Spain has emerged recently as a middling power, well integrated in the European Union, and participating in international institutions and treaties. She took pride in siding with the majority of States within the United Nations and its subsidiary bodies in issues related to upholding international law. Surprisingly, however, the current government under Jose Aznar overturned this emerging tradition and sided with the US in its aggression against Iraq. Spain’s support for the US-Iraq war was given in the face of widespread popular opposition at home, and it also undermined the country’s relationship with the more powerful and experienced European Union countries. It can only be said that the opportunistic posturing of its current government has tarnished Spain’s image and harmed its relations with its neighbors.
Aznar’s enthusiastic cheerleading of Bush’s war carefully neglected the history of Spain’s relationship with the United States. Perhaps the disastrous 1898 Cuban war that sealed Spain’s ambitions of empire may be “old history”, although the controversy about the “sexed-up” intelligence dossier on Iraq echoes that about the explosion on board the USS Maine in Havana harbour. However, other chapters are fresh in Spaniards’ minds and are more relevant today. The US was one of the very few supporters of the Fascist (in the true sense of the word) Franco dictatorship. It can be argued that this relationship was very damaging to Spain since it led to forty years of isolation–which ended only after the dictator’s death. It was clear that US interests were either directly in conflict with Spain’s, or that the US pursued policies that harmed the interests of the majority of the Spanish population.Aznar also didn’t seem to care too much about international law, and decided to cast Spain into the role of a new vassal servile to American power. Perhaps Aznar is heeding the old Spanish saying: “allá van leyes do quieren reyes” (laws will go wherever kings tell them to go). The allure of putting Spain among those states given the American designation of “New Europe” proved too much for Aznar to resist–his place in history (albeit a footnote) and a tiny place in the international stage.
The shameful “war council” in the Azores was the first time Aznar truly indicated his intended new role for Spain. His personal role was grotesque because he sought to outdo both Bush and Blair in terms of bellicose statements and, on occasion, it seemed that he sought to give lessons in international relations and military intelligence.
Spain’s top newspaper, El País, published on August 11th that Aznar distorted a United Nations Arms Inspectors’ report by stating that Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction. He added that Iraq “stores 3,000 tons of chemical devices, 300 tons of pure chemical agents, 30,000 special missiles for chemical and biological warfare, let alone several components for the construction of nuclear arms, 1,000 tons of VX nerve gas, 6,500 chemical warheads, 8,800 l. of anthrax and 380 chemically charged missiles”.
On February 5, 2003, Powell gave a remarkably childish presentation about Iraqi WMD. He perspired while showing the slide presentation, and it seemed that he was not as certain as Aznar about the exact quantities of WMD Iraq supposedly had. It seems the Spanish secret services are better at spotting anthrax spores hidden 5,000 km away than the US or British secret services–not bad, considering Spain doesn’t have agents on the ground in Iraq or satellites overhead.
It is difficult for Spaniards other than Aznar to see how the Spanish intelligence service could count 30,000 missiles that the UN inspections, satellites, and other agencies have been trying to find for the past decade or more. While Aznar showed so much certainty about Iraq, the Minister of Defense, Trillo, was not able to say if US bombers on their way to Iraq refueled in Spanish air space. When asked by journalists about overflights he simply said he did not know!
Just like Franco before him, Aznar also believes in blind loyalty. If our friend, the US, attacks Iraq, Spain will stand by its side no matter what the United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, the centuries-long Spanish-Arab friendship, or even minimum commonsense advises. But never mind commonsense or international law; Aznar will go one step further. Just like Tony Blair, he lied to the Spanish parliament even though there was no reason for him to do so. He then determined that Spain will fight against “terror” no matter when and where. That is, Spain has been firmly stitched onto the US “war on terror”. Evidently, Aznar was willing to play along with an illegal “preventive war” and, as Chomsky reminded us, a preventive war is a supreme crime.
No wonder Aznar has been awarded the Congressional Gold Medal: “The Congress finds that President Jose Aznar of Spain has clearly demonstrated () that he is a staunch and steadfast ally of the United States of America”. He must be very proud of sharing this honor with Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, Elie Wiesel, Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, Ronald Reagan and some other most distinguished “protectors” of human rights and international justice.
However, Aznar could hardly convince Spaniards that he has done the right thing simply by showing off the medal on national TV. The Americans knew that this was not enough, and therefore sent House Speaker Dennis Hastert and a delegation of Congressmen to meet with President Aznar to discuss the continuing war on terrorism, other security issues and efforts to increase trade and commerce between the two nations. The result was another attempt to portray Aznar as a statesman by posing him for photographs next to the motley American gang. However, the clear implication of this meeting was that Spain would send more soldiers to Iraq and buy more US second-hand military hardware, specially used F-18s. Aznar got a medal for sending Spaniards to reinforce the US occupation of Iraq, and the Congressional visit just aimed to reinforce this role.
At present Spain has sent around 1,300 soldiers to Iraq. Their rules of engagement are A mix of the banal standard statements and empty good intentions: Spanish soldiers are in Iraq to contribute to its security and stability. Fortunately, they will not be required to act in defiance of international law, their right to self-defense will be restricted to using minimum force, and they shall respect local mores. The soldiers may scratch their heads over becoming part of an illegal occupation force and yet being compelled to respect the Iraqis and their traditions. The implicit questions may become more pressing when the Spanish soldiers come under fire.
Maybe Aznar will still pay for the folly of dragging Spain into someone else’s war. He recently declared that he will not be running for a third term in office. He may need to seek some refuge from the popular resentment; if things become uncomfortable for him in Spain, then perhaps he will be offered a cushy job at the Carlyle Group–joining other useful fools like the ex-prime minister John Major. His bellicose policies may have damaged his party, the Popular Party (PP), and it is difficult to predict the outcome of the 2004 general elections. If the recently-held local and regional elections are any indication, Spanish voters–despite the mass demonstrations against the war – have not substantially withdrawn their support for the PP. Broadly speaking, neither the Left nor the Right could claim a clear victory.
Aznar accused opposition leaders that they are hoping for Spanish soldiers to return in body bags to win votes; he is right to be worried. If Spaniards went to the streets to say no to war for “ethical” reasons, it can be expected they will cast ballots to say no to the government that sent soldiers to die in Iraq for more “practical” reasons. It is very likely that the PP will then pay a price. In a few months, we could see Aznar despised in Spain, and abandoned by his party if it becomes more critical of the consequences of his policies. Maybe Berlusconi and Blair will remain his only “friends”, but politicians out of power have a tendency to be abandoned in quick order.
If Aznar disappears or if popular discontent increases against the PP, then Bush and his gang will hardly care. Aznar played a useful role in undermining international opposition to the war, Spain also has been dragged into the US’s wars, and therefore now the useful fool is expendable. Even if at this late stage Aznar were to repent, his political obituary has already been written.
Many Spaniards are deeply uncomfortable with the role the current government played in the American war of aggression against Iraq. Spain has been subject to widespread criticism, and now the country may become a potential target for those seeking revenge and who cannot reach the US mainland. In exchange for a lousy Gold medal, Spain contributed to undermining the UN Charter and the possibility of organizing a more assertive European role opposed to the New Empire, never mind the soldiers put in harm’s way. Although maybe unaware of it, Spaniards will pay a heavy price for the folly of their leadership.
Agustin Velloso is a lecturer at the Spanish National University for Distance Learning. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.