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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

June 2007

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A Madrid-based American journalist reports that anti-American attitudes and actions by Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero and his government, and the Bush Administration’s response, make prospects for an early rapprochement remote. Secretary Rice’s recent visit did nothing to change this. —JRB

So we have U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on a stopover in another European capital following visits to NATO allies in Berlin and Vienna—more formality than news item, you might think. Yet her June 1 courtesy call on her Spanish counterpart, Miguel Angel Moratinos, represents the highest-level contact between Madrid and Washington since Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero assumed office in March 2004. In that light, the visit was heralded as a diplomatic triumph by Spain’s pro-government media and reported with a smug subtext of “See, they couldn’t just go on forever pretending we don’t exist.”

Maybe not, but they sure gave it their best shot. Three times previously Rice alleged “scheduling conflicts” to cancel talks she couldn’t otherwise get out of. This time she showed, but only after getting the agenda skewed to her requirements: “On Cuba, I am not sure we see eye to eye, frankly. The Cubans deserve better and I think we will talk about that.” Moratinos took it all with bring-it-on bravado. “The U.S. established its embargo. We don’t agree with it, but we respect it,” the foreign minister told the International Herald Tribune. “What we hope is that they respect our policy.”

The Spanish language has a wonderful verb, ningunear, the meaning of which encompasses and transcends the idea of deliberately slighting or scorning someone you simply cannot stand, of treating a somebody like a nobody, which pretty much characterizes the Bush administration’s attitude to Spain ever since Zapatero came to power in elections held a few days after Islamic terrorists killed 191 people on Madrid commuter trains.

Shortly after taking office, Zapatero pulled out the 1300 soldiers his pro-American, anti-Saddam predecessor José María Aznar had deployed in Iraq. That endeared Zapatero to a majority (67%) of Spaniards, but he seemed determined to provoke Washington by offering U.S. allies unsolicited advice that “more decisions in line with the one taken by the government of Spain would create the conditions for an improved outlook” in the region.

Actually, the roots of the grudge go back a year earlier, when, as leader of the then-opposition Socialist Party, Zapatero committed the deliberate discourtesy of refusing to stand when the U.S. flag, along with every other Western Hemisphere nation, passed in review during Spain’s Columbus Day parade. Relations really turned a gangrenous black when the Spanish premier said he “believed and hoped” that John Kerry would win the 2004 U.S. presidential race.

That penchant for mouthing off about who deserves to win other countries’ elections led Zapatero to diss Angela Merkel as a “loser” because she failed to gain an absolute majority, and helped seal Ségoulène Royal’s defeat by his appearance at a rally during the last week of the French presidential campaign. The incumbent Royal had hoped to replace, Jacques Chirac, also had issues with Zapatero, notably over the latter’s massive a posteriori legalization of illegal immigrants. But Chirac really let it show during the Israel-Hezbollah war, when Moratinos came back from Damascus trumpeting that Syria would use its influence to immediately restore peace in the region. “A few minutes later, the Syrian president denied ever having said such a thing to M. Moratinos,” Chirac snorted, not bothering or needing to specify the person to whom the Syrian president made the denial.

Going astray on the road to Damascus seems odd for someone who has always passed himself off as a Middle East specialist and was based in the region as European Union Special Envoy from 1996 to 2003—not, in the view of analysts, a period prodigious in EU-generated initiatives or input. Where his sympathies lie was made clear, however, during the Mohammed cartoon scare, as Moratinos called for pre-emptive censorship so that “the media should not be used to stir up or disseminate hatred.”

The Danish caricature episode also saw Zapatero striding to the front of the foreign policy stage with a letter to the International Herald Tribune maintaining that while “publication of these caricatures may be perfectly legal, it is not a matter of indifference, and thus ought to be rejected from a moral and political standpoint.” Arguing that terrorists won’t attack you if you don’t get them riled echoed the official line that the Madrid train massacre was in retaliation for the previous government’s involvement in Iraq.

Spain’s premier likewise went out of his way to annoy Israel, first by letting himself be photographed in a keffiyeh headscarf that a supporter had draped over his shoulders. Making a fashion statement with the emblem of the Palestinian intifada just when Israeli soldiers and civilians were dying in the Lebanese war of July 2006 struck many observers as in such dubious taste that it had to be deliberate.

