Lost in Translation

The March 11 bombing in Madrid revealed the limits of the politics of OC bazillionaire George Argyros

Illustration by Bob AulUntil Orange County businessman George L. Argyros became U.S. ambassador to Spain two years ago, Spaniards last worried about Islamic terrorism on January 2, 1492. On that winter day, after an 11-year siege, a Catholic Spanish army under the command of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille conquered the city of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold of the Umayyad caliphate. The victory ended nearly 800 years of Muslim power in Western Europe and marked Christianity's arrival as a global force. A couple of months later, Christopher Columbus sailed from the port city of Palos toward the New World.

The fall of Granada remains a sore spot for Islamic radicals; vague threats about retaking the country where Islam reached its intellectual and cultural pinnacle have erupted occasionally over the centuries. But talk of an Islamic reconquista was just talk until a devastating train attack in Madrid killed 200 people and injured over 1,400 last Thursday.

Investigators are closing in on Islamic extremists tied to al Qaeda; many Spaniards blame The United States, and took out their fury on Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, whose conservative Popular Party closely aligned itself with Washington's global War on Terror. Before the blast, Aznar's handpicked successor led in the polls; three days after, Spaniards went to their voting places and swept away the conservatives. The Popular Party was no longer so popular.

If Spaniards could vote on the U.S. ambassador, it seems pretty clear that Argyros would be back home in Newport Beach, lunching at the Pacific Club by midweek. With 200 dead in Madrid, Socialists now in power and pulling Spain out of the U.S. alliance in Iraq, and America's fiction of a global alliance reduced to the UK, Tonga and a few others, it's time to wonder about the wisdom of sending an Orange County businessman to do a diplomat's work.

*** Argyros doesn't mix with the common man. His knack is for alchemizing financial power into political juice to create more money. That gift has served him well in Orange County—a subject to which we'll return in a moment—but it has served him (and therefore his country) less well in Madrid. There, Argyros and the U.S. misled themselves, believing that getting Aznar to sign on to the U.S. invasion of Iraq was the same as getting the endorsement of Spain, where upwards of 90 percent of the population is opposed to U.S. strategy. When the bombs went off in Madrid on the day Europeans now call 3-11, the deficiencies of that strategy—all leaders, no followers—was briefly, brightly illuminated.

Argyros isn't returning our calls, but we can imagine that the election of the Socialists has surprised him. Any diplomat in touch with the people rather than a few leaders would have seen it coming. But Argyros is no diplomat.

Those of us who live in Orange County already know that. We know George Argyros as the major player (estimated wealth in the low one-billion range) who could buy political support for such pet projects as the drive to build the unpopular El Toro International Airport. But if Spaniards didn't know him when he arrived in Madrid two years ago, they met him last month.

On Feb. 6, Argyros granted an exclusive newspaper interview—his first in over a year—to Berna Harbour of El País, the New York Times of Spain. The result was journalism at its hard-hitting best:

Harbour: How do you feel being an American ambassador in a country so opposed to the policies of the United States?

Argyros: Against some policies, not all. It's not always easy when people aren't in agreement with all the questions, but they'll never be in agreement with everything—not even my wife.

How does the United States think of confronting the rising opposition to the United States that pollsters are documenting in Europe?

I don't agree with you. I don't think that Europe is against the United States. We have disagreements, and we're always going to have disagreements with some questions. But I don't have the feeling as ambassador that our disagreements are so serious so that we can't be friends. We're friends. We have a coalition of members, that's why I'm not in agreement with you.

I'm talking about Europe's general population, not its governments.

The people? That's the press, what I mean to say is, the influence of the press. But that doesn't worry me. What worries me is what we do, what our countries do, their foreign policies. We have a difficult role today. Everyone notices the United States when they have a problem of this type, and I like where we're at.

The interview perfectly captures Argyros, the businessman and ambassador—his dismissal of popular opinion as a mere product of media manipulation, his confusion of governments with their citizens. The rest of the interview is similarly strained, and though Argyros goes on to admit that the United States erred in attacking Iraq based on claims of WMDs, he challenges Berna: if "someone has a better way of doing it, may they tell it to the rest of the world, but I don't believe that anyone does."

How out of touch was Argyros with the people of Spain? Near the end of the interview, asked about the upcoming election in which Spaniards would sweep away Aznar, he maintained that Spain would continue to support the United States in the War on Terror even if Aznar lost. Why? Because "the major part of [the heritage of the United States] is from Spain. We have more than 40 million Spanish speakers in the United States."

*** According to the u.s. spanish embassy homepage (www.embusa.es), an ideal ambassador in Spain will "have an active public diplomacy program, provide consular services to American citizens and visa services to citizens of other countries who wish to visit or who qualify to immigrate to the United States, and promote trade and investment between our two countries." "Public diplomacy" means what it says: reaching out to everyday Spaniards. But Argyros's brief tenure has been seigneurial in quality—lordly, arrogant, condescending.

