Spain's Return to Stage Center

Henry Kamen is the author, most recently, of "Empire: How Spain Became a World Power 1492-1763."

The sudden emergence of Spain as a player on the international stage, and an active ally of President Bush in his campaign against Iraq, has startled and alarmed opinion across the world. On Feb. 25, Spain, which holds a nonpermanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, co-wrote with the United States and Britain a tough new resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. The council is expected to vote on the issue this week. It was only the latest of a surprising chain of events.

Since the end of World War II, Spain has consistently played a backstage role. Ruled by the Franco dictatorship, which fortunately managed to remain neutral during the war, it was shunned by the democracies of the new Europe and excluded from receiving economic aid. During the Cold War years, however, Spain slowly slipped back into an understanding with the United States. After Gen. Francisco Franco's death in 1975, it continued to remain aloof from the Western world until the then-socialist government accepted a popular referendum that brought the country into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Since then, Spain has also entered the European Union.

It has halfheartedly participated in these alliances, though the prospect of receiving subsidies from the European community has stimulated more enthusiasm. Throughout its history, Spain has been kept at arm's length by the rest of Europe, and this situation seemed unlikely to change.

The victory of the center-right Popular Party under Jose Maria Aznar has revolutionized this scenario. The party came to power in 1996, and in 2000 it won a majority of seats in parliament. Prime Minister Aznar is certainly pro-European in philosophy, but the factor that most propelled him into an active international role was the 800 killings perpetrated over the years by the Basque terrorist group ETA. In Aznar's view, the Nationalist Party, which governs the Basque provinces of Spain, has not adequately combated the separatist organization.

Convinced of the need for international agreements to crush terrorism, Aznar worked tirelessly during his 2002 presidency of the European Union to secure cooperation from other members of the European community. The revelation that the Sept. 11 horror in New York City and the Pentagon was in part planned from within Spain convinced him that only a global drive against terror would succeed. This is where his views have converged with Bush's. If Aznar insists on supporting the U.S. president, it is not because he has swallowed Bush's arguments but because his own campaign heads down the same road. "We will fight shoulder to shoulder with our American friends," he said before visiting Bush at his Texas ranch last month, "to bring an end to terrorism anywhere."

Aznar has attempted to take Europe with him on the crusade against evil. That has proved more difficult than he imagined. The European Union was from its inception focused on an alliance of French and Germans, cultures that have always thought themselves superior to the Mediterranean states -- indeed, to the rest of the world. When Aznar recently drew up a letter of support for pressuring Iraq, it was signed by eight European states but not by France and Germany, which have become more and more resentful of the unprecedented initiatives being taken by upstart Spain.

A meeting in Paris on Feb. 26 between Aznar and French President Jacques Chirac was described by an official press communique as being one of "friendly disagreement," but private sources in the Spanish government described it as "tense and unpleasant," with Aznar at one point almost walking out because of a phrase by Chirac that appeared to call into question their mutual cooperation against terrorism.

There is also a historical dimension to the partnership between Bush and Aznar. Their collaboration does not derive simply from the fact that Aznar is a personal friend of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and has, as a consequence, been drawn into an Atlantic alliance hitherto limited to Britain and the United States. Spain has its own long-forgotten Atlantic role, from which Aznar undoubtedly draws inspiration. For nearly three centuries, from 1500 to 1800, the country was the head of a world empire that spanned both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, and Spaniards have never forgotten that great enterprise. Their troops were active from Buenos Aires to the Alamo, and their Catholic missions were planted all over Texas and California. Even today, their language is the second dominant one in the U.S.

Spanish ministers have carefully cultivated this history in their international policies. It is no mere formality when the king of Spain takes part in meetings of the Organization of American States. Until now, cooperation with these states has concentrated on the effort to secure the extradition of ETA terrorists who took refuge in Latin America. In the last few days, however, Aznar has visited President Vicente Fox of Mexico and other heads of state with the intention of talking also about global terrorism and Iraq.

The Spanish empire of long ago was not limited to America. Since the 15th century, there have been Spanish colonies on the coast of North Africa, and Spaniards have always felt they've had a special relationship with Arabs and Muslims, who occupied most of Spain in medieval times. The greatest military victory ever registered against Islamic forces was the naval battle of Lepanto (1571), organized by Spain. Madrid was the setting for one of the conferences dedicated to problems in the Middle East. Aznar has always put himself at the disposal of Palestinian leaders, and, indeed, he recently unveiled a new plan to get talks on the Arab-Israeli conflict restarted. Rightly or wrongly, the Spanish prime minister feels he can talk to the Arab world, a factor of immense importance and certainly one Bush cannot afford to ignore. If Spain is offering its partnership to the U.S., it does not come with empty hands: Its traditional contacts with the American and Arab worlds make it a more useful candidate than any other European nation.

But Aznar also expects something in return for supporting a preventive war against Saddam Hussein. His primary objective is for help against Spain's own terrorists, ETA. He also wishes to place Spain in the front rank of international affairs, just as it was in the days of world empire. For himself, he is looking for backing in his bid for leadership in the European community. Two years ago, a Madrid minister made the claim that "We're [Spain] one of the big guys now." There can be no doubt that Spain has made its mark, to the extent that Hussein's deputy prime minister, Tarik Aziz, has made scarcely veiled threats against the country, where an Algerian terrorist cell was recently exposed.

The exposure to international affairs, however, has caused an expected reaction. Three weeks ago, tens of thousands took to the streets in Spanish cities, protesting their government's involvement in the proposed attack on Iraq. A poll taken shortly afterward suggested that 85% of the population was against the war. The demonstrations were an opportunity for latent anti-Americanism and traditional isolationism, sentiments shared equally by the right and left, which both took the opportunity to air their anger in public.

Street protests are a popular diversion in Spain, where as long ago as the 16th century the people staged a revolution, the Revolt of the Comuneros, against their country's involvement in international affairs. Aznar may feel that he has behind him the weight of his nation's imperial role, but he should also remember that the role was usually strongly opposed by Spanish leaders, clergy and intellectuals.

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