WASHINGTON, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- Shortly after the U.S. presidential elections, George Bush Sr. was in Spain on a hunting trip with friends.
Spanish Minister of Defense Jose Bono asked to see him and, according to a well-informed Madrid source, was very persistent. When the former president agreed, Bono arrived for the meeting with a lavish gift of a pair of hand-made Spanish hunting rifles. His purpose was to ask the elder Bush to persuade newly re-elected President George W. Bush to agree to speak to Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, at least on the phone.
G.H.W. Bush telephoned his son at the White House, but the president's reaction was, "tough, rough, and loud," the source said. Sorry, Bush Sr. told Bono, the president was not interested in personal contact with Zapatero at this time.
A Washington insider believes President Bush, who attaches importance to establishing a rapport with other world leaders, had developed a personal dislike for Zapatero that will be hard to repair. First and foremost Bush regarded the Socialist prime minister's decision to withdraw his country's forces from Iraq as an act of betrayal. Zapatero had campaigned in the election on a promise to bring the boys home, and the pullout was one of his very first decisions as prime minister.
The fact that Zapatero's election victory in March 2004 ousted the conservative party of Jose Maria Aznar, Bush's close coalition ally, added injury to insult. Aznar was one of "the Azores Four" -- along with Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Portugal's then-Prime Minister Jose Manuel Durao Barroso -- who made the final decision on the Portuguese island in the Atlantic to launch the attack on Iraq.
Bush has so far not returned Zapatero's call to congratulate him on his re-election. A White House spokesman said that the two leaders had not connected because of problems with their respective agendas; but that was on Nov. 10, and the call remains unanswered. Eight days after his re-election, Bush met Aznar at the White House. "I went to the White House to speak to President Bush for one reason -- because he is my friend," Aznar was quoted as saying later. "I have various friends in America, and one of them is the president."
The fact that Aznar still has access to the White House irks the Zapatero government. On the other hand, observers say Zapatero has not helped his own case with his public criticism of the war in Iraq, which he has described as "illegal." And while Zapatero never publicly said that he supported Democratic candidate John Kerry in the presidential elections, Spanish officials were quoted as saying that relations would certainly improve if Kerry were elected president.
Though it should hardly matter in the context of bi-lateral relations, Bush's impression of the new Spanish prime minister can hardly be improved when he reads that the Spanish government is pushing ahead with legislation to legalize same-sex marriages in Spain, as well as easing restrictions on abortion, and introducing fast-track divorce.
Even so, observers believe that U.S.-Spanish differences are a surface crack in the relationship, but not a fissure. At the working level, it is still largely business as usual. The chief of the Spain's armed forces recently said U.S.-Spanish defense cooperation was still good both within the NATO framework and on a bilateral basis. For example, U.S. Navy ships continued to call at Spanish ports for routine services. Last October, Spain increased the strength of its military contingent in the NATO peacekeeping force in Afghanistan from 165 to 1,040 men. Cooperation on the anti-terrorism front also remains good, according to Spanish sources in Madrid.
A leading Spanish business executive told United Press International that U.S.-Spain tensions have not affected commercial transactions between the two countries. He noted that administration spin merchants had not pushed anti-Spain sentiment the way they had the PR offensive against France after President Jacques Chirac opposed the Iraq war. There had been no boycott of Spanish goods in the United States, and the number of U.S. tourists visiting Spain had continued to climb to record levels. While French toast had become Freedom Toast on the Air Force One breakfast menu, a Spanish omelette had not been re-named a Regime Change Omelette.
President Bush's scheduled trip to Europe in February is intended to repair the damage to trans-Atlantic relations resulting from the Iraq war. So far, however, there is no indication that any friendly hand will be extended to Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. Bush will visit Brussels, Berlin, and London, and will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Slovakia. Paris is not on Bush's travel schedule, but reliable sources say President Chirac will by then have made a separate trip to Washington, or possibly to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas: the trip has yet to be officially announced.
No Bush stopover is planned in Madrid. It's presumed that Bush and Zapatero will both attend the NATO summit in Brussels, but a U.S. source said Saturday, "You can be sure there won't be pictures of Bush and Zapatero shaking hands and smiling." The word in Madrid is that any U.S.-Spain bi-lateral talks in Brussels will be at the level of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
Even the intervention of Spain's King Juan Carlos has failed to improve matters, according to reliable sources. At lunch at Crawford with George and Laura Bush in late November, Juan Carlos is said to have argued that U.S.-Spanish relations were too important to be put in jeopardy by continued differences, but he got nowhere. On Friday, the king sent what observers described as another signal to the White House. In his annual address to the diplomatic corps in Madrid, he said Spain's relations with the United States, "are a fundamental point of reference in our foreign relations."