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Diff’rent Strokes: Spain and the United States

Ruth Miller

On March 11, ten backpack bombs were detonated onboard four commuter trains in the Spanish city of Madrid. The explosions killed 190 civilians and left about 1,500 wounded. Initially, Spanish officials blamed ETA, Euskadi ta Askatasuna (Basque Fatherland and Liberty), a leftist Christian group that has long used terrorism in their attempt to secede from Spain. ETA has claimed responsibility for car bombs and assassinations totaling 800 deaths, but fervently denied involvement in the attacks. As investigations continued, an Arabic newspaper in London reported it received an e-mail from Al-Qaeda claiming responsibility for the bombings. Perhaps by chance, the attacks occurred on the eve of a Spanish national election. The incumbent Popular party, which had been met with outrage when it originally committed Spanish peacekeepers in Iraq, was now favored to win reelection. The bombings transformed the election into a referendum on Iraq, and a landslide victory was won by the underdog Socialist party, which had pledged and now plans to withdraw all Spanish troops from Iraq by June. With American headlines appearing to the tune of “Terror Wins in Spain,” “Spain’s Cowardice,” and “The Ladies of Spain,” the collective American opinion seems to have been illustrated, set strongly against Spain’s decision.

The United States military currently has somewhere in the area of 130,000-150,000 troops stationed in Iraq. The Spanish military currently has 1,300 troops in Iraq. While this number may seem small, Spain’s utility in the war in Iraq was not military might. Spain is one of the United States’ strongest allies in Europe, and the clout they provide is their voice, not their manpower. Spain is one of the more prominent nations of the “coalition of the willing”: nations publicly associated with the U.S. action against Iraq. This coalition includes such headliners as Afghanistan, Hungary, Macedonia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Uzbekistan. The United States currently has troops stationed in Afghanistan, Hungary, Macedonia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Uzbekistan. That’s one-fifth of the coalition countries with U.S. troops stationed within their borders. These are countries with their own fair share of political problems and instability, so what contribution are these nations making to the war in Iraq? The same as Spain -- an international endorsement. The 1,300 Spanish troops are symbolic, and provide a tangible representation of international support for the war in Iraq.

Amidst the name calling the United States has been given to since the Spanish election, the outgoing Spanish Defense Minister has committed to double Spain’s military presence in Afghanistan. A smooth political action that completely redefined the focus of the situation, what was once called “giving in to terrorists” is now “protecting the integrity of the global war on terrorism.” In collaboration with the incoming Spanish Defense Minister, the decision was made to aide occupation of Afghanistan based on its support by the United Nations. The resolution was made to illustrate the emphasis Spain places on fighting terrorism and de-emphasis on what it deems to be an “illegal occupation” by the United States.

Compare the 150,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq to the roughly 11,500 stationed in Afghanistan, and it becomes evident that Afghanistan is not the United States’ top military priority. While “doubling” Spain’s contingent in Afghanistan brings the grand total to 250 soldiers, we’ve already established Spain’s influence as political at best. Though empirically, Spain’s contribution may be decreasing, the placement of 1,300 Spanish troops in Iraq only matched 0.08 percent of the U.S. military commitment to the country. Following the same logic with 250 total soldiers in Afghanistan, Spain now matches 2.1 percent of the United States’ fighting force in the country.

As the U.S.’s relationship with Europe continues to decay, some foresee the United States as entering uncertain waters. Following World War II, the U.S. could say “jump,” and the response from Europe would be a din formed by varying tongues, but would follow along the lines of “comment haut?,” “wie hoch?,” “cÓmo alto?,” and “how high?” Europe has rebuilt and reorganized itself to become the European Union, an impressive achievement on the part of the European nations given their turbulent history together. Inevitably, the United States will have to deal with the fact that it no longer has a stranglehold on international affairs. Spain’s actions show that European nations can decide for themselves what avenue they want to proceed with what the United States has coined “the global war on terrorism.” Whether the “global” represents the membership of the offense, represents those on the defense, or is there for aesthetic appeal is yet to be seen. What is certain is that the United States doesn’t get to decide.