- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Sunday’s Spanish election poses grave challenges to America’s foreign policy. They commence at NATO’s June summit in Istanbul, where the United States hopes to win backing for an expanded NATO role in Iraq. Next comes the threatened withdrawal of Spain’s 1,300 troops from Iraq on June 30, one day prior to Madrid’s scheduled assumption of command of the 9,000 coalition troops securing central and southern Iraq. There also will be long-term challenges if coalition partners reassess how their electorates might react to the possibility that what happened in Madrid could happen in London or Rome. If coalition political leaders conclude that their voters will retaliate against them at the ballot box, they may be less willing to take risks by supporting America. Spain’s voters have imperiled the administration’s hopes for an expanded international role in Iraq and a robust coalition in the war on terrorism.

It is therefore vital that we act wisely, so as to keep Spain in the coalition. The challenges are not insurmountable, but it will take excellent government-to-government and public diplomacy to overcome them. How we handle the Spanish voters’ revolt over the next 90 days can determine whether or not the terrorists won a victory in Madrid.

The first step is to overlook the campaign rhetoric. Newly elected Socialist President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero campaigned on a platform more explicitly anti-Bush than Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder. Mr. Zapatero’s rhetoric was designed to appeal to the 90 percent of Spanish voters who opposed the Iraq war. It is the language of a longshot challenger, like Al Sharpton or Dennis Kucinich, who doesn’t even see himself as viable. Before the train bombings, Mr. Zapatero was running to position himself for 2008. He never expected that he would be dealing face-to-face with President Bush. That all changed with “11-M,” as the Spanish now call the day of the attacks.

Mr. Zapatero has a governing mandate. He emerged from the elections with sufficient strength to compose a cabinet solely of PSOE officials. PSOE lacks an absolute majority in the congress, but with 164 seats to the Popular Party(PP)’s 148, it can easily command a legislative coalition with support from Spain’s minor parties.

Mr. Zapatero’s mandate is to renew close ties with France and Germany, while establishing a more independent relationship with the United States. Our task is to allow him to do so in a way that keeps Spain on our side. We have worked successfully with past PSOE governments. In the ‘80s, President Reagan and Socialist President Felipe Gonzalez joined forces to win support for Spain’s entrance into NATO.

Mr. Zapatero has ample popular support. Although both sides declared a halt to the campaigning following the attacks, the voters did not. In an age of cell phones, e-mail and text-messaging, the political dialogue carried on through millions of messages echoing Mr. Zapatero’s pledge to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq and not to change his views if elected.

Spanish exit polls showed that electability was an issue. Supporters abandoned minor parties for the PSOE to ensure that their votes would count in defeating Mr. Aznar’s Popular Party. At 77 percent, turnout was higher than in the past eight elections. Some two million Spaniards, mainly young people who typically do not vote, cast ballots. The PSOE won most of these new votes. According to Spanish exit polling, the new voters wanted to register discontent with the Iraq war and outrage over their belief that Mr. Aznar’s government blamed the Basque terrorist group ETA for political gain. PSOE will want to hang on to its popular mandate and will be extremely reluctant to break faith with its new voters.

It is therefore a stunning and hopeful development that Mr. Zapatero, in his first news conference after the election, did not shut the door to a Spanish military role in Iraq. To the contrary, he left wide room for maneuvering by suggesting that Spanish troops might remain in Iraq under U.N. authority.

This is an important opening. Let me put it clearly: The way to deal al Qaeda a setback is through the United Nations. To keep Spain in the coalition, the best thing the White House can do is to get Ambassador Negroponte busy devising an acceptable fig leaf for U.N. authority over the international (not American) troops in Iraq. If an acceptable compromise can be found, Spain may stay in Iraq. The ostensible purpose of last week’s horrific attacks — to weaken the coalition — will be defeated. Moreover, if Spain remains in Iraq, it may reduce the likelihood that the Spanish voters’ response to “11-M” will embolden al Qaeda to carry out similar attacks elsewhere on the eve of national elections. The tactic will have been proven ineffective.

But the worst thing U.S. policy-makers could do now is to shrilly blame Spain for caving in to terrorism. That will offend Spanish pride, inflame public opinion and inadvertently restrict Mr. Zapatero’s maneuvering room. If the United States wants to influence Mr. Zapatero’s new government, winning the hearts and minds of the Spanish people is paramount. Accusing Spain of being soft on terrorism is counterproductive to our interests.

John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House and took part in the 1985 Reagan-Gonzalez Madrid summit. He lived in Spain under Franco and during the post-Franco transition.

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