McCain’s Disdain for Spain

There the McCain-Palin administration goes again, gosh darnnit.
The odd topic of Spain came up in the first two debates (one presidential, the other vice-presidential), but not in the third or fourth.  Of course, McCain wasn’t going to raise the embarrassing subject again; and Obama probably thought that he and Biden had already made the point that Spain-gate was just one more example of McCain becoming ever more unstable.  The non-response from both McCain and Palin in the debates was damning.  The charge: if elected president, McCain would not deign to meet with the president of our NATO ally, Spain.  The rebuttal:  silence.

Maybe it was a moot point by the time the third debate had rolled around, a “town hall” format where the “town” was controlled and all but irrelevant.  Maybe McCain’s lurching about the stage was just as telling.  “Lurching” is Biden’s word, but in truth that’s the only word for McCain’s aimless ambling about the stage whenever Obama was speaking.  Nevertheless, it was an apt metaphor, representing both McCain’s discomfort at having to debate “that one” and his ever-changing and contradictory positions regarding the economic meltdown.  This interpretation was widespread, including from his supporters.  Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot used the word in more or less the same context on Meet the Press on October 12th.  On the same day Bill Kristol said on Fox News Sunday that McCain was “flailing.”

I am interested in this bizarre Spain-gate flap for two reasons.  In the early days of the Iraq War I lived in Spain and was married to a Spaniard.  But more importantly, because McCain has now raised the issue of Spain, I am able to correct a little but important piece of history concerning Spain and the so-called “Global War on Terror” (GWOT).  I have been waiting four years to correct the neocon lie which claimed that Spain, when they elected a new president after the Madrid train bombings, kowtowed to the terrorists.  And with this correction, I would like to suggest another interpretation to McCain’s spurning of Spain, one not yet discussed.

But to set the record straight, I cannot be with President Bush, but against him.  I say this because I know he has nothing but disdain for anyone who would attempt to better understand history, if it counters his own narrow version of it.  Already in June of 2003, a short time after Bush invaded Iraq, he was becoming increasingly peeved that anyone would dare to question the veracity of his claims.  Famously, he said on June 16th of that year that “This nation acted to a threat from the dictator of Iraq…Now there are some who would like to rewrite history–revisionist historians is what I like to call them.”  Of course, in 2008 we know that just about every justification Bush gave us was a lie or a manipulation or both.  But even back then, after we had gone in, Bush was his own revisionist historian, though without realizing it:  “Saddam Hussein was a threat to America and the free world in ’91, in ’98, in 2003. He continually ignored the demands of the free world, so the United States and friends and allies acted…And this is for certain: Saddam Hussein is no longer a threat to the United States and our friends and allies.”  Even so soon after the war, the only thing that Bush could tell us for sure in June of ’03 as justification for his war was that with Hussein gone, well, Hussein was gone.

Like just about anything, of course, historical revisionism can be both good and bad.  In this case, Bush spurned anything that might cast doubt on his own set of “facts.”  But as we constantly learn more, we must explain things as we understand them to be, based on all available evidence.  All historical understanding comes under the revisionist mantle.  I don’t expect Bush to care about any of this.

But we should.

By now you’ve probably heard that, if elected, John McCain does not plan on meeting with the president of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.  Or, maybe he is planning on meeting with him.  It’s not clear and neither McCain nor his running mate wants to clear it up.  This, despite taking caustic hits from first Obama and then Biden during the debates.  Biden called McCain’s dissing of Spain “incredible.” Echoing this, on MSNBC Jane Harmon said the decision was “astounding.”  “I would understand,” she said, “if they were [speaking] about Hugo Chavez…[but this] makes no sense whatsoever to me.”  It is a widely held opinion.

The semi-conventional wisdom says that McCain just misunderstood an interviewer’s question, or was confused, or some of both.  Then, to live up to his shoot-from-the-hip maverick style (or “maverick-y” as Tina Fey as Sarah Palin would have it), he just plowed ahead, not bothering to clarify or go back on his original remarks.  For such soldiers, retreat is never an option; and it’s all personal.

