Published on Tuesday, March 16, 2004 by Reuters
Spanish Election Tests Bush's Global Coalition
by Alan Elsner
WASHINGTON - President Bush's claim to lead an international "coalition of the willing" in Iraq has been badly dented by the result of the Spanish election, giving fresh ammunition to anti-war voices at home and abroad.
"This is a consequence of what we knew a year ago -- that Bush tried to force governments to choose between their own voters and the White House," said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine, now national director of Win Without War, a grassroots anti-Iraq war group.
"The White House tried to sweeten the pot for those countries that joined the coalition but this was never a coalition of the willing, as Bush claimed. It was a coalition of the coerced and the purchased -- and now those leaders have to face their own voters," he said.
Clifford May, a former senior official with the Republican National Committee, now with the Center for the Defense of Democracies, said the Bush administration needed to try harder to convince international public opinion that defeating U.S. enemies in Iraq was vital in the "war on terrorism."
"I don't think Bush's aim is to lead a coalition. His aim is to defeat terrorism. The loss of Spain as a partner is a substantial loss. But even if we have to fight terrorism alone, we have no choice but to fight," May said.
"The people of Spain had every right to get rid of their government and I also have every right to say that they have made a terrible mistake and handed the terrorists a major victory," he said.
Administration officials have long argued that the United States had wide international backing for the invasion, despite failure to win U.N. approval.
'COALITION OF THE WILLING'
In November 2002, four months before the invasion, Bush said that if then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein refused to give up his weapons, the United States would lead a "coalition of the willing to disarm him."
Last weekend, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Bush had cemented "one of the largest coalitions in the history of mankind, some 90 nations, for the global war on terror."
But several governments that backed Bush, including Spain, Britain and Italy, did so in the face of public opinion that was hostile to the war.
Now, three days after a series of train bombings killed 200 people, Spanish voters have thrown out a pro-Bush government and replaced it with one committed to withdrawing Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq.
The issue of how best to establish international leadership in the "war on terrorism" is likely to become a key issue in the U.S. presidential election.
Even before the Spanish election, Democratic nominee John Kerry was arguing that Bush's strategy against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization was flawed, a theme he returned to in a speech on Monday.
"He (Bush) has pushed away our allies at a time when we need them the most," the Massachusetts senator said. "He hasn't pursued a strategy to win the hearts and minds of people around the world and win the war of ideas against the radical ideology of Osama bin Laden."
A key question now is how other U.S. allies react to he Spanish result. So far, all of the countries with soldiers in Iraq have vowed to keep them there. But the election showed that leaders and governments facing hostile voters could eventually pay a heavy political price.
"Why did the train bombings have the effect that they did? Because 90 percent of the Spanish people did not want this war in the first place and were unwilling to pay any price for what they saw as a mistaken policy," said University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape.
"What does this mean for the rest of our allies? The Italians? The British? They, and some of us as well, may well conclude that the war against Iraq has made us more vulnerable and not less," he said.
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