WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- Last week, not for the first time since he left office, Spain's former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar had lunch with President George W. Bush at the White House. He's doing a lot better than his socialist successor Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero at staying in touch with the Bush administration. After two years in office Zapatero has yet to meet formally with the American president.
Zapatero started on the wrong foot with the Bush administration by announcing the immediate withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq within weeks of his election victory. In the view of observers, the relationship has never quite recovered. There have been a couple of perfunctory hand-shakes in public meetings such as the United Nations summit in September, but the fact that Zapatero, a NATO ally, has not visited Washington after nearly 24 months in office sticks out like a sore thumb.
An attempt earlier this year by the Bush administration to block Spain's $2 billion arms sale to Venezuela in 2005 because Washington thought it could harm regional stability didn't help matters. Last weekend, too, a fresh troop pullout has again bedeviled Washington-Madrid relations. Spanish Defense Minister Jose Bono announced that Spain would withdraw its 200 troops from the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti in March, complaining that other donor countries are not paying their share of the cost. Washington and the United Nations have both pressed Spain to reconsider its decision. But Bono says he had warned that the Spanish contingent, which had been in Haiti since Nov. 2004, would be withdrawn if foreign commitments did not increase, and was now doing so.
In April 2005, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos assured reporters in Washington that "there will be a meeting between Zapatero and Bush, though there is no agenda, no date, no specific moment as of right now...I don't think it will be before the (feast of Rocio, which begins on May 9), but after it." But the meeting has yet to take place, and seems as far into the future now as it was a year ago. Bi-lateral trade contacts appear not to have been affected. Cooperation on international terrorism has also continued, and a bottleneck of student visa applications to study in the United States because of more stringent security requirements is being resolved, if very slowly.
But on the political and defense fronts bi-lateral dealings remain coolly formal, and generally limited to middle level contacts, European sources in Washington said Wednesday.
Aznar's conservative government had been a strong supporter of President Bush's Iraq war, and until April 2004 some 2,300 Spanish troops were deployed in post-war Iraq. Bush had also developed a personal relationship with Aznar. When Aznar's Popular Party lost decisively to the socialists in the March 2004 elections, the White House is said to have been behind Georgetown University's invitation to the former prime minister to give a series of lectures on current affairs. The arrangement enables Aznar to stay in touch with the Bush administration: The closeness that does not exactly delight the present government in Madrid but, of course, the White House makes the legitimate point that the president has a right to choose his own friends.
The Spanish arms deal signed with Venezuela in November consisted of 12 transport and surveillance planes, and a number of high-speed coastal patrol boats. But the prospective sale caused concern in Washington because, "it raises a lot of questions about their potential use and what effect that may have on the stability in the region," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Jan. 13. So the Bush administration refused to license the sale of the planes which have protected American technology, including optical system sensors, radar, and high tech cameras. The refusal reflects the Bush administration's difficult relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and Washington's disapproval of the rapprochement it has seen growing between Madrid and Caracas.
Without specifically mentioning Washington, Bono criticized its refusal as hypocritical, "There are countries that get alarmed when Spain sells certain products, not for moral reasons, but because they wanted to sell them themselves," he said.
Arguing that the planes and boats are purely intended for defensive use, Madrid has also announced that it will seek to replace the U.S.-made components with European-made parts so that it can go ahead with the sale. But the cost will be higher, some Spanish sources in Madrid say, wiping out the profit.