But there might be something else going on here, something that goes to the core of McCain’s temperament and philosophy.  Despite protestations to the contrary, this philosophy is more or less the same as Bush’s:  decide with your gut (VP Palin, anyone?), default to the “you’re either with us or against us” worldview, and don’t look back.  And it is this philosophy which requires that we (America) punish Spain for even electing Zapatero, who, once elected, promptly fulfilled a campaign pledge to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq.  In the GWOT calculus and Bush’s own words, this act removes Spain from our list of allies with whom we “acted.”

First, a little background.

McCain was interviewed recently by Radio Caracol Miami (though the interlocutor had an accent, the interview was in English without a translator).  After being asked about this Latin America country and that one, the interviewer then turned to Spain (thanks to for the transcript, though I have listened to the interview myself):

INTERVIEWER: Senator finally, let’s talk about Spain. If elected president would you be willing to invite President Jose Rodriguez Louis Zapatero to the White House, to meet with you?

McCAIN: I would be willing to meet with those leaders who are friends and want to work with us in a cooperative fashion.  And by the way President Calderone of Mexico is fighting a very, very tough fight against the drug cartels. I’m glad we are now working with the Mexican government on the Merida Plan, and I intend to move forward with relations and invite as many of them as I can, of those leaders to the White House.

INTERVIEWER: Would that invitation be extended to the Zapatero government? To the president himself?

McCAIN: Uh, I don’t, I, ya know, I, honestly, I have to look at the situations and the relations and the priorities. But I can assure you, I will establish closer relations with our friends and I will stand up to those who want to do harm to the United States of America.

INTERVIEWER: So you have to wait and see. If he’s willing to meet with you, would you be able to do it? In the White House?

McCAIN: Well, again, I don’t — All I can tell you is I have a clear record of working with leaders in the hemisphere that are friends with us and standing up to those who are not. And that’s judged on the basis of the importance of our relationship with Latin America and the entire region. [my italics]

INTERVIEWER: OK, what about Europe? I’m talking about the president of Spain.

McCAIN: What about me what?

INTERVIEWER: OK. Are you willing to meet with him if you are elected president?

McCAIN: I am willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for human rights, democracy and freedom, and I will stand up to those who are not.

Raw Story’s own headline says that McCain “seems confused.”  David Kurtz, of, says that “it becomes pretty obvious that McCain has no idea who [the interviewer’s] talking about.” calls it a “gaffe.”  Marc Ambinder at wonders at first if McCain had “a senior moment? Did he get confused?”

But then Ambinder followed up with Randy Scheunemann, McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser.  The story gets curiouser and curiouser.  Schuenemann wrote Ambinder saying that “McCain knew precisely what the questioner meant, and that, indeed, ‘Senator McCain refused to commit to a White House meeting with President Zapatero in this interview.’”

On its face, this is illogical.  Spain is an ally and a member of NATO.  What was going on?  Not satisfied, Ambinder asked for further clarification, because this position seemed also to contradict an earlier comment by McCain.  Ambinder continues:

But in April, McCain strongly hinted that he’d let bygones be bygones and expected to invite Zapatero to the White House.

Why, I asked by way of follow up, did McCain seem to change his mind?

Here’s what Scheunemann e-mailed back:

In this week’s interview, Senator McCain did not rule in or rule out a White House meeting with President Zapatero, a NATO ally. If elected, he will meet with a wide range of allies in a wide variety of venues but is not going to spell out scheduling and meeting location specifics in advance.  He also is not going to make reckless promises to meet America’s adversaries.   It’s called keeping your options open, unlike Senator Obama who has publically committed to meeting some of the world’s worst dictators unconditionally in his first year in office.

Ambinder surmises:   “Maybe McCain will meet with Zapatero but not in Washington.  Malta anyone?”

Curiouser and curiouser.  When Ambinder refers to letting bygones be bygones above he is referring to Zapatero’s withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq (Spanish troops are still in Afghanistan).  It may be, of course, that everyone is right and that McCain had something of a senior moment.  It’s been a long campaign and he’s clearly getting more and more frustrated that, according to the polls, the country is moving away from him and his lightweight “America first” VP pick.

