Madrid's Nightmare

ETA's 30-year terrorist campaign has fizzled and the Basque dream of independence looks to be dead. Ironically, Barcelona's peaceful campaign for an independent Catalonia has never been stronger -- and it's a nightmare for Madrid.

Judging from the headlines it's accumulated over the years, Spain's Basque country, with its notorious ETA terror campaigns, has been leading one of Europe's most high-profile independence movements. But it's in the Catalan region, at the other end of the Pyrenees, that demands for independence now appear to approaching critical mass -- all by means of peaceful civic protest.

The depth of the Catalan crisis was underscored by a stark parliamentary debate in Madrid on July 15. "A plural Spain and a social Spain, the two pillars [of your policy], are in a shambles, " Josu Erkoreka, spokesman for the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in the Madrid parliament, told the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who leads the center-left Socialist Party (PSOE).

Zapatero had, indeed, taken office in 2004 promising a "plural Spain" that would grant additional recognition to the country's regions, which already enjoy considerable autonomy. Nation-building on the Iberian peninsula has always been a decidedly shaky enterprise, and the prime minister's 2004 promise to revamp the relationships between its constituent parts was strong on good intentions but chronically weak on coherent strategic thinking. In the process, he managed to raise -- and then dash -- the aspirations of regional nationalists, and woke the dormant dragon of Spanish nationalism.

Basque and Catalan nationalists have been harbouring grievances since the late 1970s transition to democracy after Franco's death. These territories assumed they would have an option on independence, but the power brokers of the old regime -- in particular, the military -- steadfastly refused to compromise on the country's indivisibility.

The regions expressed their disappointment in markedly different ways. Basque nationalists of all stripes called for a rejection of the 1978 constitution. A substantial minority of Basque radicals sympathized with ETA and supported terrorist campaigns against the Spanish state throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Catalan nationalists, meanwhile, largely accepted the autonomy granted them in the new regime. But in both cases, the desire for increased self-determination was only deferred, not extinguished.

Zapatero had rashly promised to accept whatever changes the Catalan parliament made to its existing autonomy statute, so long as they stayed within the current constitution. But the most radical changes were watered down by the Madrid parliament, though it did approve Catalonia's desired affirmation of its "preferred" status of the Catalan language, and its full control of over its judiciary. Most significantly, it accepted Catalonia's status as a "nation" in its own right, though it shifted this provision from the main statute to the preface.

But in early July, the Spanish Constitutional Court, responding to a petition organized by the opposition conservative People's Party (PP), ruled that some of the changes violated the constitution and avowed that only it only recognizes "one nation, Spain," dashing Catalan hopes. Popular support for the PP petition campaign revealed that Spanish nationalism, dormant since the dictatorship, remains a key force in Spanish politics.

Yet the court decision provoked what were probably the biggest demonstrations in Barcelona since the transition to democracy. Around a million people took to the streets to protest in favor of increased self-determination for the Catalan nation. They were led by José Montilla, leader of the PSC, the Catalan chapter of Zapatero's party, who described the decision of Spain's highest court as "offensive." The tone of the march suggests that many Catalans who would have been content with even the watered-down statute are now shifting towards demands for complete independence. Montilla was repeatedly abused by pro-independence demonstrators, who appear increasingly to reflect the popular mood.

All of Spain's political parties, except the PP, backed the Catalan demonstration, though the PSC, and many non-affiliated marchers, want symbolic recognition as a nation rather than actual separation from Spain. A similar march on the same day in the Basque city of San Sebastián only attracted a few thousand radical Basque nationalists, some of them still associated with the currently moribund but potentially still lethal ETA.

The vibrancy of the peaceful Catalan movement contrasts starkly with the moribund state of the self-determination movement in Basque country, which in the early 1980s chose the route of political terrorism. Less than 10 years ago, openly pro-ETA marches could attract tens of thousands, and broader nationalist demonstrations many more. But ETA's campaign of violence hollowed out all support among moderate Spaniards, and turned off increasing numbers of Basques. Most were quietly furious when ETA decided in 2007 to again break a ceasefire.

On a visit in July, I spoke to a number of people who were or had once been close to ETA. Without exception, they said that the group was finished in political terms, though a handful of diehards could continue isolated attacks for years to come. In 30 years of reporting on the region, I have never encountered this kind of consensus in these quarters.

It is slowly dawning on the leaders of the radical Basque movement that the chronic ineptitude of ETA's current leadership has terminally tarnished its once heroic image among Basque youth. In a recent interview, an erstwhile hard-line leader, Rufi Etxeberria, bluntly told ETA it had to either embrace exclusively peaceful means or lose all relevance to Basque politics. A senior Spanish conservative ideologue admitted 10 years ago that for precisely this reason he feared the end of ETA more than he feared the group's terrorist campaign. No one had done a better job than ETA at discrediting the Basque nationalist cause.

