Spain's pacifist defense minister, Carme Chacón, has ignited a firestorm of criticism for her surprise announcement that Madrid will pull its 630 troops out of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosovo by the end of summer. During a visit to the Spanish base at Istok in Kosovo on March 19, Chacón unilaterally declared: "Mission accomplished. It's time to go home." Her decision, which came almost completely out of the blue, not only breaks solemn commitments that Spain has with NATO, it also leaves Spanish allies in the lurch and further reinforces Spain's image as an unreliable partner.
Chacón's announcement burst like a bombshell at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where the alliance's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, complained that she had acted unilaterally and had failed to inform the alliance through the proper channels. He said that any significant changes to KFOR's structure "should take place as a result of a decision within the alliance" once the political and security conditions in Kosovo permit, and "this moment has not yet arrived."
The reaction in Washington was far more critical: State Department spokesman Robert Wood said (not only once, but four times) that the Obama administration was "deeply disappointed" in Spain. Wood added that when the KFOR mission began in 1999, the NATO allies agreed on the principle of "in together, out together." He said that Spain's decision "doesn't help what we've been trying to do in Kosovo. And we regret it."
But the most politically damaging fallout came from within Spain itself, where Chacón's gaffe made front page news all across the country. Some of the harshest criticism came from media closely aligned with the government of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The Madrid-based El País newspaper, for example, which often serves as a mouthpiece for the Socialist Party, ran a devastating editorial titled "Leaving Kosovo." After systematically demolishing each one of the government's justifications for the troop withdrawal, the paper admonished the Zapatero government to "scrupulously respect the procedures" of international organizations like NATO. The paper summed up its reprimand by charging that Chacón's action "damages Spain's image as a reliable ally."
Zapatero has responded to the criticism by arguing that it makes no sense for Spanish troops to continue to help Kosovo, which declared independence in February 2008. Spain, unlike most of its European Union partners, rejects Kosovo's sovereignty as a violation of international law and a dangerous precedent that could encourage separatists elsewhere, especially in Spain's own Basque and Catalan regions. And indeed, there is broad support for that policy across Spain's political spectrum (although insightful analysts say that the Basque and Catalan secessionist movements are hardly comparable to Kosovo).
What confounds many Spaniards is the abrupt timing of Zapatero's move. Why now? If Zapatero was genuinely concerned about Spain's continued presence in Kosovo, why did he not withdraw Spanish troops the moment Kosovo declared independence? Had he seized the opportunity then, Spain would have had a credible explanation for its position as well as the necessary political cover to bring the troops home.
Spaniards are also wondering why Zapatero failed to consult the Spanish parliament about Kosovo. After all, his government made changes to the National Defense Law, making it mandatory for the executive branch to confer with the legislative branch on military missions abroad. Zapatero said the changes were designed to increase transparency on military matters.
But longtime observers of Zapatero say his foreign policy decisions are always driven by domestic politics. And with Spain deep in recession and saddled with the highest unemployment rate in Europe, Zapatero is understandably worried about elections in June, when Spanish voters choose their representatives to the European Parliament.
During regional elections in March, the opposition People's Party defeated the Socialists in the north-western coastal region of Galicia. Political analysts say the PP's victory points to a future nationwide trend, and the Socialists are clearly worried; as the bad economic news piles up in Spain, Zapatero's poll numbers are dropping fast.
By pulling out of Kosovo, therefore, Zapatero seems to be throwing a bone to voters on the far left, who are militantly pacifist and virulently opposed to Spain's membership in NATO. They are also anti-capitalist and upset about Zapatero's economic stimulus plan, which they say only serves to extend the life of a capitalist system they hate so much.
But Zapatero's political calculations have backfired spectacularly. And in the process, Spain's international credibility — and its global ambitions — have suffered a major blow.
Spanish officials had had high hopes for a closer relationship with the U.S. government after the election of President Barack Obama. Spain's bilateral relationship with the United States has been in a deep freeze ever since 2004, when Zapatero abruptly withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq. Many Spaniards are baffled that Zapatero would make the same mistake all over again.
The diplomatic fiasco could not have come at a more inopportune moment for Spain. In less than two weeks, Obama is set to travel to Europe for a series of meetings with European leaders. Spanish newspapers have already been chock full of articles about how Zapatero will have no less than four opportunities to shake hands with "the most powerful man in the world" and to try to rebuild Spain's broken relationship with America. Has Zapatero now jeopardized his chances of becoming Obama's new best friend?