September 04, 2020
President Trump and Joe Biden are far apart on foreign policy, and on Friday, one of their greatest differences took center stage. Twenty-one years after Biden spearheaded Bill Clinton’s push to bomb Belgrade, an act that included targeted strikes against civilian journalists, the Trump administration achieved the unthinkable: the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, as well as the former’s commitment to move its Israeli Embassy to Jerusalem and the latter’s agreement to recognize the sole democracy of the Middle East.
The blockbuster agreement dovetails with two of the administration’s most important diplomatic efforts. First is Jared Kushner’s hotly publicized push to achieve the formal recognition of Israel in the Middle East. Second is Richard Grenell’s mission to bring peace in the Balkans.
It’s hard to overstate the sheer impossibility of resolving the Kosovo problem, which goes back centuries.
From roughly the fall of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages, Kosovo had been a homeland to Serbs. After Ottoman colonists tried to purge Serbs from the region, neighboring Albanians came to occupy it. Serbs eventually won independence from both Ottoman and Habsburg empires, regaining control over Kosovo for nearly a century as a part of Yugoslavia until the Kosovo War, in which Albanian Kosovars asserted independence.
The Clinton administration, which had been happy to overlook the Rwandan genocide, was eager to become involved when reports of genocide and ethnic cleansing cropped up. Hillary Clinton emphatically “urged” her husband to “bomb” Belgrade in hopes of resolving a conflict that goes back five centuries, involves credible allegations of mass murder on both sides, and had not even a trace of interest for U.S. foreign policy. In Biden, the Clintons found a champion to spearhead the Senate bill authorizing the bombing.
The Clinton administration inflated the death toll on the ground to get the public on board. The subsequent NATO bombing campaign, considered by Amnesty International to be a war crime, killed some 500 Yugoslavs.
As I wrote in 2019 of the aftermath of the bombings:
In the aftermath of the “liberation,” Kosovo expelled hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Kosovar minorities and murdered hundreds. In one particularly brutal case, an anti-Serb pogrom in 2004 displaced thousands, burned hundreds of homes and Orthodox churches, and killed dozens. Just don’t call it ethnic cleansing.
Today, Kosovo has Europe’s youngest population and its highest unemployment rate. Three out of five Kosovars are unemployed, its people remain ethnically stratified and its minorities terrorized. Kosovo’s currently waging a trade war on Serbia, instituting a 100% tariff on all Serbian imports.
But a lot has changed since then. In 1999, Trump emphatically opposed the bombing campaign. Today, his administration has reaped the rewards of a yearlong effort to undo some of the damage that the Clintons and Biden did back then. Not only does Trump’s historic deal secure a mutual interest in peace, but it also puts both states one step closer to their shared long-term goal of admission to the European Union. When asked about the deal, Biden seemed completely unaware either that Trump had done this or that Kosovo was an independent state at all.
“I don’t know what the deal is that you’re referring to, OK?” Biden said. “What I have argued, relatively to Serbia and Kosovo, is that Kosovo should be an independent country, not a part of Serbia. I spent a lot of time there.”
Clearly, not enough time.