Aznar's Risky Gamble on Iraq

The Prime Minister backs Bush, but few Spaniards do

Does José María Aznar want to destroy his career? That question has been asked by many in Europe's ruling circles because of the Spanish Prime Minister's unwavering support of the U.S. campaign against Iraq -- in the face of huge opposition among voters and rivals in Spain. True, his stance has earned him the trust of President George W. Bush and a role as one of the brokers of the White House's diplomatic drive in Europe. But Aznar has failed to persuade many other European leaders to join him in the Bush camp, and his devotion to the U.S. cause could prove the undoing of his center-right Popular Party at home.

No question, Aznar, 50, is taking a huge risk. But he seems to be betting that if the so-called coalition of the willing succeeds in Iraq, his country will wield new clout not just with the U.S. but within Europe as well. With the voices of protest already loud and clear, Aznar in early March addressed a Popular Party convention and voiced his belief that solidarity with the U.S. meant a stronger role for Spain on the world stage. "We don't want to see Spain relegated to a corner of history," he said. "To a corner with the countries that don't count, don't serve, don't decide."

Aznar was a strong backer of Bush and his war on terror from the start. He himself narrowly survived a car bomb planted by the Basque separatist group ETA in 1995, when he was the leader of the opposition. He decided last autumn that he would play an active role in the anti-terror fight, particularly because Spain was set to assume one of the U.N. Security Council's rotating seats in January. "With a Security Council seat, you cannot keep a low profile in this debate. So Aznar decided to combine his moral convictions with the goal of a more prominent role for Spain," says Florentino Portero, an analyst at Madrid think tank Strategic Studies Group.

Supporting the U.S. makes strategic sense for Spain. In a European Union growing eastward and northward, strong transatlantic ties help Spain stay near the center of geopolitical gravity. In fact, Aznar sees the U.S., which has military bases in Spain, as the key to European security. Moreover, Spain and the U.S. have common interests, particularly in Latin America, where American and Spanish companies are the biggest foreign investors.

Aznar's gambit could have consequences in Europe as well. Spain's Prime Minister has pushed free-market economic reforms more aggressively than his counterparts in France and Germany. And he has joined forces with Britain and Italy to provide a counterweight to the powerful Franco-German coalition. Aznar's support of Bush's campaign to oust Saddam Hussein may embolden some smaller EU members to stand up to Berlin and Paris.

To Spaniards wary of supporting a military campaign, however, this geopolitical calculus is all but meaningless. Opinion polls show that more than 80% of the electorate is against a war in Iraq. Millions of protesters in recent weeks have taken to the streets of Madrid, Barcelona, and other cities. Rival political parties -- including those that once governed in coalition with the Popular Party -- are using the dissent to such advantage that the opposition Socialists have taken the lead in electoral polls for the first time since Aznar ousted them from power in 1996.

Already shaken by the government's sluggish response to an oil spill off the coast of northern Spain in November, the ruling party now looks vulnerable in the runup to district elections scheduled for May 25. While local elections don't necessarily reflect satisfaction with foreign policy, many political observers say the voting will help gauge sentiment ahead of general elections next year. A disappointing outcome locally could foreshadow a loss for the Popular Party in 2004, though not for Aznar, who has already announced that he will step down as head of the party.

Yet Aznar appears undeterred. He recently said on TV he was "unwilling to put the security of Spaniards at risk because of a few points of popularity." And despite rumors of a quiet rebellion among his party's rank and file, its 183 legislators unanimously backed Aznar in a Parliament vote on Mar. 4.

Whether the public will follow suit depends on the outcome of the Iraq campaign. "If there is a quick, successful war, and the Iraqis smile, wave flags, and welcome the foreign soldiers, Aznar's likely to come out on top," says Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, director of Madrid's Royal Elcano Institute for International Strategic Studies. "If it's a blacker scenario -- a long, bloody battle for Baghdad -- he could face outright rejection." And his party could be voted out of office in next year's elections. Aznar wanted Spain to have its moment on the world stage. One way or another, he's getting it.

By Paulo Prada in Madrid

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