While rockets rained down on northern Israel, Zapatero shifted from symbolic to explicit mode, accusing Israel of using “abusive force that allows for no defense of innocent civilians at risk of losing their lives.” The secretary-general of Zapatero’s Socialist Party, an individual named José Blanco, went even further and charged that Lebanese civilian casualties were the “deliberate and intentional” result of Israeli military policy.

What a despicable slur, countered Israeli ambassador Victor Harel. “Being accused of indiscriminately killing civilians is the sort of thing we expect from Arab propagandists but we never thought we’d hear it from the head of a party that has numerous ties with Israel and years and years of relations. That the party secretary should organize a demonstration and make accusations of that nature leaves us speechless,” said Harel, who was on the point of returning home when Blanco was ordered to hit the “wait, I was misinterpreted” button and bail out of his responsibilities.

Not that Zapatero’s foreign policy can be said to be absolute in its pro-Islamic tilt. Bereft of his benevolence are the 250,000 inhabitants of the Western Sahara, which even the UN admits is one of the few regions left on earth denied the right to govern itself. Ever since Spain cut loose from its former colony in 1975, successive Madrid governments had supported the pro-independence Polisario Front against Morocco, which has resorted to everything from napalm to incremental re-colonization in its bid to annex the mineral-rich desert territory. That support has ended with Zapatero’s eagerness to curry favor with Morocco’s King Mohammed VI. The Saharans know they are being sold down the river, though it’s not clear what price Zapatero expects to get for his betrayal.

Who, then, would Zapatero consider his true friends and allies abroad? One would surely be Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, his partner in the Alliance of Civilizations. Erdogan is the mirror image of the Spanish premier in that observers have accused both of having a covert agenda for subverting the constitutional character of their respective countries, with Erdogan committed to a form of creeping Islamism and Zapatero to a territorial reshuffle that would turn Spain into a kind of federation as a way of negating the outcome of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and overturning the verdict of history.

Spain has always believed it has a special role to play in Latin America and, though it did not originate with Zapatero, the idea that more can be accomplished by remaining engaged with Cuba rather than turning away in democratic indignation makes a perfect fit with the Zapatero world view. “Spain is not prepared to be absent from Cuba,” insists Moratinos. “And what the U.S. has to understand is that, given they have no relations with Cuba, they should trust in a faithful, solid ally like Spain."

Schmoozing with the regime meant breaking ranks with the rest of the European Union, which has been keeping its diplomatic distance from Cuba since 1996. But disregarding EU policy is no big deal even for one so strongly in favor of a comprehensive European constitution. After all, Zapatero did not hesitate to ignore or defy EU regulations on cross-border take-overs and limits on government interference in the marketplace when he foiled the attempt by Germany’s E.On to take control of Spanish electrical utility Endesa.

Angela Merkel cannot have been pleased by that, but by now it must be clear to Zapatero that his dream of a red shift in the European leadership spectrum that would curb the influence of the United States and make himself globally relevant just isn’t going to happen. Who’s left then? Zapatero’s original spurt of enthusiasm for Castro clones and fellow Bush-bashers Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia dwindled to a trickle, after both gave free rein to their autocratic and other impulses and Bolivia nationalized its gas sector, where the Spanish-Argentinean energy consortium, Repsol, has invested many millions.

That’s still a long way from seeing Zapatero in Washington or Bush laying a wreath outside Atocha train station for Madrid’s terrorism victims. In point of fact, they have run into each other at two or three NATO conclaves, and appear to have behaved civilly enough with no cameras around. “Qué tal, amigo?” (How’s it going, buddy) said Bush in his panhandle Spanglish. Spanish officials insist it was the other way around and Zapatero extended his hand in a “Qué tal, George?” gesture. But when Zapatero rang up the White House to congratulate Bush on his 2004 election victory he was put on hold, and kept on hold, and on hold he remains to this day, as does the short-term likelihood of a full renormalization of ties between Spain and the United States.

Thus did Secretary Rice get to speak her mind on Cuba and Zapatero get his picture taken with her in a bid to show that reports of the demise of Spanish foreign policy have been highly exaggerated. At the farewell joint press conference, Moratinos puffed away about how confident he was it was only a matter of time before the United States would realize that Spain was correct and justified in pursuing its policy of constructive engagement with Havana. At which point Rice turned aside to the U.S. press contingent in attendance and remarked sotto voce, “Don’t hold your breath.”


After a 17-year stint as English-language desk editor for Spain’s EFE news agency, American journalist Robert Latona now writes about Spanish current affairs and reviews books and the Madrid arts scene for several web and print venues. This is his first contribution to American Diplomacy.

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