It was clear from the debates that McCain had nothing but disdain for his opponent, which is troubling enough.  But the “with us or against us” philosophy he shares with Bush is something for us all to consider.  I would like to suggest that McCain, as a proponent of this philosophy, has, like Bush, a score to settle with Spain.  It matters not that they are an ally.  Or a NATO member.  Or a strong Western European democracy.  For the last seven-plus years we haven’t seen Bush back up his alleged love of democracy.  After all, he thought Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a coup d’état, was one of our greatest allies and that Hamas, when elected in Palestine, could not be recognized.  There are many other such examples which lay waste to Bush’s lofty rhetoric on democracy and freedom.  And McCain, who has been one of Bush’s biggest cheerleaders on such issues these past eight years, certainly has much the same “with us or against us” temperament.

But why the need to punish Spain?  In order to explain why McCain’s Spain response has morphed into a harbinger of more Bush-like belligerence to come, I need to correct the false history that Bush and his neocons (or is that the neocons and their Bush?) wrote in the aftermath of the ’04 Spanish election and the lead-up to the ’04 American election.

First, there was 9/11.

After 9/11, then-Spanish President José María Aznar was able to increase international pressure on ETA, using Bush’s ill-defined but apparently interminable GWOT to further internationalize the understanding of the ETA threat.  ETA is the established acronym for Euskadi ta Euskatasuna which in Basque means “Basque Homeland and Liberty.”  ETA formed in 1958 as both a response to the draconian actions of the Franco regime against the Basques, as well as what many considered to be insufficiently strong resistance to Franco from the major Basque political party, the PNV.  Though ETA’s tactics have long been debated (the US State Department lists them as a “terrorist organization”), few dispute that Franco’s regime was indeed brutal to the Basques.  The world’s first use of indiscriminate air bombing against a civilian population was carried out in the Basque town of Guernica (April 26, 1937), subsequently portrayed in Picasso’s painting of the same name (started but a week later in Paris).  Franco also suppressed the Basque language in any official capacity, including the schools.  The Basques and then ETA have been fighting back ever since.  The only problem is that Franco is long gone and the time for violence is over.

Also in September 2001, Plan Ibarretxe was announced by the Basque president, Juan José Ibarretxe (the ‘tx’ in Basque is roughly equivalent to the American ‘ch’).  Immediately controversial in the Basque Country and beyond, its organizers claimed that complete independence from Spain is not part of the plan.  Nevertheless, it did contain significant new measures of autonomy.  True, many Plan Ibarretxe detractors I know from Euskadi (the Basque word for Basque Country) felt that this was just the latest move towards independence and wondered why, as the European Union works to unify business practices across international lines, the Basque government would want to make international trade still more difficult.

Then, 3/11 happened.

The Spanish call it as 11-M (the 11th of March; pronounced “ohn’-seh  eh’-meh”).  Not as familiar with this moniker, Americans certainly remember the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 and wounded over 2,000.  Then-president Aznar immediately seized on this apparently golden opportunity to blame and then further clamp down on ETA, which, he felt, would help him politically as a tough election loomed.  Bush, too, seeing a way to further his own GWOT narrative, facts be damned, made this statement on the same day as the Madrid attacks:  “I appreciate so very much the Spanish government’s fight against terror, their resolute stand against terrorist organizations like the ETA.”   The war between ETA and Spain is long and, sadly, sometimes violent.  But it requires negotiation from both sides, not violence.

Mimicking his good friend Bush, Aznar thought that he had learned how to manipulate and quiet a populace post-9/11 by using the “fear of terror” card.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the election, held just three days after the attacks.

Aznar lost.

But how could this be?  How could the “fear of terror” card work so effectively in America for years and not last a week in Spain?  Though Spain was overwhelmingly against Aznar’s decision to support Bush in Iraq, Aznar was, according to the polls on the eve of the election, just about to win.  This was probably due to the strong Spanish economy, for which Aznar received much credit.  As I was informed repeatedly and vociferously by many actual Spanish voters, Aznar did not lose because of the Madrid bombing.  They did not kowtow to terrorists.  No, just the opposite: they boldly stood up to the “fear of terror” card played by their own president and promptly threw the bum out of office.  Aznar lost because after the attack he lied, lied immediately, and continued to lie about the identity of the attack’s apparent perpetrators (as I have said, for political reasons he blamed ETA), even after the rest of the world was provided sufficient evidence that it was probably an al-Qaeda attack.  Unlike in America during the build-up to Iraq, Spaniards were immediately angry that they had been lied to, angry enough to change their choice at the last minute from Aznar to Zapatero.

