Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Jose Aznar: present at the creation

Commentary by David Reinhard


David Reinhard

It was almost a year ago. The news out of Iraq was not good, and the news out of Spain even worse. On March 11, a terrorist attack in Madrid killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,400. Three days later, Spanish voters turned out the party of Prime Minister Jose Aznar, a staunch ally of President Bush in the Iraq War. Shortly thereafter, the new prime minister, the Socialist Party's Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, pulled Spain's forces out of Iraq. All this was seen as a win for terrorists and a loss for Bush. And a harbinger of things to come.

Almost a year later, Aznar seems no more reconciled to his party's defeat (he himself was not running for re-election) or his successor's withdrawal from Iraq. But he has no regrets. In a Tuesday (Feb. 8) interview with The Oregonian editorial board, he said he continues to defend the Iraq policy he helped Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair fashion, "because I think it is correct."

It's also a bit easier to make the case after the recent Iraq elections and Tuesday's news of a Palestinian-Israeli truce. "This is a special day," he said, "after more days with bad news."

Aznar has cause for satisfaction. As he said of the Iraq elections, "This is a demonstration that democracy is possible in the Muslim countries."

He firmly believes in the transformational power of democracy in the world, since he's seen it work where it was once said to be impossible before it was said to be impossible in Iraq: in his own Spain just 25 years ago.

And in Germany and Japan before that.

Last year, Spain was supposed to foreshadow electoral woes for foreign leaders tied to Bush, and Bush himself. The Iraq "quagmire" would extend beyond Spain to Australia, the United States and Great Britain. If terrorists didn't actually attack in these places, the Madrid terror and its impact on the Spanish vote would at least have an educational impact on their voters.

And yet, less than a year later, consider what's happened to the chief leaders of the Iraq War coalition. In October, Australia's John Howard, who once said Australia should be Washington's "deputy sheriff" in the Asia-Pacific region and early on backed Bush's policy of pre-emption, led his Liberal Party to victory. His party actually boosted its numbers in the Australian parliament, picking up seats in the lower house and winning control of the upper chamber. This was the first time since the 1960s that an incumbent Australian government increased its majority in two consecutive elections. Howard won against an opposition opposed to the Iraq War.

Last fall, Trish Conrad, public affairs director of the Ulum Group, pointed to Howard's win, not Spain, as the real electoral harbinger. "No worries, mate" could have been Howard's message to Bush. A month later, Bush, the anti-Saddam coalition's architect, won re-election, and his Republican Party picked up seats in both houses of Congress for the second election in a row.

Then there's the stand-up successor of Winston Churchill. In the most recent poll in The London Times, Blair's ruling Labor Party put up its best rating since coalition forces took Iraq in April 2003. Blair has boosted his lead over the Conservative Party and Liberal Democrats. He's in tip-top shape for the expected May election.

Of course, a different political dynamic exists in these nations. But one thing is clear: All three remained unwavering in their commitment to the Iraq War. They all said, "Up or down, you know where I stand on these issues. Let's vote." And voters in these three nations have not punished them for this. Far from it. They've re-elected, or are likely to re-elect, all three.

Which brings us back to Aznar and Spain. It turns out the Spanish election likely did have an educational impact on electorates elsewhere, but not in the way the terrorists or critics of the war hoped last March. The Madrid bombing and defeat of Aznar's party--the terrorists' victory in achieving a Spanish bug-out in Iraq--may have actually bolstered Howard and Bush. Australians and Americans were probably not ready to allow terrorists to turn their countries into another Spain.

Asked Tuesday if he now feels vindicated by the Iraq elections, Jose Aznar wouldn't take his own victory lap, no matter how deserved. Not really, he said, "the Iraqi people are vindicated."

A classy answer by one of America's honorary prime ministers.

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