Significant differences between the first and second Bush terms continue to emerge. After studied silence in her White House years, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is beginning to reveal her style and values, clearly with presidential approval. She seems to be a pragmatic conservative, oriented toward problem-solving, pursuing essentially non-ideological policies. She is careful (and politically smart) to keep faith, in all her statements, with neoconservative values, but she is also finding high-profile, low-cost ways, such as extensive travel, to improve America's shaky image and relationships around the world. Several recent events are worth attention:
The dramatic policy reversal -- personally shaped by President Bush -- resulting in a decision not to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a role for the International Criminal Court in Darfur. This was the first time in four years that the Bush administration had departed from its practice of opposing anything having to do with the ICC.
Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's well-orchestrated trip to Sudan, following the U.N. vote, to hammer the Khartoum government on Darfur. Zoellick became the first U.S. official to embrace the suggestion of several people, including U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jon Corzine, that NATO could play a role in support of an African Union peacekeeping force. (Next: Appoint a high-level special envoy for Darfur and a separate, full-time ambassador accredited to the African Union.)
The appointment of outgoing World Bank president James Wolfensohn to the new post of special coordinator for development of Gaza -- an inspired choice, given Wolfensohn's reputation in this field; also a rather bold one for an administration that has famously subjected its appointees to a political litmus test that the liberal Wolfensohn, a Bill Clinton appointee, could never have passed.
One notable policy change has gone virtually unnoticed -- the one concerning Kosovo, where, after four years of neglect and mistakes, the administration has made a major shift. Ever since the 78-day NATO bombing campaign freed the Kosovar Albanians from Slobodan Milosevic's oppressive grip in 1999, political control of Kosovo has been in the semi-competent hands of the United Nations, while NATO has maintained a fragile peace between the majority Albanian and minority Serb populations.
Under Security Council Resolution 1244, passed in 1999, the final status of Kosovo was supposed to be worked out through negotiations that would result in either independence, partition or a return by Kosovo to its former status as part of a country once known as Yugoslavia, now "Serbia and Montenegro." But instead of starting this process years ago, Washington and the European Union fashioned a delaying policy they called "standards before status," a phrase that disguised bureaucratic inaction inside diplomatic mumbo-jumbo. As a result, there have been no serious discussions on the future of Kosovo for the past four years, even as windows of opportunity closed and Albanian-Serb tensions rose. Finally, bloody rioting erupted last March, leaving eight Serbs and 11 Albanians dead, a thousand people injured and the region teetering on the brink of another war. Tensions have remained high ever since; just two days ago there was a bomb attack on the offices of an opposition party in Kosovo.
Last month, after warnings about the explosiveness of the situation from Philip Goldberg, America's senior diplomat there, Rice sent Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns to Europe for meetings with the nearly moribund Contact Group (the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Russia and Germany). Burns told them that the situation in Kosovo was inherently unstable and, unless there was an acceleration of efforts to determine its final status, violence would probably increase, with NATO forces, including U.S. troops, tied down indefinitely.
Under American pressure -- always the necessary ingredient in dealing with the sluggish, process-driven European Union -- a new Contact Group policy has begun to emerge. This summer a special U.N. representative will "determine" that Kosovo has met the necessary standards -- self-governance, refugees, returnees, freedom of movement, etc. -- and is therefore ready for status talks. (Of course, this should have been done years ago, but better late than never.) Then will come the really tough part: What should Kosovo's final status be? Separate nation, Serb province, partition?
Although no one is talking on the record in Washington or in Europe, I find it hard to see any ultimate outcome for Kosovo other than independence, perhaps on a staged basis over the next several years. But such an outcome requires strong guarantees for the endangered Serb minority that remains in Kosovo -- between 100,000 and 200,000 people. The protection of Kosovo's Serbs will require some sort of continued international security presence. In addition, the deeply divided Kosovar Albanians, whose last prime minister is now facing war crimes charges in The Hague, must achieve a much higher level of political maturity.
Ultimately, Belgrade will have to accept something politically difficult: giving up Serbian claims to Kosovo, which Serbs regard as their historic heartland. The Serbs will have to choose between trying to join the European Union and trying to regain Kosovo. If they seek their lost province, they will end up with neither. But, if it can opt for the future over the past, Serbia would have a bright future as an E.U. member, and the ancient dream of an economically integrated, peaceful Southeast Europe (including Greece and Bosnia) would be within reach. The European Union, however, must make a real deal on Kosovo an integral part of the membership process for Serbia.
There are many complicated subplots here, involving Montenegro, Bosnia, Albania, the United Nations, the E.U. and NATO. But for now the important thing is that after ignoring the issue for four years, the administration is doing something in the Balkans, where nothing happens without U.S. leadership. Given that instability in the Balkans -- and Kosovo is highly unstable now -- has historically spread into other parts of Europe, and that the region lies in the heart of the growing NATO sphere, this is the sort of problem that must be addressed before it grows again into a major crisis.
Richard Holbrooke, a presidential envoy for Bosnia and Kosovo during the Clinton administration, writes a monthly column for The Post.