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Mr. Zapatero Goes to Washington

Spain's left-wing prime minister flees his wrecked country for a photo-op with Obama.

12:00 AM, Oct 9, 2009 • By SOEREN KERN
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For many Spaniards, including his supporters, Zapatero is an accidental political leader who was thrust into the prime minister's office by the Islamic terrorists who set off a series of train bombs in Madrid that killed 191 people only three days before the 2004 general elections. Although the incumbent PP was widely expected to win another term in office, Zapatero benefited from the hysteria fomented by Spain's left-leaning mass media in the hours before voters went to the polls. With the aid of a motley hodgepodge of leftist and nationalist parties, Zapatero, who failed to win an absolute majority, was able to cobble together a coalition government.

Just days into his first term in office, Zapatero earned himself lasting enmity with the Bush administration for the ham-fisted withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. Moreover, in his desire to become the standard bearer of the European left, Zapatero compounded the problem by spewing a steady flow of anti-American rhetoric that had the effect of alienating the United States even further.

Over time, Zapatero's permanent non-relationship with the most powerful leader in the free world turned into a media obsession in Spain, with the issue consuming many liters of ink in newspapers across the country. The prime minister was one of the only leaders in Europe not to have been invited to the White House for a visit with an American president. Indeed, between 2004 and 2008, Bush and Zapatero exchanged a grand total of only 18 words, each of which were meticulously analyzed by the Spanish media for possible indications of an impending rapprochement. But with the Bush administration it was just not meant to be.

Not surprisingly, Zapatero was euphoric over Obama's election victory. He sent the president-elect a congratulatory letter on November 5. Four days later, at exactly 11pm local Spanish time (with all the details carefully analyzed by the Spanish media, which dubbed the event Spain's D-Day because Spain now matters in the world), Obama perfunctorily returned Zapatero's favor and the two had a ten-minute telephone conversation.

As it turns out, Zapatero and Obama are soul mates, and not just in terms of ideology. The two were born the same day, albeit one year apart; they are both parents of two daughters; and their favorite sport is basketball. As far as matters of state are concerned, they discussed how Spain might help solve the international financial crisis (Spain is in economic free-fall), and ways in which the two countries can cooperate in fighting climate change (Spain is the source of the biggest increase in so-called greenhouse gas emissions in Europe since 1990). Then, just before hanging up the phone, Zapatero told Obama: "Hey, just call me José Luis."

Now, after five long years, Zapatero has finally got an invitation to visit the Oval Office, which is being portrayed by some as his shining foreign policy achievement. In the logic of Spanish politics, a photo opportunity with Obama should earn Zapatero a promotion from provincial politician to international statesman. Unfortunately for Zapatero, however, Spain's economic situation is now so dire that most Spaniards would prefer that he fix problems at home before doing photo-ops abroad.

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group