The decision by the new Socialist government to pull out Spanish troops from Iraq is lawful. But it is also gravely irresponsible. It raises Spain's risks and worsens our foreign relations. It alienates us from our partners and allies and does not contribute to the foreign policy consensus that had been promised to us by the new government. It suggests also a lack of solidarity with the Iraqi people and is the best news possible for those who attacked Spain on March 11.
Many of us in Spain feel ashamed about the withdrawal of our troops. And many more of us are worried about the consequences of this decision for our security, and for the defense of our liberties in the face of terrorism.
The withdrawal decision, made on Tuesday, is wrong, even though it accords with a campaign pledge. Promises can be made mistakenly and this is one of them, because we are now worse placed internationally than before. Our security has diminished. We are weaker, as is our alliance with the oldest and most powerful democracies in the world. Weaker, too, is our alliance with the majority of those countries that will soon become our partners in the EU.
The Socialist government's decision has been a blow to the interests of Spain and the free world -- because we are leaving the place where we most need to be. We've withdrawn our presence, our collaboration and our ability to influence events in Iraq -- a country that has suffered under one of the cruelest dictatorships in history and which today suffers at the hands of terrorists and of those nostalgic for the tyrant. The Spanish government may have affirmed its commitment to Iraq's reconstruction, but it is a commitment that is scarcely credible, as it flies in the face of the facts. If the government wished to make a declaration of foreign policy principles, it could not have chosen a worse moment. It is hard to understand why so vital a decision was taken in such a hurry. Only opportunism, linked to an election scarred by terror, can explain a decision so far removed from Spain's interests.
The withdrawal of our troops is just what the terrorists wanted -- the terrorists who attack Iraqis in Iraq, and those who attacked Spaniards in Spain. They are the same. They want the same thing. They have the same objectives, one of which, without doubt, was the withdrawal of our troops. And now they have it. This is hardly the best step for us to have taken after the attack Spain suffered on March 11. Our message to the world is one of abandonment; we have also signaled the value of murder as a way to secure political objectives. If Spain is weaker as a consequence of our withdrawal from Iraq, the terrorists are now stronger. The government has taken the path of appeasement, which history shows to be the worst way to handle threats. Appeasement does not protect one from danger; instead, it fortifies the danger itself.
The government has given us no explanations other than that it is fulfilling an electoral undertaking. But if it has so much respect for our citizens, it might have taken the trouble to explain to them what alternatives are proposed other than that of a "commitment to Iraq's stability" and to "fight on the frontlines against terrorism." If the government wishes to strengthen democracy, its flight from its responsibilities to the defense of liberty is not reassuring.
The Iraqis, for decades, have been unable to express themselves in free elections. But we know, from several opinion polls conducted in the last months, that they are aware of the need for foreign troops as a guarantee of security against terrorism; and we know, also, of their desire for power to pass into the hands of a representative national authority. It's possible that the Socialist government, in withdrawing, is responding to the will of a good proportion of Spain's people; but nobody can say, without lying, that this is a friendly gesture toward the people of Iraq. What we are saying to them is that they cannot count on us. We are saying that we are not going to help them secure the liberties that we ourselves enjoy -- and that we are not prepared to take the slightest risk for them. Spain, too, had a transition to democracy -- luckily much more peaceful -- and we were grateful, then, to those who helped us from abroad. Now we deny that same help to those who need it.
Yet we are not dealing here only with help for the Iraqis. We are dealing, also, with security for our own citizens. The terrorists of March 11 did not attack us because of Iraq. In fact, according to investigations, they had begun to plot attacks in Spain as far back as October or November of 2002. If they later demanded our withdrawal from Iraq -- and from Afghanistan, too -- it was no more than criminal opportunism on the part of those who killed nearly 200 people in Madrid. And in spite of that -- even though this may not be the precise intention behind our withdrawal from Iraq -- we are giving them the fruits of that opportunism.
Is Spain prepared to concede everything asked of her by those who would use force, including her territory and her free way of life? And from whom will we seek help if we are attacked again? These are the questions that the Socialist government should have asked itself before taking so irresponsible a decision.
In his inaugural address, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero spoke of a ruptured consensus in our foreign policy. But by his decision to withdraw our troops -- which is, I repeat, completely lawful -- he has not only distanced himself from the European and Atlantic consensus, but has done nothing to advance the cause of a consensus at home. He decided to withdraw troops before listening to his Council of Ministers, and told the press of his decision before he told parliament. And although the only explanation he has given is that he is "honoring his word," he is not even doing that, since he has not given the U.N. -- "or any other organization of a multinational character," to use his own words -- the opportunity to play a more active role in Iraq. Nor has he waited until June 30, the date on which sovereignty passes to the Iraqis.
The government of Mr. Zapatero should not be taken by surprise if, in future, Spain fails to secure essential support in the international democratic community. When someone abandons his post, he cannot expect to receive more support than he who remains. This factor should have been enough to make the government think harder before taking its decision.
I believe Spain needs to show more solidarity with the countries that work hardest for freedom across the globe, as well as with those who aspire, after years under the yoke of dictatorship, to pursue their individual liberties. I believe that Spain must adopt a foreign policy steeped in the defense of our essential values, unlike that of the present government. I believe also that our foreign policy must reflect the reality we face -- that of an international war against terror, a terror that craves the abandonment of our posts. We will not make this terror disappear by averting our gaze and fleeing from reality. Instead, we will find that we face it worse prepared than before, and more insecure than ever.
Mr. Aznar was prime minister of Spain from 1996 to April 17, 2004.