In recent days, much has been written about the legacy of Senator John McCain.
Emphasis has been placed on his health care vote, his work combatting terrorism across Central Command and his commitment to reconciliation with Vietnam.
With less than 40 days until historic elections in Bosnia, his sustained work in the “powder keg of Europe” remains a lesson for Washington.
In April 2017, McCain traveled to seven countries across the Balkans. Afterward, he reflected, “In no other region of the world do the words of American leaders carry greater weight or have a greater chance of spurring meaningful action toward progress.”
Having worked and lived in this fragile region, I could not have said it better. Grandparents who vividly remember Marshall Tito, parents who came of age during a war which took over 101,000 lives and youth voting for their first time, all pay careful weekly attention to American politics and culture.
The Senator designed that trip to visit Sarajevo’s Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River. This Veterans’ Day marks the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of WWI. It was on this bridge that an assassin killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and started two world wars.
Countless times, I have walked over this bridge without consideration for how history is never too historic in the Balkans. McCain was a student of military history. He could trace his family lineage to soldiers in George Washington’s Continental Army.
As fiery election rhetoric consumes Bosnia, candidates are all too focused on relitigating a divisive history rather than forging an inclusive vision for the future. McCain learned from history and was the rare politician mature enough to change his mind.
On April 21, 1993, he warned the new Clinton Administration, “We need to be honest about one central fact: We have no way to predict the size, length and casualties of a peacemaking effort.” He pushed that our European allies lead efforts to bring peace to Bosnia.
As civilian casualties were broadcast across American living rooms, McCain began to advocate for active participation of the United States and repeatedly chastised European governments for slow walking.
British Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind ran point and made the counter-argument against outside involvement. He visited Washington often, but in one of the largest diplomatic gaffes in British-American history, Rifkind said to Sen. Bob Dole, “You Americans have no clue what war horrors are.” The Minister missed that WWII cost Dole function of his arm, and McCain was in earshot.
In 1995, peace talks commenced at Wright Patterson AFB, an installation known well to McCain. Richard Holbrooke referenced in his memoirs the leadership role of McCain citing his “courage and integrity were unequaled in the Senate”.
By June 1996, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt the main north-south and named the corridor Route Arizona. USAID, at the direction of Congressional leaders like McCain, appropriated funds to build an 18-acre market to build reconciliation through trade.
Today, in the corner of Bosnia, which saw the worst ethnic cleansing in European history, Arizona Market brings together Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox merchants and patrons.
As Bosnian politicians snipe at one another and Turkish, Arab and Russian actors aim to influence the October election, Washington should take notice and maximize the next 40 days to promote the values that McCain fought for his entire life — strengthening the rule of law, tackling corruption and improving government accountability.
In his trademark blunt manner, McCain declared steps from Latin Bridge, “We ignore this region at our own peril.”
Ari Mittleman is the Publisher of www.BalkanInsider.com. He has worked and lived in the Former Yugoslavia on peacebuilding, reconciliation and deepening American investments in the region.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.