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Burying the lead

What’s a landmark Serbia-Kosovo deal in an election year?

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Give it to the Washington press corps that it was a Friday afternoon heading into a holiday weekend when the Trump administration announced a foreign policy breakthrough. Standing in the Oval Office on Sept. 4, President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti of Kosovo—two states at war for more than 20 years—announced they’d reached an agreement toward economic normalization.

The agreement is a start on a long road away from ethnic cleansing that saw thousands of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo killed and millions displaced until NATO stepped in. The United States led a round-the-clock air war in 1998-99, dodging at least 700 surface-to-air missiles fired by Serbs. Controversial at the time, with Congress divided over the Clinton-backed campaign, in hindsight it paved the way for millions of Kosovar refugees to return to their homes, for Kosovo to gain recognition as a sovereign state, and for the Oval Office meeting to take place.

The agreement stops short of needed progress on the political front—including Serbia formally recognizing Kosovo’s independence. “There are still a lot of differences between us, but this is a huge step forward,” said Vucic.

For now the deal creates an economic zone across the western Balkans and further opens borders to trade, transportation, and reciprocity. Professionals trained and licensed in Serbia now may practice in Kosovo. European firms that couldn’t do business in Kosovo without being penalized by Serbia, now may. It will reinvigorate efforts to return remains of those killed, and pledges both parties to promoting religious freedom and fighting terrorism, according to envoy Richard Grenell, the chief U.S. negotiator.

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien acknowledged the agreement wasn’t everything: “What we wanted to do was create some breathing space,” he told reporters, “that’s going to lead to breakthroughs on the political front in the future.”

The deal followed by just three weeks a foreign-policy coup for the Trump administration when it brokered an Israel-United Arab Emirates peace agreement announced on Aug. 13. New ties between an Arab state and Israel are breaking a decades-old logjam: Muslim-majority states that once refused to make peace with Israel now hint they may be ready to.

Muslim-majority Kosovo is the latest on board, with Kosovo and Israel agreeing to normalize ties and commence diplomatic relations as part of the Sept. 4 pact. Serbia tentatively agreed to move its embassy to Jerusalem by next summer. Those add-ons plainly show the Trump administration is pressing its case for pro-Israel voters heading into the election, shoring up its late-term foreign policy gains against a haphazard record elsewhere (i.e., Syria, Turkey, China, Russia).

But the president has earned the right to expand on the Israel-UAE deal, as it stands to reshape order in the Middle East, a region desperately needing a dose of peace to build on. It’s the kind of breakthrough Republicans and Democrats before him have sought. And pressing to bring Serbia and Kosovo into that fold shows a kind of strategic thinking Trump often is criticized for lacking.

Rather than drill into the specifics of what transpired, the lead-off question at the Friday afternoon press briefing was about mail-in ballots. Then reporters asked about election interference from China and Russia, and about the Atlantic story detailing the president’s views on veterans and the military.

Questioned even further afield about his diplomatic efforts to decriminalize homosexuality, Grenell lit into reporters: “Let me talk about Kosovo and Serbia. I don’t know if you can find it on a map, but this is atrocious,” he berated them. “You might be too young to understand what this issue is about, but maybe the older journalists can step up and say this is a big deal.”

Grenell’s retort was perhaps a deflection on the homosexuality question, a below-the-radar issue the diplomat, who is gay, reportedly has championed. It was another episode in the unguarded strife between the White House and reporters that wearies the public. But Grenell was voicing the frustration Americans feel with establishment media’s obsession with Trump controversy as the only grid through which news is news anymore. And the missed opportunities that result for reporting good news when it happens.

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.



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