The most unexpected aspect of an international war-crimes tribunal's indictment of the top Serbian leadership last Thursday is the silence with which it was greeted by congressional conservatives who for decades have warned about such enlargement of supranational power.

Members of Congress last week were preoccupied with trigger locks and farm spending before they left on another 10-day recess. Consequently, the American right did not say, "I told you so," in response to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Neither elected nor appointed by elected officials, the tribunal is the cutting edge of world government.

That is why military action against Yugoslavia has been fervently embraced by NATO heads of government who have opposed wars waged in the national interest. With left-of-center regimes throughout Western Europe and North America, the Kosovo war is based on humanitarian considerations that resonate in NATO capitals.

The United States long has been chary about international jurisprudence. In 1984 the State Department rejected the World Court's jurisdiction over U.S. mining of Nicaraguan ports. Last June, when 180 countries assembled in Rome, the United States was one of only seven that voted against creating the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal.

Louise Arbour, the Canadian judge who is the tribunal's chief prosecutor, was oblivious to the fact that by indicting Slobodan Milosevic, she designated as a war criminal somebody central to a negotiated settlement in Kosovo. She coolly commented that the indictment "raises serious questions about their [Serbian leaders'] suitability to be the guarantors of any deal, let alone a peace agreement." A Clinton adviser told me in April that there could be no war-crimes immunity for Milosevic but that negotiation might be possible with Milan Milutinovic, the president of Serbia. Milutinovic, however, also was indicted last week.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright immediately ruled out a deal with Milosevic, asserting: "He has to be turned over. We want to see him in the Hague. He needs to be in the Hague." That sounds like a sixth demand in the five-point ultimatum that started this war. David Scheffer, U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes, repeated the mantra Sunday on ABC's "This Week" by saying of the Serbian strongman: "His future is in the Hague. It is not in the leadership of Serbia."

The puzzle of the State Department's following the lead of a Canadian judge can be deciphered by the extraordinary address April 29 to the Canadian Senate and House of Commons by Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, who sounded more like the playwright he was than the politician he has become. The seminal speech was a requiem for the nation-state.

Deploring "blind love for one's own country," Havel forecast "a world of ever closer and more equitable cooperation between larger, mostly supranational entities." As a new NATO member's head of state, he was vastly more candid than his colleagues. Conceding that "Milosevic does not threaten the territorial integrity of the alliance," Havel added, "This war places human rights above the rights of the state."

But where does it end? Writing last week in The Post, Russian special envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin [op-ed, May 27] predicted that the "world community" eventually will force NATO "to punish pilots who bombed civilians and their commanders who issued criminal orders."

Asked about this on NBC's "Meet the Press," Justice Arbour was less than reassuring in asserting that her tribunal's mandate "would include, hypothetically, the NATO leadership." That surely won't happen, but her remarks show how Havel's rejection of nationalism can be turned on its head because there are no limits on supranational organizations.

It will be 53 years ago this October that Sen. Robert A. Taft, attending a conference at Kenyon College in Ohio, delivered this attack on the Nuremberg war-crimes trials (earning him a chapter in "Profiles in Courage" by John F. Kennedy): "The hanging of the 11 men convicted will be a blot on the American record which we shall long regret. . . . By clothing policy in the forms of legal procedure, we may discredit the whole idea of justice in Europe for years to come." If Bob Taft got beyond Nazi thuggery to make a statement of principle, can his Republican successors on Capitol Hill muster the same courage today?

(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate Inc.