More than just a promise

More than just a promise


José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’s decision to repatriate immediately the Plus Ultra Brigade, deployed in the southern-central region of Iraq by the Aznar government, is more than simple fulfilment of an election pledge.


The French historian Fernand Braudel wrote that each generation is wont to contradict the one preceding it. It is yet another way of saying that the key to history is the struggle between fathers and sons and the accumulation between grandfathers and grandchildren. Something of the sort occurs in foreign policy when consensus breaks down. George Bush’s opening foreign-policy moves as the new president were dubbed ‘ABC’, ‘Anything but Clinton’. It was much the same when José María Aznar took over as prime minister from Felipe González. Now, however, following the election victory of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the outgoing prime minister is seeing the other face of the lack of consensus. Zapatero’s decision to repatriate immediately the Plus Ultra Brigade, deployed in the southern-central region of Iraq by the Aznar government, is something more than just the mere fulfilment of an election pledge.


Who won the Spanish general elections of 14 March of this year, Osama Bin Laden or Zapatero? The question strikes Spanish voters as an insult, but it is being asked nonetheless. To say that the winner was the leader of al-Qaeda is as ridiculous as saying that the winner of the presidential elections of 1980 was Khomeini rather than Ronald Reagan, who ran against Jimmy Carter, the president who had come to grief against the Ayatollah. But there can be no denying that Zapatero’s volte-face led the Bush Administration and its political and media allies to interpret the Socialist Party’s election victory as a relief for Bin Laden’s followers.

Socialist leaders, in tune with a broad majority of the electorate, were opposed to the Iraq war long before the terrorist attacks of 3/11. A year later, by then in power, Zapatero fulfilled his election promise of withdrawing Spain’s troops before 30 June unless certain conditions were met. The government initiative was announced a few hours after the new ministers took possession of their portfolios: Zapatero did not wait until 30 June. Was his action, therefore, over hasty? Did he jump the gun, as some have suggested, out of fear of the Security Council finally reaching agreement on allowing the world’s most senior organisation a greater role in Iraq? This suggestion is, to say the least, odd coming as it does from those who for months wrote off the United Nations as irrelevant.

The government says no, the decision to withdraw the troops was justified because there was no way in which in the few weeks remaining to 30 June the two conditions for keeping Spain’s troops in Iraq could be met. This was (a) because the continuing violence (April was the worst month for the US expeditionary force since the start of the war) made it practically impossible for the UN to take over political control of Iraq; and (b) because the Zapatero government understood the Bush Administration to have made it clear that in no circumstances would it accept US troops being ordered about by the highest international organisation or, for that matter, by any supranational body.

Was Zapatero’s decision, therefore, over-hasty? If between now and 30 June the UN Security Council approves a new resolution by which the UN assumes political responsibility for Iraq and US troops come under the orders of the world’s most senior body, there will be nothing to stop critics from saying that the Spanish premier’s first decision on taking office was wrong. The only answer to this is to wait and see. As things stand now, however, the argument Zapatero is using is that a government decision, backed in the polls on 14 March by a clear majority of Spaniards, brooked no delay. On this point, all the indication are that the new government failed to do its homework. For example, before Zapatero announced the irrevocable withdrawal, he led people in Washington to believe that that the move would not be immediate, in other words, the date and precise nature of the withdrawal were still to be decided. If this is the case, Washington’s anger is understandable. But at bottom the issue of Spanish withdrawal would have been the same.

It is undeniable that the decision to withdraw Spanish troops was motivated to a large extent by domestic political considerations, as was Spanish criticism of Zapatero for taking it. By announcing an immediate withdrawal the government cut short the debate on the rights and wrongs of the move. Postponing the decision would have meant making Spain’s military presence in Iraq the central issue of domestic politics for a period of months, the government’s first in office. For Zapatero it would have meant running the risk of being tarred with the same brush as González was when he changed his mind about Spanish membership of NATO. But this, though it explains why the government acted as it did, does not justify it. Justification is to be found elsewhere.

