Why Are Pacifist Europeans Declaring War on Libya?

Ever since taking office in 2004, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has worked overtime to craft his own public persona as a “convinced pacifist.” His first official act as pacifist-in-chief was, famously, to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. That decision was not only wildly popular with Spanish voters, but it also cemented Zapatero’s pacifist credentials on the world stage.

Just a few months later, facing a barrage of criticism from non-pacifists at home and abroad that his Iraq policy amounted to appeasing Islamic terrorists, Zapatero reluctantly deployed extra troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. But just in case that deployment might cast doubt on his commitment to pacifistic ideals, Zapatero dictated strict rules of engagement that forbid Spanish troops in Afghanistan from using lethal force, a “caveat” that ever since has essentially rendered useless their presence in the country.

Later that same year, in his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Zapatero shed some light on his pacifist vision for achieving world peace. Using the flowery post-modern verbiage for which he is now famous, Zapatero declared: “Culture is always peace.” In case that message was not sufficiently clear, Zapatero followed up by telling Time magazine that “sexual equality is a lot more effective against terrorism than military strength.” He then went on to argue that Islamic terrorists are simply misunderstood idealists and that any differences the West may have with them should be worked out in multilateral group therapy sessions supervised by UN psychotherapists.

Zapatero has also been careful to appoint only pacifists as Spanish ministers of defense. Zapatero’s first defense minister, the controversial José Bono Martínez, proclaimed: “I am a minister of defense and I would rather be killed than to kill.” He then issued orders prohibiting Spanish troops in Afghanistan from harming Taliban fighters.

Zapatero’s second minister of defense, José Antonio Alonso Suárez, believed it was his job to demilitarize the Spanish military and to turn the newly disarmed forces into an NGO-like humanitarian organization instead. To achieve his vision, he purged from the senior ranks of the Spanish military those officers who refused to abandon the silly belief that the main mission of the military should be to defend Spanish sovereignty.

During her swearing-in ceremony, Zapatero’s third (and current) defense minister, Carme Chacón, proudly proclaimed: “I am a pacifist, as are the armies of the 21st century.” Again: “I am a pacifist woman, and the Army is also pacifist.” Her biggest achievement as Spain’s pacifism minister has been to unilaterally withdraw Spanish troops from the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosovo. “Mission accomplished. It’s time to go home,” she declared, cementing Spain’s image as an unreliable military partner.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the crisis in Libya. Zapatero the ardent pacifist has suddenly been transformed chameleon-like into Zapatero the enthusiastic warrior. Far from bashing the Americans for attacking a tin pot dictator in the Middle East, Zapatero has redefined braggadocio by dispatching four Spanish F-18 fighter jets to Libya. Foes and allies alike have been transfixed by Zapatero’s “definitive metamorphosis.”

What gives!? Zapatero’s sudden ideological transformation comes at a time when Spain is mired in the worst recession in its modern history. The country has a jobless rate of more than 20 percent, the highest in the industrialized world. With nearly five million Spaniards on the dole, a spiralling national debt, and a Socialist government with no viable strategy to avoid an economic meltdown, many analysts believe Spain is headed for a Greek-style bankruptcy.

Not surprisingly, newspaper commentators are saying there is nothing like a war in Libya to take Spanish minds off how bad things are at home. And there is nothing like a war to reinvent Zapatero’s reputation as an incompetent economic crisis manager to zealous defender of democracy in Libya.

To be sure, European duplicity on the use of military force extends far beyond Spain.

Consider France, for example. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has consistently refused to send more troops to Afghanistan, has been quick to take the credit for the intervention in Libya. He says France has “decided to assume its role, its role before history” in stopping strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s “killing spree” against people whose only crime was to seek to “liberate themselves from servitude.”

Sarkozy’s newfound concern for Libyan democracy contrasts sharply from only three years ago, when Sarkozy welcomed Gaddafi with open arms during an extravagant five-day state visit to France. On that December 2007 occasion, Gaddafi breezed into Paris with an entourage of 400 servants, five airplanes, a camel, and 30 female virgin bodyguards, and then proceeded to pitch his tent just across the street from the Elysée Palace.