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American breakfast and prayers for Zapatero

Zapatero's apparent rapport with Barack Obama has brought an end to the frost of the Bush years, marking the latest development in Spain's association with the United States. It has been a complex relationship which has seen plenty of twists over the decades.

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The decision by Spanish leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to accept Barack Obama’s invitation to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on February 4 has sparked plenty of controversy and even outrage on the political right, as critics accuse the “lay” prime minister of hypocrisy.

The Prayer Breakfast is seen as a meeting place for political, economic and social figures and while it does have a clearly religious dimension, Zapatero’s decision to attend has nothing to do with prayer and everything to do with his relationship with the US president.

Putting aside the Spanish political furore over the breakfast, the invitation itself looks like a significant development as Zapatero and Obama seek to build on their autumn meeting in the White House, which brought to a close a half decade which added some new twists to Madrid’s complex relationship with Washington.

The fact that their October encounter was the first official bilateral meeting between Zapatero and a US leader since the former took office in March 2004 hints at a relationship which has been by turns bitter and mutually rewarding ever since the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898, leading to the loss of the colonies of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

Cigars and a special relationship

Franco’s 1953 agreement to allow US military bases to be set up in Spain brought the dictator in from the cold in international terms, but did not make him a warm ally of Washington. Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González’s decision to join NATO in 1986 brought the country further into the fold, however, and by the time conservative Prime Minister José María Aznar was photographed in 2002 alongside George W. Bush in Kananaskis, Canada, the two of them smoking cigars with their feet up on a table, it appeared a “special relationship” had indeed been forged.

The apparent collapse of that rapport occurred in a matter of days, between Zapatero’s 2004 election victory and his announcement that he would make good on an electoral pledge and withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. Bush was furious and never forgave the Socialist leader for the withdrawal and urging other nations to do likewise, reportedly exchanging a total of 18 words with him over the next five years. (When in opposition, Zapatero had already riled the US. During a Columbus Day parade in Madrid in October 2003, the Socialist leader had refused to stand on principle over the Iraq invasion when the US flag passed by. Ambassador George Argyros accused him of “shaming” Spain and boycotted the following year’s event, when Zapatero was prime minister.)

With Iraq such a bone of contention for the two nations, the arrival of the consensus-seeking Obama in the Oval Office looked like a blessing for Zapatero, whose foreign policy has long been seen as a weak point. 
”I think Obama is a person who listens. I think he’s humble enough to understand […] the diversity and complexity of the world, in terms of cultures, in terms of ways of living, in terms of religions, in terms of different perspectives on a world order,” Zapatero told The New York Times in July. His determination to wipe the transatlantic slate clean has been abundantly clear. Spanish government aides have been keen to play up the chemistry between the two leaders, both of whom brought to a close long periods of conservative administration in their respective countries. Zapatero, 49, and Obama, 48, also share a birthday and a passion for basketball.

“What we can do for Obama…”

But such superficial common ground has not prevented tensions surfacing. The fumbled surprise announcement of the withdrawal of Spain’s peacekeeping troops from Kosovo in the spring of 2009 irked NATO and other nations in the alliance. 
”This is typical of Spain. It did it in Iraq, no?” said Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski at the time. Zapatero’s determination to align himself with Obama has inevitably handed ammunition to his domestic critics, who accuse him of pleading his way to international credibility with remarks such as: “It’s not so much a question of what Obama can do for us, but what we can do for Obama.”

However, with Spain holding the rotating presidency of the European Union until June 30th, Zapatero has some extra weight with which to punch on the international stage. His ambition of loosening the EU’s common position on Cuba might not bear fruit during his six-month tenure in Europe, but his position on this issue appears to bear some resemblance to that of Obama. In the long term they might make some progress.

While Obama may value Spain’s role on the Cuban issue (and possibly others), the embattled American president hardly needs to be seen hobnobbing with one of Europe’s few Socialist leaders. Zapatero, however, with the frost of the Bush years now safely behind him and his economic woes refusing to fade at home, would appear to have little choice but to pursue the support of the most powerful man on the planet.





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Published: Jan 25 2010
Category: Uncategorized
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=158
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1 Comment for “American breakfast and prayers for Zapatero”

  1. […] three months earlier, Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero was in the US capital himself, attending the National Prayer Breakfast as President Barack Obama’s guest, an event that followed a meeting between the two men at the […]

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