WASHINGTON — Nearly two weeks into NATO's air campaign in Yugoslavia, leaders in key alliance capitals braced for the first major test of their unity: a cease-fire offer from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
They knew it was coming, and they wanted to react decisively. Above all, they needed to act together.
The manner in which the peace overture was handled provides a revealing, and somewhat surprising, glimpse of the chain of command in the campaign to bring peace to Kosovo: In this case and others, critical decisions have sailed through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 19-member governing board in a matter of hours.
In those instances when there have been delays, critics say, the foot-dragging has occurred not at NATO headquarters in Brussels but in Washington.
On April 3, Milosevic's anticipated cease-fire overture was the subject of a lengthy midday phone call between President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Clinton's closest confidant among NATO's 18 other heads of state and government.
"They discussed how it should be handled. They talked about what they could accept and the kind of offer they needed to reject," recalled a source familiar with the conversation who declined to be identified.
Clinton also talked that day with French President Jacques Chirac, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, while a few blocks away at the State Department, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright worked down her own list of calls.
Cease-Fire Option Rejected in 4 1/2 Hours
By the time Milosevic made the offer three days later, NATO's biggest member countries were ready. Armed with clear directives from their capitals, the British, French, German and American ambassadors in Brussels consulted briefly by telephone to coordinate their response, then swiftly presented the issue at a meeting of all 19 NATO ambassadors.
About 4 1/2 hours after Milosevic unveiled his initiative, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana announced that the 19 members had unanimously rejected it.
"The offer is clearly insufficient," Solana declared in a written statement.
That sequence of events highlights one of the few undisputed successes of the early days of NATO's depressingly messy war over Kosovo, the southernmost province of Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia. It was an example of unexpectedly swift and smooth decision-making on the part of 19 nations that are bound to act by consensus.
Indeed, one of the surprises of the Kosovo campaign is the fact that complaints about delayed decision-making and bureaucratic bottlenecks have focused on Washington rather than Brussels.
According to diplomats and other government officials on both sides of the Atlantic, two key factors, both of them informal, have expedited NATO's decision-making process on Kosovo.
First, the conflict has produced some of the most intense--and unusual--transatlantic telephone contact ever between, on the one side, an American president and his secretary of State and, on the other, like-minded European counterparts.
White House officials say Clinton has made about 40 telephone calls to European leaders since the crisis began, mainly to Blair, Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Italian Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema also is said to get considerable telephone time because of Italy's critical, yet delicate, role as a major springboard for NATO aircraft.
Phone Calls Offer Reinforcement
Albright, who carries primary responsibility for maintaining a solid diplomatic front, makes as many as 30 calls a day to foreign ministers within the alliance and beyond, according to one aide.
Long an ideological and generational soul mate to Blair, Clinton is now said to have become closer to Schroeder, another baby boomer, whose unexpected solidarity has helped ease the alliance's decision-making. It is during these high-level calls, U.S. and European officials say, that NATO's most politically controversial moves--such as the decisions to strike central Belgrade, to bomb through the Orthodox Easter and to reject Milosevic's initial cease-fire offer--have begun to take form.
Those familiar with the content of these conversations say the talks are given an added dimension by serving as an exercise in mutual reinforcement by three relatively young leaders from the political left whose only previous experi-ence with war has been to oppose it.
"No one has had a lot of practice at this," admitted a senior diplomat familiar with the calls. "The rhythm is cyclical. They do something tough; then they worry whether everyone's still on board. So they ask for another [meeting of NATO ambassadors] and discover everyone is on board, so they get tough again.
"There's lots of reality checks going on," this diplomat added.
A second, equally informal factor has tended to expedite critical decisions: the ability of a few key nations to use high-level contacts to shape decisions, and then quickly sell them to the alliance as a whole.