If Kosovo helped shape the early phase of Campaign 2000, heightening divisions in the Republican Party and elevating foreign policy as an issue in presidential politics, then the peace agreement produced a clear winner among the field of candidates: Vice President Gore.
Republicans and Democrats disagree on many aspects of how the decision by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to accept the terms of the peace plan may affect the campaign. But they agree that Gore gained most by peace because he had the most to lose from war.
"A prolonged war that Americans do not understand or want would have been a negative for him," said Tom Rath, the Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire. "On one of the few things that could imperil his nomination, he doesn't get bogged down."
"Kosovo could have been a political quagmire for Gore, and now it's seemingly transformed into a political victory," said Marshall Wittmann of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "He's got the cigar and the bongo drums today."
The implementation of the peace agreement--and Milosevic's unpredictability--make the coming months particularly crucial in determining how Kosovo will be judged in the end by the American people.
But coming just at the moment U.S. and NATO officials were facing critical decisions about whether to escalate the conflict, the peace agreement spares President Clinton--and therefore Gore--of potentially costly steps that might have put U.S. troops on the ground at the beginning of an election year.
"Avoiding what was coming is a serious benefit for Gore," said a former administration official.
The Kosovo conflict exposed the long-simmering fissure in the Republican Party between the GOP's isolationist or non-interventionist wing and its internationalist wing. The debate over Kosovo foreshadows what is likely to be a vigorous debate in the GOP primaries about America's role in the world.
One side is typified by candidates such as Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), all of whom supported NATO's intervention in Kosovo and asserted that U.S. forces should play a role in the NATO-led peacekeeping force.
Another set of Republicans, including Patrick J. Buchanan, former vice president Dan Quayle, Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes and Rep. John R. Kasich (Ohio), generally opposed U.S. intervention in Kosovo or said U.S. troops should not be used to enforce a peace agreement.
In the wake of the announcement of the peace agreement, their differences continued. Quayle, for example, described Kosovo as "Bill Clinton's folly" and said the debate will become even more significant as the question of who pays to rebuild Yugoslavia takes center stage.
But McCain, who was both a hawkish advocate of preserving the option of ground forces and a harsh critic of Clinton's unwillingness to wage war more aggressively, said the peace agreement, if it proves real, will "show that the United States and the NATO alliance are relevant and able to stop activities of people like Milosevic."
Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio said a recent survey of his showed that Republican primary voters are closely divided between the two foreign policy postures, but he doubted that foreign policy would dominate the primary campaign.
But apparent divisions between Bush, the early front-runner in the polls, and congressional Republicans, who have been decidedly opposed to Clinton's Kosovo policy, could prove troublesome if Bush becomes the party's nominee.
If Bush wins the nomination, one Democrat predicted, "he's going to be pulled back and pressured to criticize Clinton" by many congressional Republicans. "I don't know if he will be able to resist the non-interventionist policy," the Democrat added.
The biggest area of disagreement among political strategists and foreign policy analysts was over what role foreign policy will play in the 2000 election.
Several public opinion analysts predicted that it will fade once Kosovo reverts to the inside pages of the newspapers. "When the battle is over, you'll find the focus will snap back to domestic affairs," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
But Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace predicted foreign policy will remain a central issue. "Nobody expected this crisis, and there will be others," he said.
Kagan and others cited a renewed face-off with Iraq, Russia's shaky political and financial condition, nuclear proliferation in South Asia, nuclear tensions with North Korea and above all China as issues that could dominate the news between now and November 2000.
As a result, voters may think more than they have in recent elections about whether presidential candidates have the stuff to be commander in chief and world leader. In that sense, Kosovo is a warning flare that may have helped put foreign policy back on the political stage for the first time in a decade.
CAPTION: The peace deal may have turned a potential political quagmire into a victory for Vice President Gore.