In America, we did just the opposite.  We read the writing on the wall, but continued to allow ourselves to be fooled.  Or half of us did, anyway; enough to re-elect Bush.   Many Americans felt safer being blinded by fear, and then voting for he who would claim protect us from that fear, than acknowledging that that their government had manipulated them, blatantly and repeatedly.  And so we got Bush for four more years.  Aznar’s loss to Zapatero was a significant part of this deception.  Discussing the Spanish election, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma echoed many (neo-)conservatives when he said that, “If George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election.  It’s that simple.”  In other words, Aznar’s defeat was characterized as a win for bin Laden, and, by extension, if Kerry won, then we would all be guilty of kowtowing to the cave-bound terrorist.  There are countless googlable (you can quote me on that) examples of this neo-con talking point.

Though demonstrably false, the narrative that claimed bin Laden had brought an entire country to its knees through terror was highly useful in threatening the American public with death and chaos if the “wrong” people were elected.  What had happened to Spain could not be allowed to happen here, the story went.

And it’s happening again in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, even if in less direct, 9/12 language.  With McCain’s interview and his campaign’s reaction to it, it is clear that he thinks Spain must be punished (which few people on this side of the Atlantic are worried about or even understand) and the American people threatened (which should worry us all).  McCain is continuing Bush’s policies.  Zapatero has been persona non grata in Washington, D.C. since he was elected; the fear card endures.

Even though Spain-gate may have started with a McCain “senior moment,” I believe it highlights a dangerous and righteous anger in this candidate that, if he is elected, threatens to keep us as a country from moving forward.  In his own book, Worth the Fighting For, McCain famously writes:

As a politician, I am instinctive, often impulsive…I don’t torture [sic] myself over decisions. I make them as quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can. Often, my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint.

I, however, will not live with the consequences of McCain’s rashness without complaint.  Seen by his advocates as one of his greatest strengths, this faith-based way of decision-making is too much like Bush for us to take the chance.  But playing the terrorist card remains effective.  Without it, and one its biggest wielders, Sarah Palin, this election would not be so close:

A vote for Obama will leave this country at risk.  —John McCain

Our opponent … is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country…This is not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America.  —Sarah Palin

[Regardless of what Ayers has done, such rhetoric of equivalence can be, uh, counterproductive.  I still remember Cheney and Rumsfeld used to pal around with that old terrorist Saddam.  And If Ayers is a terrorist, as were those who hit us on 9/11, can bin Laden really be that bad?  Further, if Ayers is that bad, why does McCain deign to go on stage with one an Ayers’ pal?  Palin’s “logic” can work both ways, after all.]

And I will tell you that, if [Obama] is elected president, then the, the radical Islamists, the, the al-Qaida, and the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on September 11…  —Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)

It is this reporter’s opinion that Obama is dangerous — not because of the power he seeks, but because of the power he has.

He has the power to inculcate people with fear and desperation and to label it, “hope.” He has the power to divest people of patriotism and then present himself as the person who can restore it. —George Putnam,

I’d like to knock some good sense into Barack…I wouldn’t hurt him. But if he wins the election, he’ll hurt me. He’s a cultural terrorist.  —Stephen Baldwin [We now know from Gov. Palin on SNL—the real one—that this is her “favorite” Baldwin.]

Remember it was Michele Obama who said she is only recently proud of her country and so these are very anti-American views…That’s not the way that most Americans feel about our country. Most Americans are wild about America and they are very concerned to have a president who doesn’t share those values…What I would say is that the news media should do a penetrating expose and take a look. I wish they would. I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out if they are pro-America or anti-America.  —Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minnesota)

In ’04, the Spanish people raised their voices against the official lie.  They bravely broke the meme and lived up to the promise of democracy.  They fought back against the GWOT fear factor narrative.  Four years on, in America it seems that the same arguments are no longer working for the GOP.  Finally.  McCain and Palin and their supporters are trying their darndest to keep the GWOT fear alive, but, gosh darnnit, they aren’t having much success.  Maybe we have finally put the fear-mongering of 9/11 behind us and will be able to have a decent conversation about how to move forward as a country.

Revising history?

Is it, at long last, a new new morning in America?

Hopefully.  Good morning, 9/12.

JEFF BIRKENSTEIN is a professor of English at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He can be reached at: 



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