THE ROLE OF AMERICA; Confounding his critics yet again, Bill Clinton's success in Kosovo was more by judgement than luck
Stunned by defeat, all of their assumptions cast to the winds, they were caught by surprise when the war came to a sudden and abrupt end. This was not the Yugoslav military leadership: it was Washington last week, as the news of a diplomatic settlement, still to be cemented into place, started to emerge. The bureaucrats and top brass, politicians and pundits were realising that, once again, Bill Clinton seemed to have pulled victory from the jaws of defeat.

Mr Clinton surprised many who had decided, mainly on ideological grounds, that he could not be trusted. In the process, he has helped to underpin the foundations of the transatlantic bargain that is at the heart of Nato, despite some dodgy moments. As Stephen Rosenfeld wrote in Friday's Washington Post, "not a flawless performance this time, but an effective one". The problems in Kosovo itself may just be beginning, but in the terms which the administration and Nato set themselves, the conflict has ended successfully.

The war in Kosovo confounded many of those who had decided long ago that this was a President who was not up to the job. Many were the same people who had confidently assumed that he would not escape impeachment, and who were preparing for strong Republican gains in last year's elections (they lost seats). The right - especially the ultra-right of the conservative think-tanks and the fundamentalist Christian groups - has persistently got things wrong because it underestimates the President. There was a profound silence from most of them on Friday, especially those who had insisted that the campaign could never succeed.

Mr Clinton has also been widely written off in Europe in recent weeks. Many assumed he was incapable of running a war, given his lack of military experience and his fastidious approach to opinion polls. In fact, the administration showed it was willing to ride out the bumps in popular opinion - Mr Clinton's approval rating hit its lowest in nearly three years - and stick to a consistent strategy: air power would win.

He was lucky. The administration made a grave error of judgement early on in the campaign by assuming that a few days of light bombing would force Belgrade to the negotiating table. Once that did not work, General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, wanted a huge escalation of the bombing campaign. But Washington resisted, believing that would alienate support in Europe and America. As the air campaign continued, there was new pressure for ground forces - or a public acknowledgement that they might be necessary. Again, the US resisted.

The conventional wisdom was that America stuck to this line because of fear of its own casualties and of the impact on opinion polls. But it was also constrained by the knowledge that while London and to some extent Paris were pushing for an escalation, neither Germany nor Italy would wear it. From Washington, the US position seemed to be holding the ring among the competing demands of the Europeans.

The war has underlined that despite everything that has happened in the post-Cold War world America remains the key player in European security. To a large degree, that was what this short, bloody and vile conflict was about: confirming the role of Nato at the lowest cost to alliance nations. It succeeded.

It was only when America became convinced of the need for military action that such a solution to Kosovo came on to the agenda. American aircraft flew most of the missions. If there had been a ground war, Americans would have provided most of the force: after all, of the main European Nato members, only Britain and France were ready to fight, and France is not a member of the alliance's unified military command.

There was a risk attached to the cautious Clinton approach. Had the US strategy failed, not only would it have blown apart the alliance's military credibility but its political logic would have been holed below the waterline. Instead, Nato is alive, albeit battered and bruised.

There is little public appetite in the US or Europe for America to be "global policeman". Mr Clinton has sought to make the operation at least appear inclusive, both by refusing to act in ways that would transcend the political consensus (by yielding to British pressure for a ground offensive) and by giving the impression that alliance unity was paramount. In particular, the US has taken great pains not to alienate Germany. The Americans know that Germany - the largest EU state, the most central in geographical and political terms and the state with most to lose from instability in eastern Europe - is pivotal.

Partnership for Peace and Nato expansion, the war in Bosnia and now in Kosovo, and the decision to reverse President George Bush's opposition to a defence role for Europe, are part of an attempt to continue the post- Cold War evolution of European institutions and rewrite the transatlantic bargain.

The cynics might say that President Clinton was lucky: Belgrade folded its hand first. But politicians make their own luck, and in the past 12 months Mr Clinton and his advisors have all too frequently been cast as the beneficiaries of good fortune for it to be entirely credible.