“Old Europe” got its revenge. The Spanish elections eliminated George W. Bush’s most important ally on the European continent, registered a resounding rejection of the White House’s imperial foreign policy, and dramatically shifted the balance of power within the European Union against the Atlanticist alliance that sundered the authority of the United Nations by invading Iraq.
The war in Iraq was nowhere more unpopular than in Spain, where public-opinion polls consistently showed 90 percent of its people opposed to the invasion. And no European leader, except Tony Blair, was more identified with Bush and his war than Spain’s austere, ultraconservative premier, Jose Maria Aznar. By contrast, the man who sent the conservatives packing — Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the new, young leader of the Socialist Party — had made a central theme of his campaign his promise to withdraw the 1,300 Spanish troops helping to occupy Iraq. And he pledged to effectuate a “180-degree turn” by “taking Spain out of the trio of the Azores” (a reference to the Bush-Blair-Aznar summit in the Azores that immediately preceded the Iraq invasion).
Spain responded to the murderous March 11 terrorist bombings with a vibrant demonstration of democracy that brought a record 77 percent turnout and 2 million new voters — overwhelmingly young and anti-war — to the polls to throw out the conservatives. But the U.S. right is in full-throated cry at the election results. “Terrorism has won a mighty victory in Spain,” thundered David Frum — the former Bush speechwriter who coined the religion-tinged phrase “Axis of Evil” — in a National Review online column that hysterically vituperated the Spaniards for “low, truckling, appeasement.”
This arrant nonsense conveniently ignores that Spain’s voters also sanctioned Aznar for using the Big Lie technique in an attempt to exploit the bombings for political advantage by blaming them on the Basque terrorist group ETA. In the province of Catalonia, the Socialists are part of a four-party governing coalition that includes a tiny Basque separatist party whose chief had recently met with ETA leaders. By blaming the bombings that cost more than 200 lives on ETA, Aznar & Co. hoped to use guilt-by-association in Catalonia to paint the Socialists as soft on terrorism.
In a campaign of media manipulation that the European press has described as worthy of Vladimir Putin, Aznar personally took charge of the government’s disinformation operation, telephoning the publishers of the principal daily newspapers to insist that “only” ETA was responsible for the bombings and that they say so in their coverage. Aznar’s interior minister informed the media that the bombs were made from the dynamite Titadyn, the same kind used by ETA (this, too, turned out to be false). Counselors in the Moncloa Palace (the Spanish White House) even pressured foreign correspondents in Madrid to demand that they blame ETA in their reporting, claiming there was “no doubt” about ETA’s role. And in the three days leading up to Sunday’s voting, TV stations controlled by Aznar’s conservatives repeatedly aired a documentary on ETA’s long history of political assassinations to keep voter fury at ETA white-hot.
But the lie backfired, big-time. Led by an independent left-wing radio station, Spanish media quickly began exposing how the government already knew, when it told its Big Lie, that the bombings were most likely the work of terrorists linked to al Qaeda. On the night before the voting, demonstrations organized via the Internet and Palm Pilots turned out large crowds in front of Aznar’s Popular Party headquarters in Madrid and every other major city. Angry voters chanted, “The PP Lies, Spain Pays!,” “We’re Fed Up With Manipulations!” and “Our Dead Give Us the Right to the Truth!” Coming on top of the lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — dutifully echoed by Bush’s buddy Aznar — which had been used to take Spain into war, the lies about the bombings produced a tidal wave of revulsion that made itself felt at the polls. And the Socialists, who’d been gaining on the conservatives but were still four points behind in the polls before the bombings and the lies, reaped the fruits of their consistent opposition to the Iraq war.
By choosing the 43-year-old Zapatero to lead the country, Spain has left Bush with only two major European allies: Italy, where fascist-allied Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s popularity has been dropping following his latest attempts to manipulate the justice system and avoid being tried on corruption charges; and Poland, where Leszek Miller’s minority government has only a 10 percent favorable rating in the polls, thanks to a profound economic crisis coupled with Miller’s involvement in a corruption scandal. (Significant majorities in both countries opposed the Iraq war.)
Aznar and the Polish had been blocking the adoption of a new European constitution that would guarantee that Europe speaks with one voice in international relations. Under Zapatero, who accused Aznar of “fracturing Europe” by supporting Bush’s war, Spain will now join the Franco-German duo that has motored construction of a united Europe with a strong constitution — and which, together with Belgium, led opposition to the U.S. war in Iraq. This means an end to Bush’s dream of a “New Europe” in which the supine support of his imperial adventures by the U.S.’s Eastern European client states, soon to be admitted to the EU, could veto European opposition to Bush’s policies. Spain’s new premier has already made the stakes explicit: “With us,” Zapatero proclaimed last month, “Spain will at last have a government that believes in the necessity of a reinforced European Union, a government that finds it unacceptable to speak of ‘Old Europe,’ and a government capable of discussing the unilateral actions of Mr. Bush,” adding that “From Europe we will work for respect of international law and U.N. decisions, not the unilateral acts of this or that country.” Moreover, a strong Europe is the sine qua non of any attempt to put a brake on the U.S.-led drive toward globalization.
More isolated than ever on the world stage by the Spanish elections, Bush may have another worry — if the U.S. electorate decides to follow Spain’s lead and vote against the politics of lies.