On Sept. 26, 2002, he wrote a letter to the Madrid-based liberal daily El Mundo criticizing reporter Raúl del Pozo for his column lamenting the disappointing career arc of U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. Holding up Rice as a symbol of African American success, del Pozo noted that she had "arrived with her race from the cotton fields and latrines to the White House, but not to serve peace but to serve oil."

The lyricism was lost on Argyros. He attacked del Pozo as a racist, claimed he used "degrading images" (Argyros cited no examples), and chastised the writer for exhibiting "virulent hostility" toward American foreign policy. Del Pozo responded the next day with a blistering rebuttal. He asked Argyros to reflect on his Greek heritage and "remember [that] the Greeks, who invented democracy, said that it's stupid to win without convincing, that those who eat in a palace outrage with their arrogance, and that war also depends on laws."

*** But the argyros-del pozo spat paled next to Breakfastgate. In early February 2003, Argyros invited the leaders of all of Spain's opposition political parties to the U.S. embassy for a breakfast. The topic: why they should support invading Iraq. Argyros scheduled his salon for Feb. 6, the day after Colin Powell would present the United Nations with "evidence" that Saddam Hussein had developed and was ready to use weapons of mass destruction. Feb. 6 was also a day before Aznar was to make his argument before the Spanish Parliament for his country's role in any Iraq invasion.

But the politicians refused to attend, not because they were opposed to meeting Argyros but because they were offended at his insistence that the meeting take place at the U.S. Embassy. One political leader seethed that accepting Argyros' invitation would transfer "Spanish sovereignty to the American embassy."

The Spanish press ridiculed Argyros for the incident. El Mundo gave him the equivalent of a thumbs down in its "What's Hot/What's Not" weekly feature, while El País columnist Ernesto Ekaizer speculated sarcastically that Argyros' choice of date was no mere coincidence. Linked to the Powell and Aznar appearances, the breakfast was part of a strategy "in the perfect mind of Bush" to win over Spaniards.

Argyros did eventually get his breakfast—a week later in the chambers of Spain's Parliament. There, Spain's opposition leaders respectfully listened as Argyros laid out his stance. The breakfast lasted over two hours because, as one newspaper noted, Argyros "doesn't speak Spanish, even though he's been in Madrid for over a year."

Once Argyros finished, those present grilled him in a way that would have astonished their docile American counterparts. The Spanish were merciless. Fatima Aburto, a Socialist senator, reminded Argyros that John F. Kennedy once "promised that the United States would never initiate a war." Argyros "forcefully" justified his response, according to El Mundo; we might guess that he was bristling at Old Europe.

"I don't know how all of you have been able to withstand 30 years of terrorism in Spain," he said. "For us Americans, seeing the image of the Twin Towers attack has sufficed [to provide the U.S. with a reason] to pursue terrorists by any means at any point on the planet."

Before Aburto could respond, a bell rang signaling her time was up. Argyros would take no more comments.

*** President George W. Bush knew exactly what he was doing when the White House nominated Argyros for the position of ambassador to Spain in early 2001. Bush didn't care that Argyros had no diplomatic experience and spoke no Spanish, nor that the Newport Beach billionaire was under investigation by the Orange County District Attorney at the time on charges that Argyros' Arnel Management Co., his apartment company, systematically defrauded immigrant tenants. (Under mysterious circumstances, the DA later removed Argyros' name from the government's civil suit; Arnel paid a $2 million fine and admitted no guilt.)

In Argyros, Bush saw a valued lieutenant who collected $30 million as head of the California Republican Party's fundraising arm during the 2000 presidential campaign, a famously venal businessman who doesn't take no for an answer from anyone—even a nation of 41.5 million like Spain.

"George Argyros is a leader in his community who has been active in numerous civic, cultural, and philanthropic organizations," read the official April 25, 2001, presidential statement publicizing Argyros' nomination. "His experience in trade policy and foreign affairs, as well as his interest in education and the arts, will make him an excellent Ambassador to Spain."

At his Senate confirmation hearing, Argyros was appropriately bland. Sept. 11 was still months away, and the nominee's top agenda items were a roll call of dull: he would "enhance our already rich relationship with Spain in the fields of culture and education" and "promote American commercial interests and work to expand our market opportunities in Spain." Argyros also praised Aznar's "pledge of all possible support for our effort to fight terrorism." It was an acknowledgement of Spain's 30-year fight with the Basque separatist movement ETA, but it would prove prescient.

The Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register were aflutter with the possibility that the White House would consider an Orange County resident for such a prestigious position, and glossed over Argyros' many problems. Not so the Spanish press. The Spanish version of the Associated Press, EFE, noted his collaboration "with G. Bush père . . . as advisor for commercial matters," but also his controversial stint as chairman of OC-based Apria Healthcare Group, which Securities and Exchange Commission investigators allege filed an astonishing 900,000 false billing claims with a federal medical program. (Apria has denied any wrongdoing, calling the claims "errors." Argyros, for his part, left the company in 1998, shortly after a whistleblower alerted the feds about the billings.)

