The Pain in Spain Falls Mainly on McCain

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Jeff Swensen / Getty

Senator John McCain pauses as he speaks to supporters at the Winner Aviation hangar at Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport

You gotta feel for José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Here the Spanish Prime Minister is only four months from an end to his government's strained relations with that of President George W. Bush and blam! — along comes John McCain to suggest that the next four years might not be any better. During an interview in Miami earlier this week with Spanish-language station Union Radio, a reporter asked McCain whether, if elected, he would receive Zapatero in the White House. McCain answered, "Honestly, I have to analyze our relationships, situations and priorities, but I can assure you that I will establish closer relationships with our friends, and I will stand up to those who want to harm the United States."

Ouch. The question about Zapatero came after a series of questions on how McCain sees relations with Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba. He said he would not speak to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez "without any sort of preconditions, as Senator Obama has said he would," and said Chávez was "depriving his people of their democratic rights." He judged Bolivia's Evo Morales as "very similar" and also condemned Cuba's Raúl Castro. When the questioner said, "Now let's talk of Spain" and asked whether he'd invite Zapatero, McCain responded with a vague statement that he would meet "with those leaders who are our friends" and then cited Mexican President Felipe Calderón as an example. The questioner tried several more times to steer the Senator back to a clear answer on Spain, but McCain never directly addressed the nation, saying, "What I would say is that my record is that of someone who has worked in a friendly atmosphere with those who are our friends and faced up to those who aren't."

From this, much of the Spanish press has concluded that the Republican candidate, who hails himself as the experienced foreign policy choice in this election, confused Spain — a NATO member and key ally in the fight against terrorism — with one of those troublesome Latin American states. That was certainly the interviewer's impression, for she followed up with a gentle reminder that Spain was a country in Europe. As Spanish newspaper El País put it, "In the best-case scenario, [his answer] demonstrates his ignorance with respect to Zapatero."

Of course, there's a worst-case scenario: that McCain would, if elected, maintain his predecessor's chilly relationship with Spain. Spaniards may, on the whole, revile American politics and American comida de basura (junk food), but they still tend to measure their Prime Minister's international worth by the esteem with which the U.S. President holds him. And so, for the past four years, the Spanish Prime Minister has tried, ever so earnestly, to prove that he's one of the big boys. At every international summit he has tried to maneuver himself into position for a photograph with Bush. The press has breathlessly reported on every perfunctory exchange the two have had. And the much longed-for invitation to the White House — let alone to a certain ranch in Texas — has been the object of countless pages of speculation. But for all the aspiration, Zapatero has never managed to achieve anything like that famous 2003 photo of his predecessor, José María Aznar, in the Azores looking like he just got invited to the cool kids' party.

Of course, the fact that the cool kids' party happened to be taking place in Iraq explains a lot of the distance between the two current leaders: upon taking office in April 2004, Zapatero immediately pulled Spanish troops out of "the alliance of the willing." Which is one of the ironies of this situation — that Spain can so strongly support a foreign policy opposed to the Bush doctrine (whatever that is), while so strongly hoping for a show of respect from Washington. On Thursday, Spanish newspaper ABC's regret was palpable when it lamented that "the coldness between the governments of the U.S. and Spain could continue if the Republican candidate John McCain reaches the White House."

As for Zapatero himself, the Prime Minister is apparently taking this latest attack on his ego with characteristic equilibrium. McCain may not know who Spain's leader is, but Zapatero promised to work with the new Administration "whatever it is."

(View other campaign gaffes here.)

(See more photos of John McCain here.)