For a moment there, it was all going so well. A mix of skillful politicking and outright begging had netted Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero a place at the G-20 table next month. George Bush, who had initiated something of a cold war between his country and Zapatero's when Spain withdrew from Iraq in 2004, had been replaced by the more like-minded Obama. There was even talk that Spain would be a stop on the new American President's first European tour. And then Defense Minister Carme Chacón went to Kosovo.
On March 19, Chacón told Spanish soldiers at a base in Istok that they and the rest of Spain's more than 600 troops who have formed part of the NATO peacekeeping forces (KFOR) in Kosovo since 1999 had finished their work. Once Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia last year, Spain has been looking for a way out in part because Spaniards don't recognize an independent Kosovo and also because they have their own separatist issues to deal with at home, in the form of Basque and Catalan nationalism. "The mission has been completed, and it's time to return home," Chacón said. The men and women in uniform greeted the announcement warmly. But almost everyone else has seen it though not necessarily the withdrawal itself as an unmitigated disaster. (See pictures of riots caused by Serbia's anger over Kosovo's independence.)
"We have to distinguish between the content of the message and its form," says Nicolas Sartorius, president of the Madrid-based Alternatives Foundation, a foreign-policy think tank. "In terms of content, it would have been inconsistent for the government to keep forces in a country it doesn't recognize. But in terms of the form in which it was delivered, well, obviously something wasn't done right."
That something was apparently communication. The decision to pull Spain's troops from Kosovo seemed to be made both suddenly and without previously discussing it with Spain's allies. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer expressed his disapproval on Friday. "Any significant change in the size or structure of KFOR should be the result of a decision within the Alliance," he said through a spokeswoman. U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood went further, saying, "We are deeply disappointed by this decision taken by Spain." Coming almost exactly five years after Zapatero's decision to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq, Chacón's announcement has led some foreign commentators to portray the Spanish government as an unreliable ally, while domestic critics, such as opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, worry that the damage done to Spain's international reputation is "incalculable." (See pictures of the Spanish protesting fuel prices.)
Compounding the negative reactions were reports that many relevant officials within Spain's administration were unaware that the announcement was near. According to the newspaper El País, Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos was not included in the decision, and Spanish Ambassador to the U.S. Jorge Dezcallar first learned of the withdrawal when a State Department official called him for an explanation. Asked about the timing, a spokesman for the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs corrected the statement about Moratinos, noting that the minister was up to date on the resolution, but said he could not confirm or deny the Dezcallar report.
In a country that has no equivalent of a National Security Council to mediate among the various parts of government involved, it's not unusual for a little intraministerial miscommunication to occur now and then. But many are asking why this decision, communicated poorly or not, was made now. With the G-20 meeting in London on April 2 and the NATO gathering in Strasbourg immediately after offering Spain a first chance to work with Obama, why would Zapatero risk alienating his allies? (See pictures of the world reacting to Obama's election win.)
One answer, says Antonio Remiro, professor of international law at Madrid's Autonomous University has to do with what's going on in Kosovo now. "NATO is starting to help form the embryo of an independent Kosovan army," he says. "They're reinforcing civil institutions too. It's become more and more contradictory for Spain to be a part of that since they don't recognize Kosovo's independence."
It's also possible that Spain is planning to concentrate its forces elsewhere. "If you have to conserve your human and economic resources, this is the obvious place to cut," adds Remiro. "It makes it possible to direct those resources toward other places that might be more important right now."
Other places like, say, Afghanistan. At the NATO meeting, Obama is widely expected to ask for more European assistance in Afghanistan, and Chacón herself, who in December lifted Spain's 3,000-person ceiling on troops abroad, has made it clear she is open to the request. (Vote for the 2009 TIME 100 Finalists.)
In the wake of the firestorm provoked by Chacón's announcement last week, the Spanish government has attempted to recover from its bungle. Although the minister originally announced that Spanish troops would be home by August, Zapatero's office has since adjusted that estimate, emphasizing that the withdrawal will be gradual, and may take as long as 18 months. Bernardino León, secretary general of the office of the Prime Minister, who was sent to Washington on Friday in an attempt to smooth things over, recognized that the State Department's reaction "could have been avoided" if Spain had handled the announcement differently.
But at a press conference held Monday at the Spanish naval base of Rota, Chacón denied any mistakes in the Kosovo incident and emphasized that the decision to withdraw was "intractable."
After putting so much effort into proving it belonged at the adults' table of foreign affairs, this embarrassing episode makes Spain look a little amateurish. But the withdrawal is not likely to permanently undermine the country's rapprochement with the U.S., says Sartorius of the Alternatives Foundation think tank: "Obama and Zapatero have a lot more in common than Kosovo."