Bentley's dogged defense of Serbia comes under fire

November 01, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Philip Cohen hardly seems like the type of person who would scream "Nazi!" at a 68-year-old member of the U.S. House of Representatives. But that's exactly what he did a few days ago as Rep. Helen Delich Bentley left a candidates' forum at Dundalk Community College.

"Really, this is not like me," the slight, bespectacled 39-year-old doctor said a few days later in his Bethesda apartment. "When I was in school, I didn't even demonstrate against the war in Vietnam. But when I started hearing about what was going on in Yugoslavia, about the ethnic cleansing, as a Jew, I heard echoes of the Holocaust."

Besides stirring criticism outside her district, Mrs. Bentley's almost lone voice on behalf of the Serbs in Congress has provided her opponent, Democrat Michael Hickey, with a major issue in his steeply uphill race for the 2nd District seat. He has accused the incumbent of devoting an inordinate amount of time to Serbian affairs as well as being on the wrong side of the matter.

The issue sent a tremor through the rock-solid Bentley campaign last week when her press spokesman Blaine Taylor resigned, calling for her to change her position on Serbia. Mrs. Bentley claimed that emotional problems led to Mr. Taylor's resignation.

Providing balance

Mrs. Bentley says she is merely trying to provide balance to the general perception of the war in the former Yugoslavia, a perception that has the Serbs as aggressors, pushing a policy of "ethnic cleansing" of captured territories that sounds close to genocide, and the Bosnians and Croatians as victims.

"We're not getting the whole story," she said in a recent interview.

Her stance has proved financially beneficial: She has received around $100,000 in campaign funds from Serbian-Americans out a total $842,000.

"I don't think she's a Nazi," Dr. Cohen said of his Dundalk outburst. "But I think she's an apologist for a Nazi regime, and that's just as bad. All I care about now is defeating this woman."

He quit his research job at the National Cancer Institute to devote full time to an organization called the Maryland Coalition to Stop Ethnic Cleansing, which has sponsored demonstrations and paid for newspaper and radio advertisements against the Republican representative.

Dr. Cohen said he believes the United States should help to rearm the Bosnians and Croatians and offer air strikes against selected Serbian targets.

Mrs. Bentley is adamantly opposed to such measures.

"I think there are too many guns over there now," she said of the calls for increasing Bosnian and Croatian military strength in a recent interview. "And I am fighting to make sure American boys do not get involved in a war that involves disputes going back 600 years."

Skeptics contend that Mrs. Bentley takes that position only because the Serbs are winning; that if it were the Serbian capital of Belgrade being turned to rubble on the news every night instead of the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, she would be calling for increased international intervention.

"I have cried for Sarajevo," she said, noting that she has used her contacts to help refugees from all ethnic groups. "I can't believe what we are doing to each other. I desperately want peace. Everything I do is to try to bring peace. But I don't know what to do any more."

Mrs. Bentley said she has tried in vain to get Serbian president Slobodan Milosovic, an ardent nationalist blamed for much of Serbia's aggression, to resign.

Plenty of blame

Again and again, though, she returns to the same theme -- that the Serbs are not the only ones to blame, that there is plenty of fault on all sides, that Serbs have suffered at the hands of the Croats and Bosnians as well, but their story is not being told.

Numerous times she has entered journalists' accounts of alleged Croatian and Muslim atrocities against Serbs into the Congressional Record. She has made lengthy speeches denouncing the current Croatian government.

And in August, on a Cable News Network talk show, she said, "I don't think you can point your finger at any one group as being any worse than any other."

"Have there been atrocities committed by the Croats?" Dr. Cohen asked. "Of course there have. But I'd say it's on a scale of about 1,000 Serbian acts to every one by the Croats."

"There have been atrocities on the Croatian side," said Charles Brown, a researcher at the Washington think tank Freedom House. "But nothing like the well-planned and executed operations the Serbians have carried out in the name of ethnic cleansing."

Mrs. Bentley also appears before various congressional committees that deal with Yugoslavian matters, though she serves on no relevant committees. She explained that she comes at the request of the committee chairs, that the State Department and others in the administration often seek her advice as a recognized expert.

"She's so wrong"

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