If Zapatero's Iraq pledges are outrageous, so are Bremer's.

If Zapatero's Iraq pledges are outrageous, so are Bremer's.

If Zapatero's Iraq pledges are outrageous, so are Bremer's.

Military analysis.
March 18 2004 5:33 PM

The Spanish Civil War

If Zapatero's Iraq pledges are outrageous, so are Bremer's.

With all the gasps over Sunday's Spanish election—and the subsequent wailing about the "axis of appeasement," the triumph of terrorism, and the impending doom of Western civilization—it's worth taking a close look at what the country's new prime minister actually said.

Many observers see last weekend's sequence of events as follows: Terrorists blow up trains in Spain, killing 200 passengers; three days later in the general election, Spain's voters toss out the center-rightist Popular Party government of José María Aznar, who had supported the U.S. war in Iraq and sent 1,300 peacekeeper troops in its aftermath; the day after that, the head of the new Socialist Party government, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, says he will bring those troops home.

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In short, according to this view, terrorists shaped the results of a Western nation's election; the newly elected leader then followed suit by giving in to the terrorist's implicit demands.

If that is indeed what happened, the alarm would be justified. But it isn't.

Here is what Zapatero said at his famous news conference on Monday:

The occupation of Iraq has been poorly managed. … If there isn't a change and the United Nations doesn't take charge of the situation and the occupying forces don't cede political control, the Spanish troops will return and the deadline for their presence there will be June 30. [Italics added.]

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Is there anything so shocking here? He didn't say he would definitely withdraw his troops from Iraq—only that he would do so if the U.S. authorities in Iraq don't cede political control by June 30. Isn't the Bush administration planning to do just that—to turn sovereignty over to Iraq by June 30? And isn't L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. occupation authority, doing everything he can to bring in the United Nations well before then to help mediate Iraq's internal conflicts?

Last week, a few Shiite members of Iraq's governing council told reporters that they didn't want the United Nations to come back; they didn't trust the organization. It turns out that this complaint was merely more mischief-making by Ahmad Chalabi, whose double- and triple-dealings these days are becoming more and more puzzling. The Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who trumps all among Iraq's Shiites, put out the word that the United Nations was still welcome. When Chalabi's faction in the governing council kept up its resistance, Bremer came down hard. This is from today's New York Times:

In the morning meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Bremer warned the Iraqi leaders that they risked isolating themselves and their country if they continued to snub the United Nations.

Ah, if only Bremer had issued this warning to America's leaders a year ago. (As further evidence of how dramatically, if ironically, the White House has changed attitude as its own situation has grown desperate, the Times piece continues, "Mr. Bremer pointedly warned them of a 'confrontation' with the United States if the Iraqis failed to invite the [U.N.] back.")

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Viewed in this context, Zapatero is using the little leverage that his country wields to ensure that the current pledges—the transfer of sovereignty and the United Nations' return—come true.

As for his demand that the United States "cede political control" (not, by the way, military control), it is worth noting that, since at least last summer, many have called for the Bush administration to share decision-making power with allies. Strictly in terms of American self-interest, there were—and are—lots of good reasons to do this.

Bush and his advisers have learned that building a new empire is not as cheap or easy as some of them had blithely assumed when they embarked on this adventure—the first in what some saw as a string of rogue-routing triumphs (to be followed by Syria, Iran, and maybe North Korea) a year ago. As is becoming more obvious by the day, the U.S. military does not have enough troops to create order in Iraq all by itself; nor does the U.S. Treasury have enough money to sustain a long-term presence in Iraq by itself.

And yet, a long-term presence of foreign troops is vitally necessary to keep Iraq from tumbling into civil war or turning into a terrorists' playpen. (The evidence seems clear that al-Qaida had no significant links with Iraq before the war, but it has formed a presence amid the chaos unleashed by the regime's collapse.)

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So, the United States has no responsible choice but to open up the game. Bush implores allies to join him, but no political leaders would spill blood and spend money—especially to clean up a war they never supported—unless they saw some benefit in doing so. The leaders of Poland, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic sent troops to Iraq not solely because they empathized with the oppressed Iraqis; they also did it to get on America's good side and, by extension, to reap the rewards of U.S. investment and aid. There's nothing wrong with this; it's the bread and butter of international diplomacy. If Bush wants bigger, richer, more populous countries to join in, he has to give them a reason—a say in the decision-making, a nod of respect (vanity must sometimes be soothed), a piece of the profits (U.S. firms cannot get all the big contracts; the United States cannot keep acting as if it owns Iraq's oil fields).

Nor, it turns out, can the United States beat terrorism all by itself. Zapatero, by the way, hardly backed out of this fight at his press conference. He also said this: "My most immediate priority is to fight all forms of terrorism. And my first initiative, tomorrow, will be to seek a union of political forces to join us together in fighting it."

It is worth noting, in this regard, that Spaniards—who have known and hated terrorism longer and more deeply than we have—boosted Zapatero to power not to appease the murderers who bombed the train, but rather to punish Aznar for self-servingly lying about who the killers were.

Zapatero did say something on Monday that should disturb us, though those most bent out of shape by his remarks barely noticed it. He said the "union of political forces" to battle terrorism should be a European union. "Spain is going to see eye to eye with Europe again," he said. "Spain is going to be more pro-Europe than ever." His likely foreign minister, Miguel Moratinos, added a clarification: "We need to engage with the American administration and President Bush in a positive measure, but on equal footing."

This is the challenge facing Bush and, should he win in November, John Kerry: how to recapture the role of leadership, not domination. Many (though certainly not all) Europeans would welcome the former, but can't abide—and, increasingly, feel they no longer have to abide—the latter.