Zapatero's Spain

por Christopher Caldwell, 5 de mayo de 2004

(Published in The Weekly Standard, from the May 10, 2004 issue: Spain's problem with terrorism is Europe's: It does not want to defend itself. Volume 009, Issue 33)

Between March 11, when terrorists linked to al Qaeda killed 191 Spanish commuters with bomb attacks on four trains, and March 14, when Spanish voters shocked the world by removing José-María Aznar's pro-war Popular party (PP) from power and electing the Socialist (PSOE) candidate José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the world's attention was riveted on Spain. But soon dozens were arrested, and on April 3 another 7, believed to be the ringleaders, killed themselves with a bomb when their apartment in the Madrid suburb of Leganés was surrounded by police. One of the policemen, 41-year-old Francisco Javier Torronteras, the father of two daughters, was killed, too. That seemed to be that. Attention drifted back to the deteriorating situation in Iraq, next to which the Spanish events seemed to be only a sideshow.
But just before sunrise on Monday, April 19, something happened that raised the possibility that Madrid and Europe generally are center stage in the war on terror. Unknown intruders broke into the cemetery where the policeman Torronteras was interred. With a pick-axe, they pried open the crypt where his body lay, smashing the plaque on which memorial verses had been written by his family. They removed the coffin, wheeled it 500 meters away on a hand truck, opened it, chopped off the left hand, doused the corpse with gasoline, and lit it on fire.
As in the aftermath of March 11, the reaction of Spaniards to the event was as curious as the event itself. While right-wing talk radio--a thriving industry here--was full of callers raving against the moros (as Arabs are known among the working class), authorities and the press were standoffish. That the desecration of Torronteras's tomb had been carried out in homage to the corpse-burnings of American contract workers in Falluja just days before was a possibility that went unmentioned. Police said the attack on the grave could have been committed by 'hooligans.' The country's most balanced and interesting newspaper, Barcelona-based La Vanguardia, hedged its bets:
As for the possibility it was an act of vengeance carried out by radical Islamists, police sources said that Muslims usually have great respect for religious ceremony, and their rites seem not to embrace either amputation or the burning of remains. The act of burning the corpse and the coffin could also have been intended to destroy the evidence of whoever carried out the desecration.
El País, the Socialist party paper, read by the country's intellectual elite, speculated that skinheads could be involved. The paper wrote: 'Mistreating a cadaver is a pagan practice, totally alien to the Koran, explains an expert in Islam.' And in the photos they ran of Torronteras's funeral, all the papers took care to pixelate the faces of his pallbearers. Presumably to avoid their being targeted by 'skinheads.'
Less than three decades after the end of Francisco Franco's dictatorship, Spaniards are cautious about saying anything against the democratic process--or even against the results of a particular election. Most in the intellectual and political classes are reluctant to say that al Qaeda terrorism wrested a near-certain electoral victory from the party that al Qaeda hoped would lose, and handed power to the antiwar party that al Qaeda (at least according to its 'strategy' document, which was intercepted on the Internet by Norwegian authorities) hoped would win. But this Spanish circumspection, admirable in many ways, has produced a chain reaction of self-interested self-deception: And from there it is only a short step to saying that Spain has no continuing problem with terrorism at all.
The Popular party would have won. It did better in absentee ballots this year--those sent by mail before the March 11 explosions--than in the 2000 landslide that gave it an absolute majority. In the days before this year's election, two prominent Socialists, the charismatic Castilian governor José Bono (whom Zapatero would name defense minister) and European Union foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, were jockeying for support as candidates for the PSOE leadership after Zapatero's inevitable loss. A balanced view was given by the longtime president of Catalonia, Jordi Pujol, whose Convergencia i Unió party backs neither the governing coalition nor the Popular party opposition. 'Let us be clear about this,' Pujol said in his office in Barcelona in mid-April. 'The victory is legitimate. That cannot be discussed. But without the bombing, the other party probably would have won. March 14 was a legitimate victory but it was also a victory for terrorists.'
The best indication of the PSOE's slim prospects going into the election was Zapatero himself. He was the kind of candidate a party runs when it has slim hopes of victory. (Similarly the Popular party's candidate, Mariano Rajoy, was a complaisant, bipartisan fellow, meant to bring the country together after eight years of polarizing rule by Aznar.) Zapatero's investiture speech on April 17 proposed a range of boilerplate center-left reforms that Spain somehow got through the 1990s without (handicapped access, gay marriage) and then proposed giving Spain a few things that it already had (secular education and a law on violence against women). Zapatero nominated a record eight female ministers, called for the advancement of women through an equal rights commission, and promised a 'new politics of water.' This was a bric-a-brac agenda, the kind of governing proposal a European president would call for if he hadn't expected to have to propose one at all.
