The Spanish Elections: End of the Road for the Washington-Madrid Alliance?

Report Europe

The Spanish Elections: End of the Road for the Washington-Madrid Alliance?

March 16, 2004 5 min read

Authors: Nile Gardiner and John Hulsman

The victory of the Socialist Party in last weekend's Spanish general election has sent shockwaves through Europe and the United States. The rise to power of the left-wing Socialists has caused consternation in Washington, with officials in the Bush Administration fearing the end of the highly successful Spanish-American alliance. This result not only transforms the political landscape in Madrid but could also help shift the balance of power within the EU back towards Paris and Berlin. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration must do everything in its power to help ensure that Spain does not drop out of the U.S-led war on terror. If it does so, the terrorists will have won at the polls.


A Bad Start for Zapatero

The terrorist bombings in Madrid decisively influenced the democratic process in one of Europe's biggest nations. For the first time in modern history, terrorists may have dictated the result of a major election. The ruling Popular Party had been widely expected to return to power, but their electoral hopes were shattered by the bombings in Madrid on March 11. The bombings prompted widespread fear in Spain, and as it emerged that Al Qaeda may have been responsible for the attacks, Spanish voters flocked in large numbers to the opposition Socialists. Blaming Madrid's links with the United States, many Spaniards rejected the Popular Party, and instead swept to power a political movement which has been highly critical of the Bush White House.


Spain's outspoken Prime Minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has wasted no time in firing salvoes at President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In an inflammatory radio interview with a Spanish radio station, Zapatero described the war in Iraq and the subsequent occupation of the country as "a disaster." Spain's new leader urged the US and British leaders to "engage in some self-criticism" over their decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power. He also accused Bush and Blair of lying to the world in order to justify attacking Iraq.


The remarks were insensitive in the extreme and do not bode well for future relations between Spain, the United States and Great Britain. Indeed, Mr. Zapatero will need to carefully hone his diplomatic skills and reduce the anti-American rhetoric if he is not to alienate the U.S. and the U.K.


There are disturbing similarities between Zapatero's outbursts and the anti-American statements made by members of Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's government during the 2002 German election campaign. The hardline stance taken by the German socialist government over Iraq helped poison relations between Washington and Berlin, and it is feared that the new Spanish premier will lead his own country down this course.


An Addition to Franco-German Axis

Jose Zapatero has already indicated that he will shift Spanish foreign policy away from Washington and London, and move Madrid closer to an alliance with France and Germany. He has called for a reversal of Spain's opposition to the European Constitution, and has expressed a desire to mend relations with Paris, which were strained under the leadership of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Zapatero regards France as "a very important ally" and stresses that "we want to make sure that the Franco-German axis works again."[1]


Withdrawal of Spanish Troops From Iraq

The new Spanish Prime Minister has pledged to withdraw his country's contingent of 1,300 troops from Iraq unless the United Nations is given control over security forces in the country. His demands are unlikely to be met, and a Spanish withdrawal will probably take place by June 30, the date for the handover of power in Iraq.


Spanish forces represent less than one percent of the 150,000 Allied troops in Iraq, and their removal from the country will not affect the Coalition's ability to conduct operations. Spain is due to take over the command of the 9,000-strong multinational force in the central-south sector of Iraq, but Poland has already indicated that it will maintain its command of the region if Spain withdraws.


A unilateral move by Spain to pull out its forces would be a symbolic blow to the Coalition and may prompt other European nations with small contingents in Iraq, such as Italy, to consider doing the same. In the coming months, the Bush Administration will need to make strenuous efforts to shore up the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq, which will require skillful shuttle diplomacy across Europe. Washington needs at the highest levels to listen to the political concerns of its Allies in Rome, London, Warsaw, and other friendly European capitals.


Spain and the War on Terror

Spain has been at the forefront of the war on terror in Europe and around the globe. Along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, outgoing Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had been a highly visible supporter of the U.S-led war on terror and American efforts in Iraq, going so far as to host the historic Azores summit on the eve of war against Saddam. It is certainly no accident that Australia and Spain, two of America's most stalwart allies of the post-September 11 era, have suffered massive attack by terrorists.


It is this increasingly successful anti-terror coalition that has been threatened in both cases. The United States must stress that continued Allied co-operation is essential if international terrorism is to be defeated.


A Wake-Up Call to Europe

The Madrid bombings should shatter the illusions of many Europeans who had mistakenly believed that the war on terror could be won through UN resolutions, international courts, and appeasement. While there is undoubtedly more to the war on terror than military action, intelligence co-ordination among major states such as Spain and the United States remains a prerequisite for dealing with Al Qaeda, ETA, and other terrorist groups.


Much of Europe still believes that this is America's war and America's problem, not Europe's. The bombings should correct that mistaken impression. The tragedy in Madrid once again illustrates that Prime Minister Aznar was right all along: terrorism is a threat to all and must be dealt with internationally. This effort must have military and intelligence sharing components if it is to be successful.


As European leaders gather in Spain for emergency security talks, the terrorist atrocities in Madrid must strengthen the resolve of Europe's leaders to work more closely with Washington in intelligence-gathering, criminal prosecutions, and military action to combat international terrorism. The United States and Europe have a common interest in defeating the scourge of global terrorism, and it is to be hoped that these tragic bombings will draw the two closer together, not further apart.



The election of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero will undoubtedly weaken the close ties between Washington and Madrid. The strong partnership between Jose Maria Aznar and President Bush is unlikely to be emulated by Spain's new Prime Minister.


However, despite the fallout over Iraq, it is imperative that the United States and Spain continue to work closely together in the war against terror. If Spain were to withdraw from the U.S.-led coalition, the terrorists will have achieved their principal goal: to shatter the Spanish-American alliance.


Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy, and John Hulsman, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in European Affairs, at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Quoted by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, in 'New Spain Will Swell the Ranks of Old Europe', The Daily Telegraph, March 16, 2004.



Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow

John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow