From Lepanto to Baghdad

Publicado por el may 7, 2003

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Publicado en The Wall Street Journal

 

April 2001. The Bush administration has been in office barely three months when the first member of the conservative Spanish government pays an official visit. It’s Federico Trillo, the Defence minister, who is billed as Spain’s answer to America’s neo-cons. Donald Rumsfeld has a succinct message for him, delivered in a rare sotto voce: “We know there are only two governments among the big five Europeans that think exactly like us: Aznar’s in Spain and Berlusconi’s in Italy. We’ve chosen Spain as a close partner.” Said and done. So after going to Mexico for his first visit abroad, and to Canada next -it was, after all, the Summit of the Americas- Spain was chosen as President Bush’s first European destination in May 2001. Imagine the chagrin in London! Spain’s prime minister, José María Aznar, had been returned to office the previous year with an absolute majority-which he had been far from in his first election victory in 1996. Feeling solid at home, it was time to try and play a role abroad. So after President Bush’s visit to Spain, one message Mr. Aznar conveyed to him in a country house in Toledo must have resounded afresh in Washington in the wake of 9/11: “Terrorism is the biggest threat to us”, Mr. Aznar had told Mr. Bush. At the time, “us” obviously meant the Spanish people; but after 9/11 everyone was happy to attribute to it a wider sense.

Over the last year, while war loomed over Iraq after Afghanistan, Mr. Aznar decided to side firmly with the U.S. There are various reasons for this. In the last half-century, Spain’s foreign policy was, firstly, one of survival under General Franco. After his death in 1975, centrist governments-made up of reformist members of the Franco regime-were in office until 1982. The goal of their foreign policy was to regain Spain’s international respectability. Just before leaving office, they signed Spain up for membership of Nato -excluding its military structure.

Then came the crushing victory of the Socialists in late 1982. Over their 14 years in office, Spain entered the European Union and, to all effects, became a full member of Nato. Madrid sided with the U.S. in the previous Gulf War and with other European allies in the Balkans, and also managed to place a good number of its politicians in high international office, including Javier Solana in Nato, Marcelino Oreja in the Council of Europe, and Juan Antonio Samaranch at the International Olympic Committee. But the Spanish Government itself remained a secondary player.

Throughout 2002, however, Mr. Aznar saw a new window of opportunity: Spain could get back to centre stage, and get there on principle. It was a matter principle to side with the U.S. after all they had done for Europe over half a century. If Jacques Chirac or Gerhard Schröder were going to succumb to petty political considerations, he, José María Aznar would do the opposite.

There is also a practical basis for Mr. Aznar’s support of the U.S. Europe is unable to defend itself. At present it can’t even deploy its own forces in its immediate environs without Nato’s (i.e. America’s) support. Macedonia proved the case this very year. What’s more, the 40th anniversary of the Elysée treaty was used by Paris and Berlin to declare -unilaterally- their own stand on Iraq as being the EU’s too. Messrs. Aznar and Blair seized the occasion presented to them by The Wall Street Journal and a week later published a statement of support for the U.S., together with six other leaders. That statement had far-reaching consequences, including one grounded in pure pique: France may have come finally to an agreement with Britain and the U.S., but Mr. Chirac’s grandeur could not survive an assertion of independence by Spain. In the wake of Resolution 1441, when the second-or rather 18th-resolution was presented to the Security Council with Spain’s signature on it, it was bound to fail. France had to veto it.

Unlike Prime Minister Blair, Mr. Aznar has enjoyed the solid support of his parliamentary party, without a single exception. And unlike Britain’s loyal opposition, the Spanish one has taken to the streets and led marches against the war, against its own troops who were on the way to the Gulf to provide medical assistance to those in need, and, most important, against the government. The Socialists adopted a platform as radical as that of the Communists-today a marginal force in Spain. The Socialist leader, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, is now perceived as someone who opposes many policies but offers none. Spaniards will go to the polls on May 25 to elect all local councils and most regional governments. Opinion polls, until now, have tended to show the ruling Popular Party losing support; but no one else is gaining those votes. Still, many safe conservative local councils are likely to be lost, though the signs are still rather confusing. Mr. Aznar is standing firm, but a weak electoral showing may bring him major problems within his party.

Or perhaps not. Since Mr. Aznar has said he will not stand for re-election, his successor should be appointed in the early Fall-at the latest. It’s taken for granted that the Popular Party’s new strongman will be handpicked by Mr. Aznar. Since the war’s outcome was positive-it was quick, there were few casualties among civilians, and Saddam was ousted-the installation of a respectable regime in Baghdad may ensure that the pacifism of Spain’s Socialists backfires ahead of the 2004 general elections. And Mr. Aznar’s party could reap rewards from his international stand-and stature.

Come election time, Spaniards may very well show their gratitude for having been aligned to the winning side in a major war. It would be the first time, in fact, since Don Juan de Austria defeated the Ottomans at Lepanto, at the head of an international coalition including Venice, the Papal States, and Genoa. The date: 1571.

 Mr. Perez-Maura is the assistant editor of the Madrid daily, ABC.

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Horizonte © DIARIO ABC, S.L. 2003

Una visión no siempre políticamente correcta de la realidad internacional. Un intento de hacer comprensible a una gran audiencia la realidad cotidiana internacional generada desde diferentes focos Más sobre «Horizonte»

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