With one exception. Zapatero had wooed the nearly 90 percent of Spaniards who opposed their country's participation in the Iraq war. He had promised to bring Spain's troops back from their bases near Najaf unless the U.N. took over operations in Iraq. Now he decided not to run the risk that the U.N. might actually do so. In his first act after taking office, he ordered the troops home. When the opposition asked for a parliamentary debate, he scheduled one for after the troops' return. While the act enraged the United States and the Popular party opposition, Zapatero had already paid that price and would have been crazy (in domestic political terms) to do anything else. When, during the investiture debate, a Progressive party deputy asked him, 'Can you explain, once and for all, what you want?' he replied simply: 'To take Spain out of the Azores photo, take Spain out of the illegal and unjust war that took place.'
The photo in question shows Aznar with George Bush and Tony Blair at the meeting Aznar hosted in the Azores on the eve of the Iraq war. The Spanish often talk of it as Americans do of the photo taken of Michael Dukakis in a tank during the 1988 presidential campaign: as a moment when a man with big pretensions steps into a situation in which his surroundings reveal him as too small for the job. But that was wrong. One didn't have to like the Spanish role in Iraq. But there was nothing preposterous about it.
Aznar is said to distinguish privately between politicians who are serious and those who are simpático, simpático being a synonym for unserious. In eight years in office, he had turned Spain from an unserious country into a serious one, in a way that was most obvious in his handling of the economy. Aznar broke the power of unions, froze the salaries of functionaries, privatized dozens of state enterprises, and won the intellectual argument that lowering taxes was sometimes more responsible than raising them. He entered office in 1996 with unemployment at 22 percent and cut it in half. Half the jobs created in Europe since 1996 have been created in Spain. After the dot-com bust, Spain never dipped into negative growth as other European countries did--and Spain is still growing at twice the European rate. Aznar's hopes of joining the G-8 group of major economies sounded absurd when he took office; now it seems absurd that Canada should have that honor and Spain not. It is true that Aznar received the free gift of monetary stability from the establishment of the Euro; but fiscal stability came from his living up to the E.U. stability-and-growth pact (unlike France and Germany) and balancing his country's budget every year. Zapatero has promised not to change economic course, and chose as his economics minister the highly respected Pedro Solbes, for five years the E.U. economics minister in Brussels, who is unlikely to favor such a change.
In this economic climate, Spaniards began to tell pollsters they were more comfortable with a larger role for Spain on the world stage. In Aznar's view, this meant shifting Spain's allegiances from France and Germany to the United States. Aznar drew benefits for Spain from this partnership. U.S. assistance helped the government deal a serious blow to the Basque terrorist group ETA (presumably through communications intercepts). And it was the United States that mediated an end to the Moroccan army's seizure of the Spanish island of Perejil in July 2002, when Spain's E.U. partners, particularly France and Greece, then just starting its six-month term in the E.U. presidency, proved reluctant to alienate the new Moroccan king.
The idea that Aznar's foreign policy was an aberrant personal enthusiasm that could somehow be excised from the rest of his achievements was never true. But that foreign policy cut against other countries' obsession with building the E.U.--and against the grain of what Spain's intellectual elite considers the country's national identity. Spain's experience of right-wing dictatorship has made it a reflexively center-left country--and it is almost certainly the most anti-American country in Western Europe. Spain has reactionaries who resent Theodore Roosevelt for robbing it of its empire in 1898. It has anti-anti-Communists who fault President Eisenhower for propping up Franco in exchange for military bases in the 1953 Pact of Madrid. It has democracy activists who fault the month-old Reagan administration for sitting idly by on February 23, 1981, when army officers sought to topple Spain's new democracy in a coup d'état. (It is to '23-F,' as the day is called, that all Spaniards repair when an argument turns to democracy in Iraq.) The Socialist Felipe González won the presidency the following year on an anti-American platform and ruled for a decade and a half. As one former PSOE cabinet member said in an interview, 'Our experience of America is like Italy's experience of America turned inside out.'
So as Aznar drew closer to the United States, he was vulnerable to the accusation that he was reverting to an 'older idea of Spain'--a franquista one. Juan-Luís Cambrián, editor of El País, sought to rally Spaniards around the idea that the Spanish right is inherently undemocratic, and that the shocking absolute majority Aznar won in 2000 had led him to succumb to 'authoritarianism.' Aznar fought this view. His goal was to create a democratic center-right party--a difficult task in a country where an actual fascist government had given way to a climate of political correctness where conservatives were routinely likened to fascists. To this end, he promised to step down after eight years in power, inviting comparisons to the undislodgeable Socialist González, whom the right had accused of having authoritarian tendencies of his own. 'If they'd won,' says the Spanish historian Charles Powell, 'I'd've said the PP was a great gift to Spain.'
The war was never popular, but the idea of Spain as a power on the world stage was. Still, the benefits Aznar was drawing from its involvement were hard to see, and the United States did a miserable job of offering him visible ones--whether in the form of bilateral trade agreements, the semiformal role as a U.S. partner in Latin America that Aznar sought, military procurement contracts, or simply a coherent account from the White House of why Spain was being asked to bear such a heavy burden in Iraq. Spain, which after all had sat out both the first and second world wars, was new to the world stage; unlike Tony Blair, Aznar was wholly dependent on George W. Bush to invite him into the coalition, and then to enunciate a rationale for why Spain was so desperately needed.
