President Bush had the king and queen of Spain over for a Texas-style lunch Wednesday, extending a ceremonial olive branch to a nation that dropped out of the coalition of countries fighting in Iraq.
“Spain is a great country and good friend,” the president told reporters as he welcomed King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia to his Texas ranch for a pre-Thanksgiving feast of free-range turkey and locally caught bass.
Although the White House did not divulge details of the lunch discussion, it appeared to signal an effort by the president to repair ties with a key European ally after a falling-out over the United States’ Iraq policy. The effort comes as Bush, facing formidable challenges around the world, seeks to build support among nations that have kept their distance from the United States over a number of issues.
Under former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Spain was among the first countries to support Bush’s decision to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and to supply troops for duty in post-invasion Iraq.
But relations cooled after the election of Socialist Workers Party Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on March 14, three days after nearly 200 people were killed in terrorist bombings in Madrid.
Zapatero denounced the war and withdrew Spain’s 1,300 troops from Iraq ahead of schedule. Bush and Zapatero have not met since the Spanish leader’s election.
In what was widely interpreted as a snub, Bush did not return a call from Zapatero congratulating the president on his Nov. 2 reelection. But he welcomed Aznar to the White House when the former prime minister visited Washington this month.
Before Wednesday, the prime minister’s office said the king would be relaying a message from Zapatero to Bush. The office declined to disclose the contents or whether the message was oral or written, Associated Press reported from Madrid.
Political analysts in Spain speculated that Zapatero was hoping that the royal couple’s luncheon with the president would provide an opening to improve relations with the Bush administration.
Any movement toward rapprochement with Spain would fit within a broader administration effort to reengage with key allies on Iraq and other foreign policy issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and alleged nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea.
Some allies have criticized Bush for what they see as a penchant for acting unilaterally. The administration insists that is not the case, and has launched an outreach campaign that will include a visit by Bush to European capitals early next year.
In Spain, power is wielded by the prime minister and parliament, and the king’s role is largely ceremonial. Nevertheless, the king and queen serve as national emissaries and ambassadors of goodwill.
Juan Carlos and Sofia arrived at the ranch in a Marine Corps helicopter and were greeted by the president, First Lady Laura Bush and former President George H.W. Bush. They climbed into a white pickup truck driven by the president for a pre-lunch tour of the 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch.
“Adios,” Bush told reporters before driving off. “That means goodbye.”
In addition to turkey and fish, the menu included mashed sweet potatoes with maple syrup and chipotle peppers, pan-roasted root vegetables with walnuts and apples, cornbread stuffing, pecan and pumpkin pie and Blue Bell ice cream, a Texas favorite.
The Bushes plan to celebrate Thanksgiving at the ranch with the president’s parents, mother-in-law and twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara Bush, who turn 23 today.