Such concerns didn't faze the Senate committee reviewing Argyros' record. When the DA's office removed Argyros' name from the civil suit against Arnel, Sen. Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat, displayed the nerve for which Democrats are rightly infamous: she allowed the nomination to move through without serious question.

By the time Argyros was formally appointed in late November 2001, the Bush White House had found a new purpose for the ambassador, one that had little to do with cultural exchanges and expanded markets.

*** Despite Spain's importance in Bush's Iraq coalition—only the UK is more senior—the U.S. press has barely acknowledged Argyros. Last summer, Orange County Business Journal reporter Chris Cziborr checked in with the ambassador. The resulting story, "Argyros Blending Well With Madrid's Elite," was terribly one-sided, based as it was on the observations of just one person—not Argyros himself but a loyal staffer named Michael Liikala, a former Republican activist who works directly for Argyros as counselor for commercial affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. But it was more right than perhaps Cziborr could know, reporting that Argyros had "taken to Spain's elite corporate and political circles like a natural."

"[Argyros] certainly arrived at a time when the importance of Spain in the geopolitical situation moved up very quickly because of terrorism and the like," Liikala told Cziborr. "Spain's support has been critical in offsetting some of the other countries who weren't offering support on Iraq. We didn't want the continent of Europe opposing the war. Spain was key in that. The Germans and the French broke down."

By then, Spain's role as the United States' trusted ally and Argyros' position as a favored confidant of Bush was established. Shortly after he endured Breakfastgate, Argyros hosted Florida governor Jeb Bush, who sought to expand Florida business in Spain. In 2003 alone, Argyros hosted visits by Environmental Protection Agency director Christine Todd Whitman, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development's Mel Martínez, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, and Secretary of Homeland Defense Tom Ridge, all seeking to advance opportunities for their respective departments.

But the Spanish press and activists were also launching their own counter-offensive against the U.S.-Spanish relationship. Protesters began appearing at Argyros appearances. In March of last year, activists tried to reward Argyros with a fighting cock when he presided over a business conference; they were thwarted by security. On July 8 over 1,000 protestors staged a vigil outside the U.S. embassy in Madrid in memory of José Couso, a Spanish journalist killed in Baghdad by American troops. Participants turned in 50,000 letters demanding that Argyros ask the American military to investigate Couso's death. In a letter they attempted to present to Argyros, Couso's family mocked Argyros, asking him to award their handmade medals to the American soldiers charged with killing Couso—and two honorary diplomas to Aznar and foreign secretary Ana Palacio for having "acted like blind servants with what the United States has ordered" in the Iraq war. According to family members (on their website, www.josecouso.info) Argyros "considered the medals and diplomas insults and [said] that he would ensure that nothing would be turned over to the embassy."

***

On March 12, one day after the Madrid attack, Argyros was, at last, clearly in touch with the Spanish people. As rescuers continued scouring the wreckage in central Madrid, over two million people marched through the Spanish capital in a downpour. They were joined across the country by some nine million more. Everyone who was anyone in Spain was in the streets—Aznar, the leaders of all Spanish political parties, Crown Prince Phillip, the owner of the Real Madrid soccer squad, even acclaimed movie director Pedro Almodóvar. Also marching in the rain, according to El País, was the corpulent U.S. ambassador. The newspaper doesn't mention how far Argyros walked or whether he spoke.

He may have been with the people, but Argyros was still spinning the Bush administration line. In a letter released the day of the attack, he condemned "the senseless and reprehensible massacre" while implying that the attacks were evidence that the U.S.-led war on "terrorist violence and brutality" was everybody's war.

That sort of rhetoric might have worked in the U.S. But Spain is not the U.S. When attacked by terrorists and lied to by their political leaders, Spaniards, we have learned, vote the bastards out. A day after the big march, thousands of Madrileños rallied in the streets, blaming the Aznar administration's U.S. alliance for the attacks. By Saturday night, Aznar's handpicked successor Mariano Rajoy alienated many voters when he denounced citizen demands for full governmental disclosure as "serious antidemocratic events that never before happened in the history of our democracy . . . . Their aim is to influence and pressure the will of voters throughout the day of reflection." On Sunday, voters kicked Aznar's Popular Party out of office—onlookers booed Aznar as he voted—and elected Socialist Party candidate José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, who immediately pledged to get Spanish troops out of Iraq.

Confirming his victory, Zapatero said the war was based on "lies." Job No. 1, he said, was to recall the 1,200 Spanish troops stationed in Iraq and pull Spain out of the U.S. coalition.

Though Argyros has said he can work with the new Spanish government, it's pretty clear that Spaniards can't work with him. And now they won't have to. Days before the bombings, Argyros told the Business Journal he would leave the State Department in November and return to Orange County.

Lucky us.

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