Setback won't put U.S. off course

Fallout in Spain

March 17, 2004|By Marco Vicenzino

THE SOCIALIST victory in Spain clearly confirms how international terrorism is able to not only impact international financial markets but also influence the outcome of elections and the political futures of Western nations.

Although the defeat of Jose Maria Aznar's right-wing Popular Party is a significant setback for the Bush administration in the short term, it is not a major reversal for U.S. foreign policy in the long run. But if Sunday's election had taken place on the eve of the Iraq war a year ago, the consequences for the Bush administration would have been catastrophic.

The Madrid train bombings that killed at least 200 people and ensuing election results will lead many, particularly in the current administration, to contemplate how a terrorist attack on the eve of the U.S. elections in November, or earlier, could impact their outcome. Clearly, it would not be as dramatic as in Spain, where 90 percent of the population opposed the Iraq war.

Although most Americans originally supported the Iraq war, such support gradually has eroded in some quarters with mounting casualties, continuation of fierce resistance, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the emergence of more prewar Iraq data that the Democrats will relentlessly exploit throughout the campaign. These factors combined with a terrorist strike in the United States would undeniably influence the election's outcome. The extent of that influence ultimately would depend on the magnitude and circumstances of such an attack.

The Socialists' immediate announcement that they will withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq will not have an impact on the U.S.-led coalition's operational capabilities. It is a token force, and its pullout would be a symbolic setback for President Bush at a time when he is trying to internationalize the operation.

Nevertheless, the U.N. Security Council is more than likely -- on the eve of the July 1 transfer of power to an Iraqi interim government -- to adopt a resolution endorsing an international troop presence in Iraq, providing those who opposed the war (particularly France) with the necessary legitimacy to send troops.

France, unwilling to recognize the Coalition Provisional Authority, already has expressed an interest to participate once the transfer occurs, as did Spain's Socialists, provided that there is a U.N. endorsement. A German presence cannot be ruled out.

Further, the Polish sector, south of Baghdad and under whose command Spanish troops fall, is more than likely to come under NATO command (NATO resources currently support the sector). This will be followed by more contributions from NATO countries, particularly the soon-to-be-admitted members from central and Eastern Europe, many of which already have troops in Iraq.

The Bush administration has already begun rapprochement with France and Germany, as demonstrated by recent Franco-American cooperation in Haiti and an improving U.S.-German dialogue.

The departure of Mr. Aznar will be a loss for Mr. Bush on the international stage, particularly in U.S. relations with the European Union and NATO. Mr. Aznar's close and supportive relationship was critical in giving greater legitimacy to Mr. Bush's actions, particularly in Iraq.

But this apparent shift of the balance of power in Europe will be offset by the admission to NATO and the EU of the pro-American former Soviet bloc countries, particularly Poland, with the same population as Spain; it is bound to play a key role in both organizations.

In order to satisfy his political base, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero initially is likely to cool relations with the United States. But once political reality sets in, he is likely to pursue a more pragmatic relationship based on mutual interests and not ideological affinity. Considering the overall trans-Atlantic relationship, particularly the common fight against international terrorism, Mr. Zapatero cannot afford to drastically alter a close eight-year working relationship with the United States.

Spain's election results may confirm that most Spaniards prefer a less assertive foreign policy, one in which Spain is more of a European team player and less willing to break ranks and stake out its own position

The Socialists inherit a legacy of significant achievements. The eight years of Mr. Aznar's rule halved unemployment and provided consistent economic growth, political stability and a special place for Spain on the international stage. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Zapatero will be able to provide continuity.

His challenges include overcoming a credibility gap, preventing a period of unstable coalition government and confronting terrorism with the same determination and commitment as Mr. Aznar. Failure to do so will prove disastrous for Spain and the greater trans-Atlantic relationship.

Marco Vicenzino is the deputy executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-U.S. in Washington.

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