Talking with the Enemy


SALOBREÑA, SPAIN—Politics doesn’t always translate from one country to another, but here’s an item worth considering: Barack Obama says he’s willing to talk to enemies like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez, while Hillary Clinton and John McCain say they won’t.

Interestingly, this same disagreement has been playing out here in Spain. Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero stated from day one that he would be willing to talk to the Basque separatist movement, ETA. The opposition Popular Party, or PP, led by Mariano Rajoy (pronounced Rah-HOY), has said that’s treasonous.

This kind of debate often occurs in countries facing intractable conflicts. Thanks to his association with George Bush, Britain’s Tony Blair may have severely tarnished his legacy in many ways, but his dogged determination to end the violence in Northern Ireland without shooting will surely stand as a monumental achievement. It was something his opponents thought would never happen.

In case you’ve forgotten, José Zapatero was elected in an astonishing upset back in 2004 just four days after 191 people were killed in a subway blast in Madrid. His then-opponent, José Maria Aznar, had staked his reputation on taking a hard line against ETA.

For Americans, that election was hard to understand. Many of our commentators—particularly on the right—viewed it as a sellout to the forces of appeasement (“cowards” was a word used by many, including New York Times columnist David Brooks).

Looking at it through American eyes, they just couldn’t understand why Spaniards would choose an “appeaser” after having been so maliciously attacked. Why couldn’t they stand up and fight, like us?

Of course, the Spanish viewed it differently. They saw it as retribution for Aznar’s trying to put the blame on ETA when all the evidence pointed to Muslim extremists. Voters who had never voted before—college kids, gays, old leftists, Gypsies—turned out en masse to repudiate what they saw as a cynical anti-Basque ploy.

Even as police reports were indicating that the suspects were disaffected Muslim youths, Aznar continued to blame ETA and, by extension, the socialist party.

This upset was viewed as a fluke by many because of the unusual circumstances surrounding the election. Although Aznar was discredited, his Popular Party remained confident that they’d be back in the next election.

Indeed, many stars did seem aligned that way. Spain’s withdrawal of troops from Bush’s “coalition of the willing” was never controversial—Spaniards hated Aznar’s dragging them into that ill-conceived adventure—but Zapatero’s progressive attitude toward abortion, gay marriage and other issues was. This has always been a conservative country.

The Vatican launched a vicious propaganda campaign against Zapatero, at one point going so far as to say that Spain had become the most dangerous country in Europe. (The Vatican has had hundreds of years to think of Spain as its personal sandbox. Whenever Spaniards show ingratitude, it drives them up a wall.)

Last March a new election was held, with the Partido Popular fully confident of victory. But a funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box.

Just two days before this election, ETA resurfaced and murdered a popular socialist politician. Did this mean that Rajoy was right and Zapatero was wrong?

As in the States, many pundits thought that Spaniards would view it that way and turn Zapatero out of office. But, just as often happens in the States, the pundits were wrong. Again, people came out in droves (a turnout of 75.3 percent) and handed Zapatero an even larger margin of victory than in 2004.

How does one account for this? My Spanish friends tell me that Rajoy overplayed his hand, attacking Zapatero in the ugly way that Hillary Clinton attacked Obama. He allowed himself to get petty, and voters were reminded that, for all Zapatero’s alleged weaknesses, the country had been doing pretty well.

There had been fewer ETA attacks than at any time in the last 40 years (four in all, only one successful), and Zapatero’s progressive social policies did not cause the sky to fall. The result is that now the socialists are riding higher than ever, and the conservative PP is in total disarray.

We all know the story of Neville Chamberlain and the Munich Accord. For 80 years Americans have been warned never to negotiate with the enemy. But the way we’ve been handling things in the last eight years hasn’t worked very well either.

I take Barack Obama at his word that he’ll enter any talks with his eyes open and his rear covered. I don’t want another Jimmy Carter wringing his hands in the Rose Garden. But it just might be interesting to learn what the “bad guys” have to say. After all, Nixon sat down with China, and we’re still here to talk about it.


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