Spanish Lessons for the United States

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

March 23, 2004

This opinion first appeared in Handelsblatt, 3/17/04.

The surprise rejection on Sunday of the conservative Spanish government was terrible news for the Bush administration in every way. It replaces one of Bush’s key conservatives allies in Europe with Socialists with whom he has little in common, it is a decisive blow to the notion that America has broad coalition support in Iraq, and it sends a message to governments across Europe that they had better think twice before aligning themselves with the United States. Perhaps most importantly, it may encourage terrorists to believe that their gruesome methods can help turn European electorates against the United States.

The temptation in Spain today will be for the government to consolidate its strength by further distancing itself from America—as it has already begun to do so with pledges to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq and calls for Bush and Tony Blair to recant on the war. There is an equally great risk that the Bush administration will feel betrayed by a once-stalwart ally and that Bush will respond with even more resolve to fight his “war on terror” as he sees fit, whether Europeans or any other allies like it or not. If both sides give in to these tendencies and pander to their respective domestic politics, the result will be a serious deepening of a transatlantic rift that had in many ways been narrowing over the past several months.

It is difficult to exaggerate the degree to which the defeat of Spain’s Popular Party was also a defeat for Bush. For years, and in particular since the Iraq war, whenever the administration was confronted with the charge that his policies had isolated the United States or that he didn’t have allies in Iraq, it would proudly draw on the example of Spain to rebut the charge. In the face of his weak-willed, anti-war population, the conservative prime minister José Maria Aznar stood steadfastly behind America and was a critical ally in the war in Iraq, where 1,300 Spanish troops served with valor. With all the polls until Thursday’s attack pointing to a Popular Party victory, moreover, Bush was confident that he would be able to prove that European leaders did not pay a price for supporting the United States, and that it was the anti-war French and German leaders, not the supporters of the coalition, who were isolated within Europe.

That theory was left in ruins by the Socialists’ wide margin of victory on Sunday. If the Americans could credibly argue that Aznar’s party had been rejected on economic grounds or for some other domestic political reason, the damage to Bush would be minimized and the case made that the result had nothing to do with the war in Iraq. But the fact that the outcome changed so dramatically after the attacks, and that many voters specifically attributed their turnaround to the desire to distance themselves from the Iraq war, leaves only the conclusion that the Spanish conservatives paid the price for having supported the war and for their alliance with the United States.

The Aznar government’s handling of the atrocities only aggravated the problem. The premature, categorical conclusion that Basque separatists were behind the attacks, and the stubborn refusal to back away from that conclusion even though they bore all the hallmarks of al Qaeda, left the government looking disingenuous in the eyes of Spanish voters. Had Aznar right away characterized the mass killing in Madrid as an attack on democracy itself, perhaps not as many voters would have allowed themselves to hand the terrorists the political change they apparently wanted. Instead, the government appeared to try to use the attacks to strengthen its political hand and justify its hard line against ETA, and outraged voters seemed all the more determined to make it pay a price.

Having taken their toll on Spanish politics, the Madrid attacks will now begin to reverberate here as well. Bush will seek to characterize the attacks as further proof that he is right to see the war on terrorism as the defining challenge of our time, a challenge that requires decisive and aggressive American leadership in the world. His Democratic opponents, on the other hand, will point to the Spanish election result as further proof that Bush’s policies have isolated the United States and left it with fewer friends and more enemies all around the world. American opponents of the Iraq war will claim that the war diverted resources from the real struggle, against al Qaeda, and that the U.S. occupation of Iraq is creating more terrorism rather than less.

The potential for these debates to produce ever deeper divisions—both within America and between the United States and Europe—is thus very great. The new Spanish government, with a questionable mandate having been elected in the emotional days following the country’s worst-ever terrorist atrocity, needs to be very careful about rashly drawing lessons and letting its election go to its head. The wrong signals from Madrid in the coming weeks could easily send the message to Islamic terrorists that further attacks will bring political gain, a message that would only invite the terrorists to contemplate further strikes in places like Rome, London or Warsaw.

At the same time, the Bush administration must also avoid an emotional response that would consist of writing off all the Europeans as fair-weather friends and concluding that America can win the war on terrorism alone. The real lesson for Washington from the Spanish election is that power and decisiveness alone are not enough to win enduring support from democratic allies. In the months to come, Bush must demonstrate to Europeans that alliance with the United States brings them something other than risk.