For the spanish nation, the most important foreign policy issues are Europe, the United States, Latin America, and embittered, impoverished, militarily aggressive Morocco, just nine miles south across the Straits of Gibraltar. (Spain and Morocco have had territorial disputes over Mediterranean islands, Spanish cities on the African coast, and the former colony of the Western Sahara.) So it is only with reference to what Zapatero calls his 'European vision' of Spanish foreign policy that one can understand the nomination of Miguel Angel Moratinos--who has spent the last eight years in Ramallah unsuccessfully trying to win a role for the European Union in the Middle East peace process--as his foreign minister.
One could see the difference of approach on April 15, when an audiotape from Osama bin Laden offered a separate peace to those European countries that withdrew solidarity from the United States. While most news sources--and certainly all European ones--portrayed the European response as a univocal rebuff to bin Laden, there were differences in tone that one could pick up by contrasting Moratinos's remarks with those of Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini. What Frattini said was, 'It's unthinkable that we open a negotiation with bin Laden. Everybody understands this.' Moratinos said: 'What we want is peace, democracy, and freedom. We don't have to listen to or answer it.'
On an early visit to Washington, Moratinos said that, in the war on terror, he would send troops wherever the U.N. decides. Indeed, the troops Spain plans to send to Afghanistan to augment the 200 it already has there will go under U.N., not NATO, auspices. Never did he cite March 11 to assert Spain's right to self-defense under the U.N. charter, perhaps out of obedience to the strange reverse-Machiavellianism of European strategic thinking, which wields a double standard against itself. From the moment the bombs went off in Madrid, the statements one heard from Zapatero's circle were illogical: On the one hand, Iraq was so disconnected from al Qaeda that Spain's entry into the Iraq war was unjustified. On the other hand, Iraq was so tightly linked to al Qaeda that the March 11 bombings were just tit for tat.
This pair of irreconcilable views is widely held. According to one Aznar adviser, a few days after the March 11 bombings, some of the three dozen men arrested for the attacks brought to the neighborhood of Lavapiés where the attacks had been organized. It was not a perp walk--the goal was to get the terrorists in situ to answer investigators' questions. But the authorities noticed something odd. 'There were a lot of people on the street,' said the Aznar adviser. 'But no one was yelling at them. Everybody was silent. The people didn't think the terrorists were responsible for the attacks. They thought the United States was responsible. Or Aznar, maybe.'
Spain's entire sense of its safety rests on the idea that March 11 was condign punishment for its participation in the Iraq war. If Spaniards stopped believing that, they would fall into a panic, and they are fighting against a great deal of evidence to make sure they don't. Days after the Leganés raid, police found a bomb, set and armed, on the high-speed train tracks between Madrid and Seville. When a bomb-damaged videotape found in the raided apartment was reconstructed, it was found to contain a series of warnings--recorded on March 27--that the new government would face more attacks because of its announced wish to join the U.N. in Afghanistan. The tape demanded that Spanish troops retire immediately from 'the land of the Muslims'--Afghanistan as well as Iraq. And implicitly one other country that jihadists regard as Muslim: Spain itself. Considering that Muslims ruled in Spain for twice as long as Europeans have lived in North America, many jihadist radicals treat Spain not as an infidel country but an apostate one: 'If you don't do this, within the space of a week from today,' the March 27 message continued, 'we shall continue our jihad until martyrdom in the land of Tariq bin Ziyad'--that is, in Spain.
Spain's problem is basically Europe's: It does not want a strategic relationship with the only power that can defend it. And the accident of the Socialist victory has shifted thinking all across Europe towards a strange kind of fatalistic, let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may passivity. Certain intelligent opponents of the Iraq war understand this best. In an article on what he calls 'Europa Zapatera' (Zapatero's Europe), Eugenio Scalfari, editor of Italy's La Repubblica daily, argued that following the United States into Iraq was a mistake, but he also despaired of entrusting the mission to the U.N. 'For what is the U.N.? What can it do? And is it capable of doing it or is it only an alibi to hide the Europeans' impotence before the Iraq crisis?'
The pipe dream is worth pursuing, though, Scalfari continued. 'Europa Zapatera is in reality the only possible alternative. Defuse the Iraq bomb and undertake, with seriousness and intelligence, the war against real terrorism, and at the same time impose on Israelis and Palestinians a route to peace that, alone, they have never been capable of building.' It is hard to imagine Italians responding the way they have to the holding of three of their fellow citizens in Iraq--sending friends and family of the hostages to beg for their release on Al Jazeera, trying to outdo each other in condemnation of Berlusconi's war--had Spanish voters not reacted as they had to al Qaeda's disruption of the Spanish elections.
The psychological strategy Spaniards have pursued since March 11 has become general across Europe, even in countries that (for now) still belong to the coalition. The strategy is to pretend that, just because an American-led invasion of Iraq seems to be the wrong solution, there is no problem.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.