José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Spain’s accidental prime minister who was thrust into office by the Islamic terrorists who set off a series of train bombs in Madrid only three days before the 2004 general elections, has just marked his third year in power.
Since taking office, Zapatero, who is dogmatically attached to the ideas of the European left, has presided over controversial domestic and foreign policies that range from legalizing gay marriage to supporting the separatist aspirations of regional Basque and Catalan nationalists to selling weapons to the authoritarian regime of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
Zapatero has also managed to re-open many of the wounds that most Spaniards thought had been put to rest with the end of the Franco dictatorship (1975) and the advent of democracy (1978). The result is that Spain is more divided today than at any time in its modern history.
Nowhere have Zapatero’s policies been more controversial than in his approach to countering terrorism. In fact, Zapatero, a self-proclaimed feminist, lately has committed a number of blunders so outrageous that Spaniards of all political leanings now fear that he has made Spain more, not less, vulnerable to terrorism.
Zapatero’s ‘Truce’ With Islamic Extremists
A few days after taking office in April 2004, Zapatero withdrew the 1,300 Spanish troops that were deployed to Iraq by the previous government of José Maria Aznar. Opponents of the withdrawal accused Zapatero of naively thinking that the threat posed by Al-Qaeda terrorists exists only because of the war in Iraq. And although it is true that a most Spaniards opposed the intervention in Iraq, many also believed that Zapatero’s precipitous action smacked of appeasement that not only weakened Spanish national security, but also destroyed the international credibility and stature that Spain had built up during the Aznar government.
Although the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq did not make much of a strategic difference in terms of the war effort, the move sent a symbolic message that represented a major victory for Al-Qaeda. Because what Zapatero did not seem to understand was that Islamic radicals still consider four-fifths of Spain to be Muslim land that must be liberated from the Spanish infidels who drove out the Moors in what is known as the Reconquista (1492). Thus by appearing to give in to the demands of medieval-minded Islamic extremists, Zapatero reinforced the perception that it is the terrorists, not the government, that sets the agenda in Spain.
Confirming the growing suspicion that Zapatero’s post-modern approach to fighting terrorism lacks a basis in reality, he told TIME Magazine in September 2004 that ‘sexual equality is a lot more effective against terrorism than military strength’. At the same time, he announced an ill-defined initiative he calls the ‘Alliance of Civilizations’, which borrows heavily from the ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ concept promoted by Islamic radicals in Iran during the 1990s; in its essence, the initiative calls on the West to negotiate a truce with Islamic terrorists, and on terms set by the latter.
Indeed, Zapatero seems to believe that multilateral group therapy is the best way to work out his differences with the Islamic extremists who want to take over his country. But the prime minister’s initiative has been widely criticized in Spain and elsewhere because of its failure to comprehend that Al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists are at war not just with Spain or other individual states, but with the very ideals of Western society…and especially with post-modernist hyper-secularists like Zapatero himself.
But now that Zapatero has had three years in office to test his feminist approach to fighting terrorism, has it brought any tangible benefits for Spain? A Google-search on Zapatero will show that he is almost universally held up as the epitome of a post-modern appeaser. Even those on the political left in a Europe that is awash with like-minded equivocators have expressed serious doubts about the wisdom and efficacy of Zapatero’s anti-terrorist policies.
But what do the terrorists think? Well, they seem to understand Zapatero better than Zapatero understands himself. Indeed, in March 2007, Al-Qaeda launched new threats against Spain, this time over its military deployment in Afghanistan. In a video, a hooded man said the presence of Spanish troops in Afghanistan “exposes Spain again to threats” unless they withdraw their troops from the country. “The Spanish people have been tricked by a socialist government which withdrew troops from Iraq and sent 600 to Afghanistan,” the man proclaimed.
Then on April 11, the Islamic terrorists who claimed responsibility for an attack which killed some 25 people in Algeria, called for the reconquest of Spain. “We will not be in peace until we set our foot again in our beloved al-Andalus,” Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb warned. That prompted Spanish anti-terrorism judge Baltasar Garzon to caution that Spain was at a “very high risk” of suffering an Islamist attack. So much for Zapatero’s truce with Islam.
