The Meanings of Kosovo

07/28/2010 04:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright is still ridiculed in some quarters for calling the United States the "indispensable nation." But to Kosovar Muslims rescued by U.S.-led NATO forces from a campaign of ethnic cleansing and now well on their way to nationhood, Albright's statement rings very much true.

Last week, the International Court of Justice held that the Republic of Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence comports with international law. While the ruling was made on narrow and technical grounds, it nevertheless represented another step toward full Kosovar sovereignty. The one-third of the world's countries that have already recognized Europe's newest democracy welcomed the ICJ's decision. The Serbs - who just over a decade ago tried to exterminate their Muslim neighbors - came out strongly against it. The usual suspects, China and Russia, also grumbled irritably. Concerned about separatist movements within their own borders, democratic Spain and Greece shamefully refused to shift their rejectionist stances.

But these diplomatic maneuverings are far less important than the deeper meanings Kosovo's independence today holds for Muslims around the world - and for the American people.

It is to state the obvious to say that anti-Americanism among Muslims today has reached epidemic proportions. Some of this bad blood stems from legitimate grievances arising out of American foreign policy failures. But most of it is rooted in the desire to cast blame on a fictional American bogeyman for the failure of some Muslim societies to move forward. To fair-minded Muslims willing to question the hate preachers and conspiracists in their communities however, there is no better proof of America's fundamental decency than American leadership during the Kosovo crisis.

Prior to the intervention advocated by Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and led by General Wesley Clark, the Muslims of Kosovo had been subjected to unspeakable brutalities by Serbian butchers attempting Europe's first genocide since the Holocaust. While the U.S. and its allies did place a strategic premium on stability in a post-Cold War Eastern Europe, there is no denying that the intervention was primarily motivated by humanitarian concerns. Here was the U.S. government - the "Great Satan!" - putting American lives and treasure on the line in order to secure millions of Muslim lives.

Fast-forward to today: Americans are doing much the same thing. Our brave young men and women in uniform are sacrificing life and limb so Afghan girls can attend school and Iraqis can vote in free and fair elections. Yet too many in the Muslim world direct their vitriol at America rather than at the real villains in their midst: the obscurantist zealots throwing acid at schoolgirls in Kandahar and the vicious jihadists beheading poll workers in Baghdad.

If the lesson of Kosovo is tragically lost on too many Muslims, it should not be lost on the American people. We are the indispensable nation. Today, our confidence may be rattled by engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq that have ended up far longer and costlier than we anticipated. But when the next major Kosovo-style humanitarian crisis breaks out, who but the United States is going to effectively intervene to vindicate the human rights of those threatened with ethnic cleansing and similar horrors?

Conservatives often joke that, more than any individual peace activist, the United States military and Department of Defense deserve to be awarded the Nobel peace prize. President Obama seemed to agree with this sentiment when accepting his Nobel prize. As he put it, American military might "has been underwriting global security" since the end of WWII. That the beneficiaries of American insurance are sometimes ungrateful for the peace of mind we provide is no reason for the U.S. to disengage from the world and hunker down behind eyes and ears closed to injustice beyond our borders. To do so in a deeply interconnected world would not only be a dereliction of a uniquely American moral duty, but also a threat to our own vital security.

Sohrab Ahmari, a member of the American Islamic Congress' New England Council, has written on democratic reform in the Middle East for The Boston Globe, Commentary, and PBS | Frontline's Tehran Bureau.