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A Pragmatic Spanish Socialist?

A long time ago, in a Spain far, far away, Felipe Gonzalez and his socialist party campaigned to keep their country out of NATO.

It was the early 1980s. A democratic Spain just emerging after four decades of dictatorship under Franco was finding its place in the world. The nation was shaky. The far right was still strong — it staged an unsuccessful coup in 1981 — and Spaniards feared that the army, with its Francoist remnants, would never allow a socialist to take power.

Gonzalez was elected prime minister one year after the failed coup. The army stayed in the barracks, then Gonzalez turned pragmatist. He dropped his opposition to NATO, encouraging instead a national referendum. Spaniards voted to join the Western military alliance. Spain became a stable democracy and the socialists so pro-NATO that Gonzalez’s foreign minister, Javier Solana, went on to serve as the organization’s secretary general.

Today there is yet another new Spain, a post-3/11 Spain that voted the socialists back to power after eight years in the opposition, just three days after terrorists murdered more than 200 innocent people in Madrid, and principally because socialist leader Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero promised to take his traumatized nation out of harm’s way by pulling Spanish troops out of Iraq.

Will he? Or will he pragmatically reverse course like his mentor Gonzalez?

Yanking the Spanish troops would be staggeringly irresponsible. For one thing, the withdrawal timetable coincides with the scheduled handover of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi administration at the end of June. In what possible way does that benefit the new government? More important, appeasement tells terrorists that when they kill, democracies cave. They will try again.

Analysts of the Spanish political scene regard Zapatero as a prudent man not given to extremes. He has pledged to “fight all forms of terrorism” and said Spanish troops will stay put if there is United Nations consent.

That might be the way to bring Zapatero to his senses. The massacre in Madrid broke my heart, like it broke the hearts of all decent human beings. But there is an added edge: I also grieve as an American who personally watched the towers turn to dust that other fateful day, as someone who has blood ties with the Spanish people, and as someone who spent happy childhood years in Madrid living a few blocks from the Atocha train station.

So I hope I am not engaging in wishful thinking if I predict that Europeans and Americans will craft a Security Council resolution that provides Washington the international legitimacy it has finally begun to realize is indispensable in this war against terror, and at the same time gives Zapatero enough cover to unleash a hidden pragmatist with the “cojones” to make Spain live up to its global obligations.

Cuban-born Roger Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.

(c) 2004 King Features Syndicate Inc.