Spain's retreat from Kosovo raises eyebrows, by Victoria Burnett

Herald Tribune - 24/3/2009

Jordi Vaquer es entrevistado en este reportaje acerca de la retirada de tropas españolas en Kosovo

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MADRID: When Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain withdrew Spanish peacekeepers from Iraq in 2004, he got the cold shoulder from former President George W. Bush. So ever since the election of Barack Obama, Mr. Zapatero has relished the prospect of working with a U.S. leader with whom he shares not only a birthday but also, in his view, a progressive agenda and a desire to resolve conflict through dialogue.


But Spain's unexpected announcement last week that it would withdraw its troops from the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo has marred the nascent relationship with the Obama administration and raised questions about Spain's reliability as an ally, diplomats and foreign policy experts say.


Spain informed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. officials of the decision less than 24 hours before Carme Chacón, the Spanish defense minister, announced it during a visit Thursday to a Spanish military base in Kosovo.


A State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, said that the United States was "deeply disappointed" by the announcement — an unusually strong reproach to an ally. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary general, also expressed disapproval, saying that any decision to withdraw from the Kosovo force should be made within the alliance, according to news reports.


Spain has just over 600 troops stationed in Kosovo as part of the NATO-led force of 15,400 soldiers. But the Spanish government, which is trying to curb regional nationalism in Catalonia and the Basque Country, does not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation.


The problem, analysts and experts said, was not so much Spain's decision to withdraw troops as the abrupt way it was announced. According to a report in the newspaper El País, Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos was one of several senior diplomats who were unaware of the decision before it became public. On Monday, in a show of unity, Moratinos said that the whole government backed the Kosovo withdrawal.


But diplomats and experts said they were baffled by Mr. Zapatero's decision to announce a potentially controversial decision just before the Group of 20 meeting in London on April 1-2 and the NATO summit meeting in Strasbourg a day later — meetings that are keenly anticipated in Zapatero's inner circle as an opportunity to work with Mr. Obama.


While the decision to pull out of Kosovo was logical for Spain, they said, it was not urgent. Spain has made clear that as the mission in Kosovo turns to building national institutions, it will no longer have a role there.


Jordi Vaquer i Fanés, director of the Center for International Relations and Development Studies in Barcelona, said the handling of the announcement made the government look amateurish at a time when Mr. Zapatero was hoping to burnish his international credentials.


Mr. Vaquer said the incident reflected Mr. Zapatero's lack of understanding "of how these organizations work," adding, "What we have done here is to lose weight within the European Union and NATO."


Several newspaper columnists and analysts noted that the announcement had echoes of Spain's 2004 pullout from Iraq. "Kosovo is not Iraq, but two withdrawals are more than a coincidence," José Ignacio Torreblanca, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Madrid, wrote in El País. "Some will ask, what is the problem with Spain?"


Mr. Zapatero scored a victory when he won a seat at the G-20 meeting of industrialized and emerging economies in Washington in November. At the time, Spain's conservative banking practices and tough regulation were admired as a possible blueprint for other countries in the wake of the financial crisis, though they did not prevent some of Spain's leading banks from getting into trouble.


But some analysts and critics have said the Spanish prime minister does not always navigate diplomatic waters well. Still, the damage does not appear to be irreparable. Spain could still prove itself an effective partner for the United States on issues such as Afghanistan, Guantánamo and Cuba.


Spain has resisted calls to increase its force of nearly 800 troops in Afghanistan, and officials close to Mr. Zapatero indicate that he is inclined to provide civilian help, for example, to train the police. But press reports indicate that Ms. Chacón is open to sending more troops if the United States presents a convincing Afghan strategy.


Mr. Vaquer said: "The Kosovo thing is not a major, major mistake. Our credibility has been damaged, but we can recover from this."