Zapatero’s ‘Truce’ With Basque Extremists
Notwithstanding the embarrassing setbacks for Spain vis-à-vis Islamic extremists, however, Spaniards have reserved their fiercest criticism of Zapatero over his domestic anti-terrorism policies.
And critics across the political spectrum say that nowhere has the prime minister erred as much as when, in June 2006, he agreed to begin a dialogue with ETA, the Basque separatist group, without first requiring that the group disarm. ETA, which is listed as a terrorist organization by both the European Union and the United States, has killed almost 1,000 people over the past four decades in its quest for an independent Basque state in seven parts of northern Spain and southwest France.
To initiate his dialogue with ETA, however, Zapatero pulled out of an agreement that he himself had proposed in 2000 with the PP not to talk with ETA unless it agreed to disarm. “Any normal person understands you can’t negotiate with someone whose negotiating weapon is as powerful and hard to argue with as a pistol,” PP leader Mariano Rajoy said at the time. The PP also opposed any talks with Batasuna, the outlawed political front of ETA.
This split between Spain’s two main political parties had the effect of limiting public support for a negotiated settlement; it also left the PP positioned to gain politically should the peace process break down. Zapatero, on the other hand, made the peace process the centerpiece of his political agenda in the hopes that a resolution to the Basque conflict would help him secure an easy re-election victory in early 2008. This highly risky proposition, however, also made him acutely vulnerable to intimidation from ETA.
Indeed, during the final months of 2006, ETA began complaining that the peace process had stalled because Madrid was refusing to make preliminary concessions. For example, ETA has long demanded that more than 400 of its prisoners, who are being held in locations across Spain, be moved closer to the Basque region. ETA has also insisted that the government stop arresting ETA suspects and that it legalize Batasuna.
Undeterred, Zapatero said at a year-end news conference on December 29 that his peace initiative was making progress. “Are we better off now with a permanent cease-fire, or when we had bombs, car bombs and explosions?” he asked. “This time next year, we will be better off than we are today.”
The very next morning, ETA set off a powerful car bomb at Madrid’s International Airport, killing two people and bringing to a dramatic end nine months of a so-called ‘permanent cease-fire’. The bombing caught Zapatero completely by surprise and shattered his attempt to solve the 40-year Basque conflict through dialogue. It also sent hundreds of thousands of Spaniards onto the streets in rallies to protest the attack and left a reeling Zapatero fighting for his political future.
The attack has produced a profound split within Spain: on the one hand, there are those on the left who remain open to the idea of re-establishing some sort of dialogue with ETA in the future; on the other hand, there are those on the right who believe that ETA must be forced into an unconditional surrender.
But by far the most controversial decision Zapatero has made since taking office was to convert the prison sentence of Iñaki de Juana Chaos, a high-profile member of ETA, to house arrest. De Juana began a hunger strike in November 2006 to protest a second jail sentence, which he received for ‘inciting terrorism’ (he had already completed an 18-year term for the murder of 25 people). In March 2007, when de Juana was reportedly near death after more than 100 days without eating, Zapatero agreed to allow de Juana to finish his sentence at his home in the Basque Country.
The outrage felt by Spaniards across the political spectrum was immediate; spontaneous anti-government demonstrations have been held across Spain. In response to the criticism, however, the Zapatero government justified its decision with an incredible statement that perfectly encapsulates the moral confusion of the post-modern mindset: “One of the differences between terrorists and us is that for us, life is important, no matter whether the person is a terrorist or not, and this is where our moral legitimacy derives,” said Interior Minister Alfredo Rubalcaba.
Many Spaniards say it was weakness, not morals, that guided Zapatero’s decision. Indeed, critics of the government say that although the Madrid bombing should have brought an end to the fledgling peace process, it did not, in fact, diminish Zapatero’s willingness to negotiate with terrorists. Others argue that Zapatero allowed himself to be blackmailed by ETA, and that he caved in to that blackmail. Some suspect he still hopes that a resolution to the Basque conflict will earn him another term as prime minister.
Whatever the rationale behind Zapatero’s decision to free de Juana, it has divided Spain in a way not seen since the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. And that, say critics, is precisely the problem. Because when Spain is divided, terrorists are strengthened.
Indeed, in Zapatero’s Spain, the terrorists seem to have more influence than the government. And many Spaniards now fear it’s only a matter of time until they strike again.
Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group.