four years. Here was a guy who, in cahoots with his buddy Slobodan Milosevic, brought nearly a decade of war, rape and outright genocide to the former Yugoslavia in order to make that land safe for a single ethnic group.

These were guys, in short, who needed to be Gotten Rid Of, and fast. Sounds a lot like the argument against Saddam Hussein, doesn’t it? Sure, if we’re talking about the aggressive, gassy Saddam of 1990-91, and not the boxed-in, sanctioned-to-his-eyeballs, no-fly-zoned (and, let’s not forget, no-WMD’d) Saddam of 2002-03.

Karadzic in the good ol' daysMore about that in a moment. First, though, it’s instructive to think back on the lessons of the Bosnian war, and how they have been heeded (and ignored) in subsequent years. The United Nations, typically, was too slow and too timid as the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians began their free-for-all in 1992 – refusing to lift an arms embargo so that the Muslims could fight fairly, and providing a peacekeeping force that had no intention of engaging the Serbs, and therefore no hope of keeping the peace. It wasn’t until the Bosnians and Croats reached a cease-fire agreement and joined forces against the Serbs – with help from a NATO no-fly zone and bombing of Bosnian Serb targets – that the tide was turned and the Serbs were forced to get serious at the bargaining table, resulting in the Dayton accords of 1995.

The NATO engagement in Bosnia, like the Persian Gulf War, had successfully tested the Powell Doctrine idea that strategic bombing could be used to achieve a well-defined objective quickly, and with minimal loss of life. Bill Clinton and NATO leaders would put the doctrine into full effect again in 1999, after Milosevic intensified an ethnic-cleansing campaign in Kosovo that left a million Muslims homeless.

It is doubtlessly true that the Clinton administration overhyped the extent of the humanitarian disaster being inflicted upon Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians, and the one-sidedness of Serbia’s aggression, in order to goose public opinion in favor of the NATO bombing campaign. However, given the history of Serbian malevolence, and the general remorse over the world’s failure to stop the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda earlier in the ’90s, the case for intervention wasn’t a tough one to make. And the bombings certainly achieved their intended effect, destroying Serbia’s will to fight and restoring the Kosovars to their homes without more than a couple NATO casualties.

Slobo!I had a long, glorious argument with my friend Mimi on the streets of London that spring of 1999, our arms flailing, our faces reddening as she tried to convince me that we had no business bombing Belgrade. Hers was a traditional pacifist argument, steeped in the conviction that violence shouldn’t beget more violence and that victories won through death and destruction were no victories at all. On the other hand, I agreed with Clinton and NATO that the world could brook no more of Milosevic’s atrocities, real or potential, and that the Kosovo intervention was just and necessary – particularly if it could be accomplished, as promised, without a ground war.

Eight years earlier, Mimi and I had bonded in our ambivalence toward the Persian Gulf War – an intervention that, despite the effectiveness of Poppy Bush’s hypefest comparing Saddam to Hitler, seemed rather hollow at its humanitarian core and stunk to high heaven of crude oil. Still, it was difficult to argue with Bush 41’s simple goal, to “kick Saddam out of Kuwait,” and it must be said that he and his military planners did things right: he gathered an airtight international coalition, they softened Iraq up with a month of (relatively) low-casualty bombing, and in the end they drove Saddam’s forces off the territory they had invaded in just three days.

And then Poppy had the good sense to get the hell out of there. (Of course, the Kurds, whom Bush supposedly set up to expect an effort to topple Saddam but then abandoned as the war ended, might describe that “good sense” as something more like “betrayal.”) H.W.’s prudent adherence to the Powell Doctrine, like Clinton’s at the end of the decade, cemented the historical reputations of those wars as moral and just and, well, successful – three words that don’t even begin to describe Bush 43’s more recent Mesopotamian folly.

Shrub and his neocon cheerleaders didn’t just ignore the lessons of the Gulf and Kosovo; they ignored lessons going back as far as Vietnam, the Philippines and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He went in with no international consensus, no moral grounding, no plan for success beyond toppling Saddam, and no exit strategy – and in the process he wound up emasculating not only the Powell Doctrine, but poor Powell himself. Now we’re left to watch presidential candidates pick at the carcass of a war that can be considered a “success” only if one forgets every American misstep, blunder and atrocity; neglects the fact that there’s still no real Iraqi government to speak of, and still only the bare bones of an army; and dumbs down the objectives of the surge to now-stated goals of achieving “an acceptable level of violence” in Baghdad and providing cover for the U.S.-funded “Sunni Awakening” in Anbar.

Watching the flop-sweat bead on John McCain’s brow this week – as he first misstated the timeline of the Sunni Awakening to make the surge seem more successful, and then dug his hole deeper trying to spin his way out of it – I couldn’t help but think again of Obama’s now-legendary 2002 speech, in which he said, “I don’t oppose all wars … what I am opposed to is a dumb war.” Radovan Karadzic’s capture, and its attendant revisiting of the Yugoslav nightmare of the 1990s, reminds us that some wars are intrinsically worth fighting on moral as well as strategic grounds. McCain’s meanderings remind us that other wars simply are not worth fighting … and never were, and never will be, no matter how you move the goalposts or revise their histories.

Now, if only we could find Shrub and Cheney and Rummy some cells alongside Karadzic’s in the Hague…