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Spanish Bases Should Be NATO, Not U.S., Quarrel

December 29, 1987|ERNEST CONINE | Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer

If this country's West European allies mean what they have been saying about assuming greater political as well as military responsibility for the defense of Europe, an appropriate place for them to start is Spain, where U.S. forces are threatened with eviction from bases that they have occupied for 34 years.

The allies have been quietly speaking up in the American behalf. But it's about time they made the point, clearly and unmistakably, that Spain's quarrel is not just with the United States but with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, of which Spain is allegedly a member.

By rights, in fact, Spanish negotiators should be sitting across the table from fellow Europeans representing NATO, not American officials.

Spain served formal notice on Washington in November that a 1953 defense agreement between the two countries will be allowed to lapse next May 14. At the time, U.S. officials felt confident that the move was a bargaining ploy--and maybe it was.

However, negotiations are at an impasse, and Americans-go-home sentiment is running strong in Spain--the grenade attack on a Barcelona club frequented by U.S. servicemen may be a worrisome straw in the wind. It now seems possible that by May, 1989, U.S. forces really will have to pack up and leave four major bases and several minor installations.

The potential seriousness of the situation was accurately stated by Vernon Walters, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in a recent interview with the Spanish weekly El Globo.

"If you don't want us, we'll go," Walters said. But the American people, he warned, would not soon forget such an "unfriendly gesture."

The defense treaty was first signed between the Eisenhower Administration and the then-ruling government of Francisco Franco, and has been renewed several times. It allows the stationing of 12,500 U.S. servicemen in Spain at several bases, the most important of which are the Rota navy base near Gibraltar and the Torrejon air base on the outskirts of Madrid.

The fundamental role of the U.S. bases is to help defend Western Europe, including Spain, against Soviet attack in keeping with American commitments to NATO. Formally, however, the U.S.-Spanish defense agreement has from the first been a bilateral deal, not a NATO arrangement.

Spain, in fact, didn't become a member of NATO until 1986. Even then it joined as part of a package deal in which Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez promised Spanish voters a "substantial reduction" in the American military presence.

That was (and is) good politics because many Spaniards, especially members of Gonzalez' Socialist Party, have never forgotten that the U.S.-Spanish defense agreement served to lend a certain legitimacy to the hated Franco dictatorship.

The Reagan Administration can be fairly accused of clumsy diplomacy since negotiations on the future of the bases began in July, 1986.

Spanish sensitivities are especially strong about the Torrejon air base, where 72 American F-16s are stationed, because of its proximity to Madrid. At one time the Spaniards might have been willing to settle for the transfer of a reduced number of F-16s to a base elsewhere in Spain--leaving Rota and the other bases be.

Washington, underestimating the strength of Spanish sentiment on the point, insisted that the F-16s remain at Torrejon. The U.S. position reflected a legitimate anxiety not to settle the argument over the Spanish bases in a way that would encourage anti-base forces in such places as Greece and the Philippines.

The upshot, however, is that the Spanish government has its back up and negotiations, scheduled to resume in early January, are in danger of collapse.

Strictly speaking, the United States (and NATO) could get by without the Spanish bases; service personnel stationed there represent less than 4% of the total U.S. forces in Western Europe. The Spanish-based F-16s account for only a tenth of U.S. warplanes in Europe. But the bases are an important link in the defense of NATO's southern flank and would be expensive, though not impossible, to replace.

The most sensible alternative would have been to work out a deal with Portugal allowing basing of the F-16s there after a more or less friendly departure from Spain.

Congress, however, botched that possibility by refusing to vote the amount of military and economic aid for Portugal that had been promised. As a result, the irritated Portuguese are raising questions about a renegotiation of their own agreement allowing the American use of a genuinely vital base in the Azores.

Another option would be to move the F-16s to Britain, Holland or Belgium; getting permission should not be a serious problem if the fighters are really important to the defense of Europe.

What would help most, however, is for the European allies to assume the political burden of keeping the F-16s in Spain--or, failing that, finding a suitable home for them elsewhere.

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