Do the Spanish elections matter? Even stating that question is, in an American political context, absurd: Of course they don't. Spain is far away. The Spanish voters' decision to throw out their government can't possibly affect the U.S. elections. More to the point: Although the Bush administration always speaks of the "coalition" that fought the Iraq war and is running that country, I'd wager that few Americans know which countries the coalition contains. Some are aware of the British, but I have seen eyebrows rise in surprise when I mention that the Poles control a sector of Iraq, or that the Ukrainians and the Japanese have sent troops. Spain's support for the United States in Iraq has made little difference to Americans' support for the war in Iraq, and a change in Spanish policy won't matter either.
If the Spanish elections don't matter politically, neither do they matter militarily. The incoming Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, says he will withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, has already said that "we can adapt readily" to the loss of those women and men. Spain sent 1,800 troops. American troops in Iraq number more than 150,000. The military uselessness of allies in general, and Europeans in particular, is now a cornerstone of American political discourse, and a Spanish withdrawal from Iraq will only reinforce it.
The trouble comes, of course, when we get around to talking about the psychological effects of the Spanish election. By that I don't just mean the boost it offers al Qaeda. This is serious, but I don't really expect the Spanish to stop searching for al Qaeda operatives or cooperating with U.S. intelligence. No, what worries me far more is what the change of government in Spain does to what I call the ideological war on terrorism.
In his first State of the Union speech after Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush spoke of "defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere." Later, on the eve of the Iraqi invasion, he said that "the world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values, because stable and free nations do not breed the ideologies of murder."
I don't know whether he wrote those words himself, but they struck at something most politicians seemed to understand intuitively in this country during the Cold War but many have since discarded: The war on terrorism, if it is ultimately to defeat not just al Qaeda but al Qaeda's imitators, cannot be only about U.S. national interests or U.N. resolutions. It must also be conducted by an alliance of "stable and free nations" on behalf of "liberty and justice." This is not because we need anyone's approval for our foreign policy -- or because we need "U.N. involvement," as the cliche has it -- but because the values the president sometimes talks about are not just ours, and it is important that our opponents understand that.
Spain's announcement that it intends, in effect, to abandon the fragile "new European" coalition in Iraq is a blow to the notion of a unified West, and a great boost for those German and French politicians who have long dreamed of creating a Europe that is not a partner of the United States but a political and economic rival.
In part, this has happened for reasons beyond our control. Despite trade, tourism and European Union membership, Spain is a country that participated only peripherally in the two world wars and the Cold War. Its present anti-Americanism is deeply intertwined with the "anti-globalization" sentiments that so many young Spaniards have expressed for many years. Last week's bombings surely caused Spaniards to ask whether their government had dragged them too close to the United States and too far from the comfortable isolationism of recent memory.
In part, though, this is the payback not for the war in Iraq but for the way it was launched and sold, or not sold, to Europeans. Before the war, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell did not travel the continent, explaining why it should be fought, despite the fact that this was not blindingly obvious, either here or there. In the run-up to the war, we launched a U.N. process that -- because of a quite separate military schedule, one that allegedly required a springtime invasion -- we clearly had no intention of taking seriously. In the aftermath of the war, we lost interest in the allies who sent troops, sometimes at great political risk. Military aid has not been forthcoming; contracts have gone exclusively to American companies; budgets for public diplomacy in Europe have been cut.
We may still "win" in Iraq, over time. That is, we may eventually see Iraq become a relatively stable, relatively liberal society, living in relative peace with its neighbors. But if, in doing so, we "lose" Europe, that will be a Pyrrhic victory indeed.