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).