Perhaps Basque nationalists will be inspired by Catalonia's mass peaceful protests and thereby regain momentum. The prospect of facing majority movements for independence, organized democratically in two of its most prosperous regions, is a real nightmare for Madrid. Spanish conservatives might do well to reconsider their refusal to consider symbolic changes in national status for Catalonia and the Basque country. If symbolic reforms are denied, substantial ones are likely to follow.



The Beginning of the End

The U.S. combat presence in Iraq is over, and it is likely all troops will be gone by the end of next year. But strong support will still be needed in the weeks and months to come, lest the country slip back into chaos and conflict.

On Thursday, the last U.S. combat brigade to leave Iraq crossed into Kuwait, fulfilling President Barack Obama's pledge to withdraw all but 50,000 American troops from a country with which the United States has become intimately, and painfully, familiar over the last seven and a half years.

The remaining soldiers and marines will stay in Iraq until Dec. 31, 2011, for training and other support purposes. Although the possibility cannot be ruled out, it seems quite unlikely that their presence will be extended beyond the 2011 deadline. Political imperatives in both Iraq and the United States seem to work against this possibility, even though there are those in both countries who argue that a longer-term U.S. residual force is needed.

Having landed in Baghdad as U.S. ambassador to Iraq at the end of June 2004, I find it a truly remarkable and positive accomplishment that we are able to look to the day not too far off when Iraqi security forces will be able to assume full and complete responsibility for their country's security. At the time of my arrival, Iraqi security forces were, for all practical purposes, nonexistent. There was, for example, only one -- yes, one -- Iraqi army battalion and it was composed of various ethnic and sectarian elements. Today, there are some 600,000 Iraqi security forces and important strides have been made toward giving Iraq's security organizations a national rather than partisan character. This is no small achievement; it has taken seven years to accomplish and only after some false starts and perilous moments.

In the wake of the Samarra Mosque bombing in 2006 and the ensuing sectarian strife, those of us concerned with Iraq could not have imagined the dramatic reversal of fortunes that would occur in the ensuing two years -- the death of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the liberation of Basra by the Iraqi army, and the extension of the government's authority to the country as a whole. By 2008, these improvements had given the government of Iraq the necessary self-assurance to negotiate the withdrawal arrangements that are now being implemented.

But can Iraq really remain stable once U.S. troops have completely withdrawn? While there are no guarantees, the prospects for Iraq's security and stability beyond 2011 look as good or better than they have at any time in the recent past. The Iraqi army now has close to 200 trained combat battalions, a formidable increase from the somber days when I arrived in 2004, and they are spread throughout the country. The specter of sectarianism poisoning the ranks of Iraqi military and police forces remains the single most serious threat to be guarded against. But progress since the 2007 surge in nurturing the army and police as truly national institutions has been encouraging. Vigilance and political maturity will be needed to ensure that this positive trend continues.

If our military role in Iraq ends soon, as it most likely will, then what will be the glue that holds our two countries' relationship together? For one thing, the United States intends to maintain a robust civilian diplomatic and developmental presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future -- so as not to jeopardize the hard fought gains of the last seven years. The sending of senior diplomat James Jeffrey to Baghdad is a signal of continued high-level interest and concern for the stability and well-being of Iraq. But this signal needs to be reinforced by congressional support for the funding requests that have been submitted for programs in areas such as technical assistance, rule of law, poverty reduction, women's issues, and economic development. And we need to continue efforts to encourage U.S. private-sector involvement in Iraq's economy. Last, but certainly not least, our reduced military profile will place an even higher premium on proactive regional diplomacy. While the focus of U.S. military efforts abroad has now shifted irrevocably toward Afghanistan, falling short of our diplomatic and funding commitments to Iraq risks allowing the country to slip back into conflict and chaos.

But can the steadying influence of U.S. diplomacy on the Iraqi political process can be maintained as our military presence diminishes? It's hard to say, but it was inevitable that sooner or later this aspect of our relationship also had to be normalized. Just as in the transition from occupation to full sovereignty Iraq is assuming responsibility for its security, so too must it take complete ownership of its own political arrangements. The achievement of a parliamentary democracy in Iraq so soon after the demise of a long-entrenched dictatorial regime is a remarkable accomplishment. That's not to say that the current situation, with the recent spike in suicide bombings and a continued stalemate in forming a government since the March elections is ideal, but there has been real progress. A continued U.S. civilian presence will be a strong encouragement to that process, but the days of backroom political deals brokered by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad will be fewer and farther between.

That doesn't mean the United States won't remain critical to Iraq's future. Too often in the past we have tired of an international undertaking when our military role has finished and "our boys have come home." We should not underestimate the effect that a continued demonstration of interest and concern can have on Iraq's future. It is important that not only Iraq but the region as a whole understand that this long-suffering country continues to enjoy strong American support. A properly endowed U.S. government civilian presence in Iraq can help preserve the gains of the past seven years and help avoid a repeat of the instabilities of the past.