Over and above domestic political considerations, the government decision gives food for thought on two issues: first, the role of public opinion in establishing foreign policy and, secondly, what an organisation such as the United Nations should do in situations such as these.

The idea that foreign policy should be shrouded from the public eye behind a cloak of secrecy still has many advocates. But things have changed since the Congress of Vienna, when Metternich could blithely redraw the map of Europe without a whimper from what was then a non-existent public opinion. Today, the press, radio and television cover foreign affairs to such an extent that they convert many of them into quasi domestic issues. But public opinion, though it has a voice, not always has a vote.

Up until the First World War foreign policy was the private domain of government. Parliament and voters had to concede that such matters, given their extraordinary complexity, should be left to the establishment. The political row over the Iraq war was a good example of how strategic analysis, which the establishment regards as its sole prerogative, attempted to sway the opinion of the voting public, happier on ideological ground and opposed, almost by definition, to war. Possibly the first such exercise in propaganda carried out by a democratic government occurred under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, elected in 1916 on a platform of ‘Peace Without Victory’. The United States entered the First World War on 16 April 1917 and within a week Wilson had decided to set up the Committee on Public Information, better known as the ‘Creel Committee’, to win over public opinion.

George Creel, a journalist with a special talent for nosing into the private lives of his victims, achieved huge success in a period as short as six months. Among those who took part in the operation were members of the progressive circle led by John Dewey who were proud, to judge from contemporary accounts, of having proved that the most intelligent members of the community, in other words themselves, were able to overturn widespread public reluctance to get involved in the war in Europe.

When spokesmen for the Aznar government were invited a year ago to explain why they were acting against the known wishes of almost 80% of the population, opposed to the war in Iraq, they could do no better than say that such was always the case in time of war. They were probably right. But the war in Iraq marked a watershed, and not just in Spain. The Woodrow Wilson administration, by means of propaganda, managed to shift majority opinion on US intervention in the First World War. This time round it was public opinion which overturned the government.

From the standpoint of political realism, the influence of public opinion on matters of foreign policy is usually regarded with distrust. George F. Kennan, a leading advocate of contemporary realism and one of the fathers of the policy of containment in the cold war, underlined at the time of the fighting in the former Yugoslavia what he believed to be the dangers of what he called ‘TV foreign policy’. What he was referring to was the likelihood of the horrors of war seen on domestic television screens ending up forcing governments to give in to public opinion instead of defending national interests. Those who criticise Zapatero for withdrawing Spain’s troops cling to Kennan’s analysis through hell and high water.

The position adopted by the incoming Spanish government has, indeed, been fiercely criticised. The Bush Administration made no secret of its anger with Zapatero, comparing the situation with that of Munich, ie, appeasement of, in this case, terrorism. But Washington was not the only opponent. The Polish daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita said in an editorial the day after Zapatero’s election victory, ‘if Spain withdraws, it will mean a victory for the terrorists; it will mean terrorists reign in Spain’. This is almost as absurd as the idea that Zapatero is a second Neville Chamberlain.

It is not easy to see exactly where the sea change occurred. It may have been with the election victory of John F. Kennedy or with the change in the electorate that made that victory possible. Something similar can be said of Mikhail Gorbachev, who led change, though he had risen to the leadership of the USSR purely by force of circumstance. Zapatero may be repeating history, but there can be no doubt that his election triumph changed the political equation. Be this as it may, Zapatero has been criticised for acting hastily, unilaterally and without analysing properly the consequences of his decision. In short, he is accused of committing an error of judgement that can only benefit international terrorism.

It is odd that people should say this. The Bush Administration decided to start the war hastily, without waiting for the UN inspectors to complete their search for the arms of mass destruction allegedly held by Saddam Hussein. This was one of the reasons brandished by Washington as justification for changing the regime in Iraq. But the Bush government acted unilaterally after the Security Council failed to vote in favour of an attack, which would have made the war not preventive but legal. Moreover, the Bush Administration, which was convinced its troops would be received as liberators, did not appear to have analysed either the political or the military situation in depth. The current situation in Iraq, a year after the start of the war, seems to make this abundantly clear. In short, George W. Bush is criticised for having committed an error of judgement which, contrary to expectations, not only appears not to have weakened al-Qaeda but to have converted terrorism into a worldwide phenomenon.

