It's easy to laugh at the reconquest of Perejil. Yesterday Spain sent its special forces -- backed up by warships, Cougar helicopters and F-18s -- to oust a handful of Moroccans from a half-mile-wide island ordinarily inhabited by wild goats. The New York Times plays up the comic-opera grandiosity of the incident in this morning's headline: "Spanish Armada Takes Isle, Ejecting Morocco Force of 6."
Yet the Spaniards' apparent overkill was really simple prudence. Had they come in smaller numbers, the besieged Moroccans might have felt honor-bound to fight back, meaning far grimmer news in today's papers and a much bigger diplomatic problem for both countries. Thanks to the use of overwhelming force, not a shot was fired and the Moroccan prisoners were back in their homeland well before lunch time. Colin Powell, in his pre-diplomatic days, would have approved.
This begs the question of why Madrid felt it must reassert its centuries-old claim to the island, 200 yards off the Moroccan coast, which Spain's defense minister yesterday called "a very sensitive part of [Spain's] geography." Is this just the nostalgia of a former colonial power clinging to vestiges of its glory?
In part, yes. It's easy to forget that Spain, today a second-tier (though rising) European economic power, was once the most powerful nation in the world. How many others can make that claim? The United States, of course. Also Britain. But not France, Germany or Russia. Those one-time big-shots all had to share global dominance with rivals. Even if you consider modern Italy to be the heir of Ancient Rome (which even Mussolini can't really have believed), you can't compare the reach of Rome's empire with that of Spain's, the first on which "the sun never set."
So what, you might say. Can't these people move on? The problem is that Spain's national identity is closely bound up with conquest, in a way that England's or America's is not. Spain became a unified kingdom only after the centuries-long Christian reconquest of Iberia from the Muslims. That process officially ended in 1492, just as Columbus kicked off a later phase of expansion which the nation embraced -- with a mix of self-interest and genuine zeal -- as a continuation of the earlier crusade. After the U.S. relieved Spain of its last major possessions, Cuba and the Philippines, in 1898, the crisis of national identity led to cultural ferment, social unrest and eventually Civil War. (Any Hispanists out there will please forgive my simplifications.)
The dispute over Perejil (which means "parsley," lots of which apparently grows there) is not the stuff of national crisis, but the spirit of the imperial past is still strong enough to make it unthinkable for any Spanish politician to hand over territory without a fight, or (more likely in this case) some face-saving, drawn-out and internationally adjudicated settlement.
As decadent and backward-looking as all this may seem, the dispute is also indirectly about the lives of real, contemporary people. Ceuta and Melilla are two Spanish cities, with nearly 150,000 residents between them, on the Moroccan coast. The continued presence of these colonial enclaves understandably irks Morocco, which has long pressed to regain control of them. According to an unnamed diplomat quoted in today's Washington Post, putting six grunts on Perejil (which Moroccans call Leila, meaning "night") was an attempt "to force the issue of Ceuta and Melilla onto the agenda."
Whatever the modern world may think of colonialism, it is a part of history, and trying to remedy its injustices can lead to more misery. Would it be fair to make the Ceutans and Melillans, most of whom are culturally as well as legally Spanish, choose between abandoning their hometown or accepting the sovereignty of a foreign government? Unfortunately, the Spanish government is now trying to impose that very choice on the inhabitants of Gibraltar, who have made it clear that they want to remain British, even though their Rock is firmly attached to the Iberian peninsula.
This sort of thing is not supposed to matter any more, at least not in the ever-more-integrated European Union. Yet matter it does, and not just to Spain. Turkey might have to wait to get into the E.U., with all the benefits that will offer, because of its conflict with Greece over the divided island of Cyprus. National interests, real or perceived, can still trump the appeal of a single market.