Bentley chooses low profile as Serbs seek better image

ROGER SIMON

February 12, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- Most Americans know two things about the current war in Bosnia:

We know that we don't know too much about it.

And we know that the Serbs are the bad guys.

It's hard to escape the latter conclusion. The words "Serb" and "atrocity" are linked in almost every story on the war.

Last month's powerful Newsweek cover story headlined "A Pattern of Rape" began with the subhead: "A torrent of wrenching first-person testimonies tells of a new Serb atrocity: systematic sexual abuse."

And the lead editorial yesterday in the New York Times identified the "real problem" in Bosnia as "Serbian militias intent not just on territory but on forcible expulsion of the inhabitants, mass rape and wholesale murder."

But how would you feel about all this if you were one of the million or so Serbian-Americans in this country?

Well, you'd probably feel pretty lousy. And you might want to do something very, very American about it. Like hire a good PR firm.

Or in the case of Serb Net, a Serbian-American umbrella group, you might hire two of them.

"We are way behind on the news management of this," Nick Trkla, national coordinator of Serb Net, told me. "So we hired a firm in Massachusetts -- it's run by Tip O'Neill's son -- and a firm in Virginia."

Trkla was experiencing a pingponging of emotions as he spoke to me yesterday. On the one hand he wanted to encourage a calm, unemotional examination of the issues, but on the other hand he felt passionately about the subject.

What about the atrocities? I asked.

"The atrocities began against the Serbs first!" he said. "But I don't want to get into that. All people are doing bad things over there; all sides have got to be judged equally.

"But all sides are doing the atrocities! The Serb side is exaggerated, and the Muslim and Croatian side is underplayed! But let's just say that right now we are taking our lumps."

OK, but lump time is over. And the PR firms set up a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington yesterday at which time Serb Net called for peace in Bosnia.

"We do not intend to waste our time or yours pointing the finger of blame," Trkla said. "I have asked the leaders of the Croatian-American community and the leaders of the Muslim American community to join Serbian-Americans in a public call for an early end to hostilities in Bosnia."

Which, some might argue, would be a little like Germans in 1944 calling upon Jews to join them "for an early end to the Holocaust." But let's not get into that. Let's just examine the event for what it was: an attempt at better public relations.

And in the press release heralding the news conference, the very first participant was listed as U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.

Bentley has been the leading defender of Serbia in Congress and is that body's only Serbian-American member. She was also a founder of Serb Net and its first president.

But something very odd happened yesterday at Serb Net's big press conference: Helen Bentley did not show up.

Hrkla told me that Bentley had informed his group that she might have scheduling problems but "was not ducking it." Bentley's staff, however, told a different story.

"She never considered appearing, and it was never on her schedule," her scheduler told me.

Back last August, Bentley went on CNN and said of the fighting in Bosnia, "I don't think you can point your finger at any one group as being any worse than any other."

But a Bentley staff member confirmed for me yesterday that when networks call these days asking Bentley to appear and defend Serbia, they get a turndown.

It is not hard to figure out why: If the Clinton administration really does send U.S. troops to Bosnia, and those troops are wounded or killed by Serbs, the American people may not look too kindly upon those in America who champion the Serbian cause.

And members of Congress live by one eternal truth: The next election always is just around the corner.

So where was Helen Bentley yesterday?

"Away from Washington, in her district and working," an aide said.

I think you might hear that reply a lot from Bentley when the subject of Serbia comes up in the future.

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