Interview: José María Aznar
José María Aznar, Spain’s prime minister from 1996 to 2004, is one of America’s staunchest friends and a proponent of Atlantic Europe, a United States-European approach based on shared values. He also experienced terrorism firsthand: Basque radicals tried to assassinate him in 1995. Aznar, an early ally of the United States in the war on terror, committed troops to Iraq. In the wake of Al Qaeda’s 2004 Madrid train bombings, he lost his bid for reelection. Today, he heads a foreign policy foundation in Madrid, but at 53, no one counts him out as a political player.
Q. On March 11, 2004, Al Qaeda murdered 191 Spaniards and injured 1,500 in the Madrid train bombings. You were defeated in the election held immediately afterward. Did the terrorists achieve their goal?
A. These terrorists in Spain definitely had a main goal: to change the government…. [So] they provoked a situation. The decision of the new Spanish government to withdraw its troops from Iraq was both a serious mistake and also a message to the terrorists that Spain’s policies of dealing with the world and with terrorism had been changed. This represents a truly grave situation.
Q. Can global terrorism be defeated, and what is Spain’s role in this effort?
A. We managed to illustrate in my country just how possible it is to defeat terrorism. During my time in government, I forged a solidarity and cooperation between countries to combat terrorism in Spain, which meant basically against the ETA [the Basque extreme nationalist organization]. After much effort, we finally achieved a relevant sense of international cooperation in this struggle. The government used all its forces against [Basque] terrorism and, as recently as two years ago, we managed largely to succeed in defeating the ETA. No dialogue, no appeasement, fighting relentlessly until victory. So, yes, it can be done. One valuable principle I learned during the process was that you cannot ask other nations for solidarity in your fight unless you are prepared to give that same kind of solidarity to your friends when it’s needed.
Q. Did March 11 increase your people’s understanding and empathy for Israel, which has been experiencing nonstop attacks of this kind for many years?
A. Yes, there was more understanding, but efforts must be taken to change perceptions. The European Union, for example, seems incapable of even defining terrorism as the enemy! They have problems acknowledging a cohesive global or extreme Islamic terror threat. If they have such challenges in admitting who the enemy is, how can they be effective at countering them? Even in Spain after March 11, or in England after their transportation system attacks, public perceptions are less clear than they are in the United States…. I do think that more and more people are coming to understand the real situation, however.
Q. After Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel in July, what do you think of the international community’s reaction to these developments? Will they understand Israel’s need to defend itself or choose appeasement instead?
A. Everybody has seen that Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel have triggered the present crisis. It is clear that Israel has a right to self-defense and the duty to protect her citizens. In view of the growing threat of terrorism, the sooner the world understands that appeasement never works, the better.
Q. A nuclear Iran is a threat not only to Israel, through its support for the Hezbollah, but to the entire world. Can it be stopped?
A. It is even clearer [today] that the international community should not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons. [But] the threats against Israel did not begin with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I met in Iran over three years ago with the country’s Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, who still today holds the position of Iranian spiritual leader. He clearly told me that “setting Israel on fire” was the first order of business on Iran’s agenda. He received me politely but explained at the beginning of the meeting that war should be declared on both Israel and the United States until both are destroyed. Regarding the nuclear issue, I am very pessimistic. Ultimately, the U.N. Security Council will have to decide to accept or not accept Iran as a nuclear power. If they opt for acceptance, it will create a dangerous situation.
Q. Do you see a link between European appeasement and Hamas’s political ascendance in the Palestinian territories?
A. The Europeans seem to be hunting for ways to sanitize Hamas. For me, if Hamas has a questionable mandate, does not acknowledge the existence of the State of Israel and has no respect for the lives of its people—demonstrated by encouraging or carrying out terrorist attacks—it is not possible to have a relationship with Hamas. Of course, many Europeans believe that when any organization gains power, they will automatically become more pragmatic, even reasonable, because this is what happens in the democratic environment. And yet, when Hitler came to power, he did not abide by existing policies. When a nondemocratic or pro-terrorist mentality achieves power, it will use that power to further [its] ends. This is one reason that we must send a very strong message in different directions and ways [and] defend our interests against these threats.
Q. In light of the United Nations’ ineffectiveness in fighting terror, you issued a call for new partner-nations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), including Israel, but also Australia and Japan.
A. NATO’s entire raison d’être must be redefined. [In 2006] a Soviet invasion is no longer the major threat: Defeating global terrorism is. NATO members are committed to democracy and, clearly, as a function of that commitment, to combating terrorism. Australia is a democracy. Japan is a democracy. By broadening and changing NATO, we will be better able to contribute to international stability and to peace in the world.
Q. And the inclusion of Israel?
A. As long as Islamic extremism and terrorism are the most urgent threats to NATO, then the organization must direct its concentration toward this fight. NATO should focus more on outside threats. With the rise of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority areas, it is incumbent upon NATO to strengthen the protection of Israel. It must also present more of a deterrence for Iran. Treating Israel as though it is not an integral part of the Western world is a big mistake that will affect our ability to prevail in this long war against jihadism. It is in our mutual interests to have Israel as a formal ally. In fact, the West cannot fight this radical tide without Israel.
Q. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld characterized the Old Europe as being formerly U.S.-friendly countries like France and Germany, as contrasted with the New Europe—Poland, Spain, other East European nations—that are today sympathetic to the United States. Do you accept these distinctions?
A. There have always been those who feel the highest priority is to build a more or less independent, strong Europe. And there have been others who favor more of an Atlantic Europe that looks to the U.S. as a firm partner and also believes that U.S. and European influence, combined behind mutually shared values, is the way to go. Unfortunately, Europe likes appeasement very much. This is one of the sharpest differences between my continent and the United States. As for me, I have been called by some headline writers “Bush’s best friend in Europe.”
Q. Around 18,000 Jews live in Spain today. Still, some vintage anti-Semitic views seem to prevail. A majority believes Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Spain. Why?
A. In too many countries, especially among my European neighbors, the theme of anti-Americanism has become one with anti-Israel sentiment, even anti-Semitism. I believe these thoughts are less pronounced in Spain. There is much ignorance about the Jews…yet I see relationships between Spaniards and Israel proving stronger and stronger with every passing day. This is an increasingly more confident, more committed, two-way relationship.