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Originally published Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Look to Kosovo on how U.S. can support democracy in Arab countries

The U.S.’s long-term commitment in Kosovo is a road map for post-revolution countries in the Arab world, writes guest columnist Jason Tashea.

Special to The Times

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IN September, I arrived in Kosovo while anti-American riots took place throughout the Middle East. While most U.S. embassies around the Muslim world were engulfed in protests and violence, Kosovo, a Muslim-majority country, was peaceful. There was not a single protest at the U.S. embassy in Pristina, the capital.

The explanation for America’s success and extreme Islam’s failure in Kosovo is simple: America has universally offered more to Kosovo and its people. After military intervention and the ouster of a repressive regime, the United States focused on long-term promotion of economic development, education, gender equality and the rule of law to develop a civil society.

The U.S.’s long-term commitment in Kosovo is a road map for post-revolution countries in the Arab world — Egypt, Lybia, possibly Syria — that avoids the fate of Afghanistan.

Since the 1990s, extremists, including al-Qaida, have tried to infiltrate mosques in Kosovo. However, Kosovar Albanians have widely rejected a militarized interpretation of Islam. America and Americans are still revered in Kosovo. I’m reminded of this every time I see Kosovar Albanians in American flag T-shirts walking down Bill Clinton Boulevard in Pristina.

Similar to the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, the U.S. and NATO used military power to expel the Yugoslavian government from Kosovo in 1999. While the Arab Spring states aren’t Kosovo — there are historical, geographical and cultural differences — much of our efforts in Kosovo can be mirrored in newly democratic states like Libya.

The U.S., among other nations, funded programs in Kosovo to increase legal rights for women in cases of domestic violence, organized the judiciary to be more efficient, and promoted trade to develop its economy.

Undoubtedly, there is still work to be done. Kosovo is plagued by corruption, unemployment and an uncertain international status. However, in 13 years, Kosovo progressed from a war-torn state to a functioning nation with free elections and international investment.

Now, the U.S. is facing nation-building fatigue. However, a sustained commitment in a nation like Libya will not lead to another situation like Afghanistan’s. Countries like Kosovo, Libya and Syria are strikingly different from Afghanistan. Like in Kosovo, the anti-government forces in Libya, and now Syria, wished for U.S. intervention. In Afghanistan, while polls now show that locals believe the U.S. is a better alternative to the Taliban, we invaded without genuine, local support and it made our experience there more difficult and bloody.

There is some civil, economic and physical infrastructure in Kosovo, Libya and Syria. In Afghanistan, the international community wasn’t training judges after the 2001 war; they were putting roofs on courtrooms.

In Libya, we’ve already seen some of our work bear fruit. The loss of four Americans in Benghazi was a tragedy, but after the planned terrorist attack, ordinary Libyans took to the streets and Internet to apologize for four murders they did not commit and to renounce militant groups in Libya. This solidarity is something organic that we can build upon and, by doing so, create a new partner in the Arab world. This can only happen if we are willing to invest our time, money and patience.

The cost of these investments is a bargain. At less than 1 percent of our national budget, our foreign-aid spending is no limitation to nation building at home.

But the timeline for these goals are often generational, and the process rarely makes headlines. Such a commitment to the world’s newest democracies would be one of the most effective ways that America can spend its money abroad while simultaneously ensuring its efforts are appreciated and making the world a safer and freer place.

Jason Tashea, a former Seattle resident, is in Kosovo on a Fulbright grant. His opinions expressed are his own, and do not reflect the U.S. State Department. He blogs at legallynorthofbabylon.com


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