Who can get President Obama to Iberia? The prime minister has struck out. Even the king, apparently, has no pull.
King Juan Carlos I
of Spain lunched with the president on Wednesday. As predicted, the monarch, much beloved in Spain for his role in the transition from dictatorship to democracy, invited the Obamas to visit Spain and assured the continuation of good Spanish-American relations.
Yet if Spaniards hoped to lock down a presidential visit, it wasn't to be. For the second time in as many months, Obama promised vaguely to come to Madrid but failed to pencil in a trip. Three weeks ago the president bowed out
of attending the EU-U.S. Summit to be held in the Spanish capitol this May.
Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for Europe, told press, "A trip to Spain for a summit was never on [the president's] agenda. He strongly values the bilateral relationship with Spain." Obama's decision to skip out, it was said, was simply due to too much foreign travel. European observers saw it as a snub to the European Union, a nod to Europe's lack of import in American foreign policy; a reprimand for hosting an un-substantial summit in Prague last year.
But Spaniards saw it as something different. That's because, ultimately, the opportunity to host the Obamas in Madrid wasn't just about the trans-Atlantic relationship; it was about Spain itself.
For Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero
this was a missed opportunity -- having just assumed the rotating EU presidency -- to right himself domestically and internationally; to recoup his international status, and a chance to perk up a bit in the face of domestic turmoil and dysfunction.
The country is reeling, having spent the last two years falling ever deeper into economic crisis with no end in sight. The stats are bleak: 19 percent unemployment, the highest in the EU zone, with 4.3 million mostly young unemployed and a stodgy labor system that makes firing older workers nearly impossible.
Europeans have been none too kind about the idea of the struggling Spanish prime minister leading a European economic recovery. A headline in the Economist dryly proclaimed, "Spain now leads the European Union, but not by example
." On Thursday Gayle Allard
, an economist at Spain's leading business school, the Instituto de Empresa, flatly told the New York Times that the Zapatero government hasn't "offered anything. They do not have a strategy."
So Obama's blithe decision to skip a night out in the true city that never sleeps? Remarkably poor timing.
"Spaniards in general have low self esteem right now," says Soeren Kern, senior analyst for transatlantic relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group.
"They are feeling battered on all sides. The visit would have been a boost, and not just for Zapatero. It's a blow to Spanish pride, they take things personally. . . . You could see in the media reaction: they read it as a humiliation. If it had happened two years ago, no a big deal. But now there is a general sense that Zapatero has lost control of governing. The situation is critical and getting worse every day in Spain, so I think this was jut another nail in the coffin politically for Zapatero's government."
Indeed, Zapatero is tottering at the precipice of total meltdown, buffeted by his inability to get on top of the crisis. He hasn't been helped by a series of gaffes, points out Kern. There was his hapless decision to attend the National Prayer Breakfast in early February on the assumption it would give him a chance to chat with Obama. There was the photograph of his daughters dressed in embarrassingly heavy black Goth clothing, standing with the Obamas in New York at the General Assembly meetings at the U.N. last fall. And in early January, hackers got into the EU Web site and replaced a photograph of Zapatero, for some hours, with a one of the bumbling Mr. Bean
. It is a far cry from the picture the young leader projected just a few years ago, when Zapatero, riding high on years of economic boom, was christened "Spain's bold liberal
" by the New York Times.
It doesn't help that there was so much riding on a warming of Spanish-American relations, after the long, cold Bush years. Conservative Partido Popular politician José María Aznar, prime minister for eight years, had cozied up to the Bush administration, working closely with the coalition in Iraq. Zapatero, hewing to a campaign promise, pulled Spanish troops out of Fallujah the moment he walked into Moncloa Palace in spring 2004. For five years the Bush administration literally froze him out, never meeting with Zapatero formally and never inviting
him to the United States. Deeply uncomfortable and embarrassing, to say the least. The election of Obama was a chance to come back into the fold.
There probably is no good outcome now for Zapatero when it comes to the current president. Obama's failure to attend the May summit will only underscore how impotent the government already is. If Obama came, Zapatero's conservative opponents would have screamed that the PM was seeking photo ops while Spaniards wait in unemployment lines. Maybe Zapatero's people should reach out to renowned film director Pedro Almodóvar. The movie-maker seems to have better luck winning U.S. fans.