Global Policy Forum

Spain is Firm: Troops Won't Return


By Elaine Sciolino

New York Times
May 7, 2004

Prime Minister José Luis Rodrí­guez Zapatero of Spain said Thursday that he would never send Spanish troops back to Iraq, even if foreign troops there were put under the authority of the United Nations or NATO. "Spanish troops have spent time there and have completed their mission in Iraq," Zapatero said. "There's no point in them going back." In his first interview with a foreign journalist since he took office last month, the 43-year-old Socialist leader dismissed the creation of an eventual peacekeeping force under the authority of the United Nations as "rather improbable or utopian" because of the unstable security situation.

Similarly, he felt that the idea of a NATO-led force similar to the one that exists in Afghanistan "would not a feasible alternative," saying that it was more likely that a force of Arab troops "could give the Iraqis peace of mind." Even as Zapatero criticized the American-led war and occupation of Iraq, he sought to portray himself as a loyal ally of the United States who was grateful for American help on the ground in facilitating Spain's troop withdrawal and who had not encouraged other countries to follow Spain's lead and leave.

Since the decision to withdraw, Honduras and the Dominican Republic have also decided to bring their troops home. Poland, Thailand, Kazakhstan and the Philippines have issued statements suggesting their troop commitments may not be open-ended. "I've never asked them to do that, nor even suggested it in any way," Zapatero said. "I've respected the countries that have stayed and those that have left." He also refused to criticize the administration of President George W. Bush for its handling of reported abuses by American soldiers in Iraq.

"I want to be extremely respectful of the internal politics of a country that is an ally," he said, adding that Bush "will know what he needs to do." A lawyer and former deputy in Parliament who won a stunning electoral victory three days after terrorist train bombings in Madrid in March, Zapatero is largely unknown around the world.

He proudly calls himself a "radical feminist," noting that half of the 16 ministers he has appointed are women. And he insists he is not bothered by nicknames like "Bambi" or criticism that he is naí¯ve and smiles too much. "I probably seem naí¯ve to some people," he said. But, he added, "It's bad enough that people have to put up with us being politicians without having to put up with us being angry all the time."

The text of the 80-minute interview is posted on Underscoring his determination to reach out to the United States, Zapatero noted that he admires Thomas Jefferson's ideas of democracy and spent a month touring the country in 1990 in a program called "Leaders With a Future" sponsored by the State Department. "No one could have predicted that 14 years later that they would remember me so fondly in all those places," he said of the Americans he met. "But I do have four years ahead of me to show the American people what a high opinion I have of them."

Zapatero also said that he looked forward to meeting Bush, even though he acknowledged that the White House had not invited him for a visit. Asked how he could hope to charm Bush, Zapatero replied, "Just by telling the truth." Then, referring to his own electoral victory, he joked, "I'd even be willing to give him my opinion of the election in November, if he wants to know."

An invitation may not be in the mail any time soon. Since his election, Zapatero has doubly enraged the Bush administration. The first time was when he announced that he would implement a campaign promise to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops - the sixth-largest foreign force in Iraq - unless they were put under a UN mandate by the end of June, when some degree of sovereignty is to be given to the Iraqis. Then he suddenly decided not to wait but to begin a unilateral withdrawal instead. "We have not deceived anyone," Zapatero insisted. "In order to avoid any uncertainty for our troops and our allies, I made the decision quickly." He reiterated that according to polls, 90 percent of the Spanish people opposed the war and that it was his duty to respond to the will of the people.

Even his daughters, who are 8 and 10, weighed in. "From the day I won the election they were asking me every night, 'Daddy, when are you going to bring the troops home?'" he said. Two senior Spanish officials said that the abrupt decision to begin the withdrawal, which will be completed this month, was triggered in part by a meeting in Washington on April 5 in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Spain's new defense minister that there was no way that the United States would allow its troops to serve under international command. Zapatero announced the immediate troop withdrawal on April 18, the day after he was sworn in.

When the defense minister, José Bono, called Rumsfeld to inform him of the decision, Rumsfeld said angrily that such a move would be regarded as cowardice and an appeasement of terrorists, the two Spanish officials said. Bono was said to have shouted back that the charge was untrue and that Spain had "cojones," the Spanish word for testicles. In the interview, Zapatero did not dispute the characterization of the lively diplomacy, saying: "We know that defense ministers tend to be people with strong personalities. It goes with the job." To underscore Spain's commitment to peacekeeping around the world, Zapatero noted more than once that more than 3,000 Spanish troops currently were engaged in international deployments from Afghanistan to the Balkans.

But he made it clear that before Spain sent more troops abroad it needed to turn inward, focusing on national security in the wake of the Madrid bombings, repairing relations with France and Germany that were badly damaged when Spain supported the war in Iraq and forging ties with the 10 new members of the European Union.

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