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U.S./Spain: Washington Takes Wait-And-See Approach To Changes In Madrid

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Under outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Spain was one of Europe's strongest supporters of U.S. President George W. Bush and the Iraq war. But after bomb attacks with possible ties to Islamists killed 200 people in Madrid last week, Spaniards responded by electing a new government that is now threatening to pull out of Iraq and turn its foreign policy away from Washington. RFE/RL looks at how Washington is responding to the events in Spain and how they could affect U.S. efforts in Iraq.

Washington, 16 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Like a pair of flamenco dancers, Madrid and Washington were once the closest of partners.

During the government of conservative Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Spain was a fierce supporter of U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

As French-born U.S. analyst Simon Serfaty said: "No one, no one, with the possible exception of [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair, was as unequivocally committed to U.S. policies and to the person of President Bush as Prime Minister Aznar was. That was a true, genuine, deep commitment."

But things have changed.

On 14 March, the Socialist Party defeated Aznar's Popular Party in national polls, just days after synchronized bomb attacks killed 200 people in Madrid. Investigators say the attacks may have been the work of Islamists acting in revenge for Spain's support of the Iraq war, but other suspects remain, such as Basque separatists.

"By regaining or attempting to regain some foothold within the EU, Spain will isolate states like Poland and thus weaken further the coalition of the willing."
The incoming prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, rode to victory on the back of overwhelming public opposition to the war and a sense among some Spaniards that the attack may have been payback for supporting Washington in Iraq.

Zapatero immediately signaled that Spain is set to reverse its pro-U.S. course. He even suggested that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair lied about the threat of Iraq's weapons. "I have said many times that the war in Iraq is a great disaster and the occupation continues to be a disaster," he said. "It hasn't produced anything but more violence and more hatred, and there needs to be a lesson learned from this."

Zapatero vowed to turn Spanish foreign policy back toward Germany and France, which led opposition to the Iraq war. And he threatened to pull Spain's 1,300 troops out of Iraq unless a new United Nations Security Council resolution mandating troop presence is passed before 30 June, by which time Washington hopes to return sovereignty to Iraqis.

Yesterday in Washington, U.S. officials sought to play down the incident. The White House said that Bush had called Zapatero to congratulate him and tell him that he looks forward to working with the new government. At a State Department briefing, spokesman Adam Ereli noted that Zapatero stressed the importance of fighting terrorism and that Washington is set to continue cooperating with Madrid on this and other important tasks.

But Ereli would not be drawn on questions about whether Aznar's loss represents a blow to Washington's coalition of the willing in Iraq. As for Zapatero's threats about pulling out troops, Ereli said the situation is fluid and anything can happen, including the passage of a new Security Council resolution. "As far as the issue of Spanish troops in Iraq goes, let's see what develops," he said. "It has been said that there needs to be a UN mandate for those troops. We believe there is such a mandate in [UN Security Council Resolution] 1511. At the same time, we have also said that in the context of a transfer of sovereignty on 30 June a new resolution is possible."

Ereli's apparent frankness seems to suggest that despite its toned-down response, Washington is taking seriously Zapatero's stated new course. Analyst Serfaty, who directs European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, also takes Zapatero's words at face value, even if he said the UN provides him with an "escape clause" to avoid pulling troops from Iraq.

But Serfaty says the deeper issue is Zapatero's determination to reorient Spanish foreign policy toward Germany and France. He says that will weaken U.S. policy and isolate those states in Europe that have chosen to stand behind Washington. "By regaining or attempting to regain some foothold within the EU, Spain will isolate states like Poland and thus weaken further the coalition of the willing," Serfaty said.

Serfaty says that Poland, which is set to join the EU in May, has already suffered consequences in Europe for its strong support for Washington over Iraq.

In the wake of Zapatero's comments, Warsaw reiterated its commitment to U.S. policy in Iraq. Yesterday, Prime Minister Leszek Miller vowed to keep Poland's 2,400 troops in Iraq, where Poland commands a 9,000-strong division of troops from 24 nations, including 1,300 Spanish soldiers, in a central-south zone. Miller said that to revise Poland's stance in Iraq just because terrorists have attacked would be to give the terrorists the upper hand.

But Serfaty says that even countries like Poland, Britain, and Italy, which support Washington on Iraq and other issues, could begin to feel the weight of their own publics' opinions -- which, like Spain's, have deep misgivings about U.S. policy.

Italy yesterday reaffirmed its support of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. And while Britain's Blair remains under fire for his role in the conflict, the opposition Conservative Party backed him on the war and has always had close ties with Washington.

But as in Spain, Serfaty said public unease in Europe over U.S. policies could sooner or later have an effect on election results, especially if Islamist terrorism strikes again in any of the coalition countries. "When an election comes, the majority party in Poland will have to make a case that the choices it's made by following the U.S. leadership actually paid off," he said.
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