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Lessons from the 1999 U.S. military intervention in Kosovo

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Twenty years ago on March 24, the United States launched Operation Allied Force against strategic positions in Serbia. The bombing campaign ultimately ended the ethnic cleansing unleashed by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo. This type of effort is certainly rare in our history. Its success, however, offers lessons for us today as we continue to face humanitarian crises caused by war. 

Milosevic in 1998 launched his fourth war in the former Yugoslavia, this time intending to address his "Albanian problem" by using his army to force out over 60 percent of the population of Kosovo. Given European and American inaction for years as people were killed in Bosnia earlier in the decade, Albanian Americans were fearful that history could be repeated in Kosovo. So, they organized themselves. They united different community factions, opened an office in Washington, D.C., and began engaging in one of the oldest of American traditions - petitioning their government to do something to stop the killing and rape in Kosovo.

The community's activism was critical. Albanian Americans, in meetings, television appearances, and rallies, provided real moral clarity for members of Congress, the Clinton administration, and the public. The community had also spent over a decade earning the trust and respect of their elected officials.

That community engagement made it more possible for us to find bipartisan support in Congress for military intervention during a difficult time in the United States. The country had just experienced the impeachment and attempted removal of President Bill Clinton. Tensions between the political parties were high. Yet, Sens. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.) worked together with their Senate colleagues to support intervention and a bipartisan group in the House that included New York Republican Susan Molinari and one of the authors (Engel).

Those members were certainly moved to action by their constituents and the reports of atrocities on the ground. Just as importantly, however, we all understood that the ethnic cleansing campaign and the massive refugee crisis it created would have dire consequences for the Balkans, and, ultimately, Europe. Over 1.2 million Kosovar refugees flooded Albania and Macedonia, neighboring poor countries that were too ill equipped to handle them. Those countries would have been devastated if we allowed the cleansing campaign to stand. The crisis also would have led to more violence in the region and refugees fleeing to Western Europe.

With bipartisan support in Congress for intervention and clarity that it was in our national interest to do so, the Clinton administration did the important work of engaging our NATO allies. They also actively mediated peace negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. We attended the talks in Rambouillet, France where we witnessed the good faith efforts of the Kosovars to reach an accord and the intransigence of the Former Yugoslav negotiators. Milosevic was hoping to wait out the Americans.

Military intervention became the only option for ending the horrific violence in Kosovo when the peace process failed. Importantly, the U.S. got our NATO allies to join the effort. From the start, Operation Allied Force would be a limited campaign. Americans were not quite ready to send troops on the ground. The bombing campaign lasted 78 days. When it was all over, Belgrade had withdrawn its forces and Kosovars returned home. Eventually, Milosevic would be arrested and brought to The Hague to face charges for war crimes. Kosovo would become, with U.S. leadership, a newly independent, democratic country.

While Kosovo and the region still face challenges, the lessons from the Kosovo War are clear. Non-political community engagement can make bipartisanship possible, which in turn can enable American leadership in the world. That leadership is essential when our national interests are at stake.

Today, the Balkans are at peace, democracy (although imperfect) reigns, and many of the countries there are now members of NATO. All of that is true because enough people in Washington in 1999 had the courage to cross party lines in support of our national security.

Rep. Eliot Engel is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ilir Zherka is the former Executive Director of the National Albanian American Council.

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