Zapatero’s decision reopened the debate on the real error. The predictions of those opposed to the war –which Washington also justified by the unproven ties linking Saddam Hussein with Osama Bin Laden– proved correct. Iraq laboured under a dictatorship but was not a rogue State such as Afghanistan, where terrorism ran amok. Now, a year after the war, the situation is different. Iraq is in turmoil, heading down the route taken by Lebanon and fast becoming a breeding ground for terrorists. Nor has the regional picture changed for the better. The Israeli-Palestine conflict worsens by the day, despite Bush’s promises that a change of regime in Baghdad would bring peace to Israel and the occupied territories. And al-Qaeda has not only been handed additional justification, it has also extended its sphere of action, from Saudi Arabia to Spain.

In the war against terrorism, now including Iraq, Americans and Europeans are in the same boat. But within that boat the arguments continue. The decision by the Spanish government to withdraw its troops is a good example of just such a wrangle. For George W. Bush, whose advisers say they come from Mars –as opposed to Venus from where European wets hail– the world is a safer place without Saddam Hussein, whose downfall amazingly took the pressure off Bin Laden. Europeans, meanwhile, say that after the bloodletting in Madrid only a Martian could believe that the world is safer now than it was two years ago. The New York Times, a year after the hostilities began, says the war ‘did nothing to stop terrorism’. So who was wrong? Those who supported the war or those who want to pull out?

There was, and still is, a possible solution: a UN resolution allowing the coalition forces to remain in Iraq under UN control, with the UN also assuming responsibility for the government of the country. Such a hypothetical resolution would have been a godsend to Zapatero, to German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who shares Bush’s desire to democratise the Middle East, and to French president Jacques Chirac, who led the opposition to the war. However, unless the Spanish government is very much mistaken, such a resolution from the world’s highest ruling body is not going to happen, not at least in an unambiguous way, which leads us on to our second consideration.

The history of relations between the United States and international organisations is a curious one. Both the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, saw the light of day thanks to the initiative of American presidents. But subsequent American presidents repudiated the League and either ignored the United Nations or used it to their own ends. Forty years ago Georg Schwarzenberger said that this situation was a masquerade: ‘Unless the political power system made up of members who see themselves as ends in themselves is replaced by a genuine international community, the existing state of affairs can only be described as a system of masquerading power’.

The present international scene represents a society, not a community, despite the fact that the latter word is bandied about without rhyme or reason. International relations are pure power politics, in which members resort, when their vital interests are at stake, to whatever means are more effective. The United States is a prime example of how members of this society behave.


The Spanish government should stand shoulder to shoulder with its allies in the struggle against terrorism. It should also contribute to the stabilising, democratisation and reconstruction of Iraq. But the withdrawal of Spanish troops should not be understood as surrendering to terrorism but as the refusal, backed by a wide majority of Spanish voters, to allow international intervention to be used as a cover for colonial occupation. The Iraqi adventure has turned out to be a disaster and, worse still, those responsible now want to use the United Nations to give legitimacy to an act of blatant unilateralism, haste and ideological fervour.

Zapatero, at the end of the day, appears to have acted in the conviction that between his election pledge and the worsening of the situation in Iraq, which would have made it more difficult for Washington to make major concessions to the United Nations, there was no alternative but to call back the troops immediately. In the eyes of American neo-conservatives the UN may be regarded as an irrelevant organisation, but now they need the UN to give legitimacy to their military adventure. Thus, the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq is more than an election pledge. It is evidence of a new way of looking at the world we live in.

Xavier Batalla
Diplomatic correspondent of La Vanguardia and member of the Scientific Council of the Elcano Royal Institute