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Spain: What Motivated Aznar To Side With The U.S. Against Iraq?

Despite overwhelming popular opposition, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has emerged as a staunch supporter of the U.S. position on Iraq. What are the reasons for Aznar's policy, and what is Spain likely to gain or lose from it?

Prague, 19 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- If Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar were guided by poll numbers, as well as by the logic of Spain's economic ties to the European Union, Madrid would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with France and Germany in opposition to U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

But Aznar has done precisely the opposite, taking the bold and lonely decision of backing the U.S. -- second only to Britain's Tony Blair in the strength of his support for U.S. President George W. Bush. The move has earned Aznar a place in the spotlight of world affairs, but experts say it could incur serious risks for Aznar and his ruling Popular Party.

What are the risks, as well as potential benefits, of Aznar's decision, and what is his motivation?

Felix Vacas, professor of international law at Madrid University's Institute for International and European Studies, told RFE/RL that Aznar is taking a gamble. Local elections are coming up, and popular opposition to Aznar's stance on Iraq is overwhelming, as witnessed by polls giving anti-war supporters a majority of 80 percent, and recent demonstrations which drew millions into the streets of Spain's major cities.

"I think he's taking deep risks because, on the one hand, we have elections -- municipal and regional elections -- in two months' time, and that's really a risk for him because well, a month ago, 4 million people -- that means 10 percent of the population -- demonstrated against war and against the Spanish position in this conflict. And last Saturday [15 March], more than 1 million people in the whole of Spain demonstrated again, against the Spanish position -- the government's position -- in this [impending] war," Vacas said.

Aznar, it should be noted, is relinquishing his party's leadership in October, and will not be running in general elections scheduled for 2004.

Vacas said the nature of Aznar's Popular Party means that, unlike Tony Blair in Britain, the Spanish prime minister does not have to fear any internal rebellion from cabinet members. But signs that support from formerly loyal voters is starting to ebb is another matter.

"The Popular Party, on the one hand, is a rigid party in its internal way of working. But on the other hand, they face a poll, and they are deeply worried about what their performance is going to be in these elections," Vacas said.

Given these factors, what is behind Aznar's pro-U.S. stance? Analysts say that in order to understand Aznar's motivation, it is important to understand Aznar's character and to see his political career in context.

First, Aznar is widely seen as a politician driven by personal convictions. His conservative Popular Party's defeat of the Socialists in 1996 ushered in an era of greater Euroskepticism in the government.

In the view of Dan O'Brien, Europe editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit, Aznar is aware of Spain's historic role in world affairs and is keen that Madrid should not be left behind Paris or London on the world stage.

"Jose Maria Aznar has been very concerned about punching up to what he perceives to Spain's weight in the world, and he has seen an ideological affinity with George W. Bush. Being on the center-right, he has seen this as an opportunity to bring Spain closer to America," O'Brien said.

But O'Brien, like Vacas, believes that, ultimately, Aznar's gamble will not pay off -- first, because unlike Britain, Spain does not have the military might to back up its rhetoric.

"Spain has miscalculated in that Spain is at very best a middle-weight player in world affairs -- and that's at the very best. For instance, it's not sending any forces to Iraq. There'll be no military involvement in the conflict. And to some extent, that's because Spain is simply not a warrior nation. It's not, honestly -- it doesn't have a military capacity that would allow it to play any sort of meaningful role," O'Brien said.

Secondly, O'Brien noted that in the polarized context of the debate on Iraq, the Spanish government's pro-U.S. stance and its co-sponsorship -- with Britain and the United States -- of a second, unsuccessful UN resolution authorizing war is bound to have negative consequences for Madrid.

"In terms of the repercussions in Europe, it's almost certain that both France and Germany will want to punish Spain and be seen to punish Spain. It's important to remember that Spain is the largest beneficiary of [European Union] funds, which mostly come from Germany. So the idea that a middle-weight country, that receives so much funding, could undermine the Franco-German position is something that will be taken very seriously by the French and the Germans, and it won't go unpunished," O'Brien said.

Far from raising Spain's influence as an independent player in global affairs, Vacas, like the majority of his compatriots, believes Aznar has forfeited a chance at helping to forge a united EU foreign policy, in exchange for a minor role as a U.S. helper -- a strategy he believes is not thought out and will serve Madrid poorly.

"I don't know if the Spanish government is trying to become part of the G-8, or the G-7 plus Russia, or what Mr. Aznar is trying to do with our country. But from my point of view, the way of building a credible, acceptable foreign policy is to try to build our own one, together with our partners in the European Union and not trying to play the role of a puppet or just following the foreign policy which the United States sets all the time," Vacas said.

Whether one agrees with this point of view or not, it appears to be deeply and widely felt in Spain. The country's leading national newspaper, "El Pais," in a blistering editorial yesterday, blasted Aznar and Blair as Bush's "acolytes", and it blamed Aznar for doing nothing to prevent war.

O'Brien said there are already indications that Aznar, through his controversial policy, may succeed in bringing left-leaning and conservative voters together in their opposition to the government.

"Spain is a staunchly Catholic country, and the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church to this conflict certainly widens the support level [for the antiwar movement] from the anticlerical left to the more conservative Roman Catholic right, which makes up most of Mr. Aznar's party," O'Brien said.

Regional and municipal elections in two months' time will be the first barometer of how Aznar's decision to side with Washington will play with Spanish voters. On the optimistic side for Aznar, O'Brien said, elections often hinge on domestic issues, not foreign policy.

The fact that Spain will not commit any troops to combat in Iraq means any consequences of Aznar's policy will be mitigated. And Madrid can be expected to gain some economic benefit for being Washington's ally when it comes time to distribute contracts for Iraq's postwar reconstruction.