I did what John McCain has suggested he might not be prepared to do. I sat down with the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and talked to him for an hour.

I’m pleased to report that I and several New York Times colleagues survived. National security between the United States and our NATO ally was not, to my knowledge, compromised.

Zapatero’s a wry, polished, suave politician — a socialist with that European socialist habit of being amused by almost everything and committed to almost nothing. It’s fair to say that his view of the United States is cool, colored by a relationship with President Bush that started badly and never got better.

One of the first things Zapatero, 48, did upon his election in 2004 was announce the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. His conversation with Bush about this decision was, he said, “unforgettable.”

When he told Bush that Spanish forces in Iraq were history, the president replied: “I’m very disappointed in you.”

Zapatero deadpanned: “I understood this really well because he had no reason to be enthusiastic about me.”

I told you the Spanish leader was a wry guy.

Undeterred, Zapatero tried to explain that he was the leader of a democratic country, and his campaign promise had been getting the troops out. Bush, as the leader of another democratic country, should understand this.

“But Bush was very cold. He said, ‘O.K., all right, goodbye.’ ”

Hasta la vista, baby.

That was about it for Spanish-American relations in the last half-decade. Yep, you’re with us or against us.

Zapatero said that, nonetheless, he had a “certain consideration” for Bush, because “I recognize that my electoral success has been influenced by his governing style.” In other words, Bush was so unpopular in Spain that he helped Zapatero win in 2004 and 2008.

Wry.

I relate all this because the unhappy saga of U.S.-Spanish relations reflects bungled American foreign policy. It’s one thing to have a disagreement between friends, another to have discord fester through spite. Bush’s vengeful streak is worthy of the schoolyard.

The United States is weakened when it’s feuding with its allies. The so-called coalition in Iraq has emptied that word of meaning.

Barack Obama gets this. A weakened United States, militarily stretched and economically snared, cannot be cavalier about its alliances. McCain, to judge by his refusal to say he would meet Zapatero, is still in muscle-flexing mode. That’s the last thing we need.

My second reason for relating this is that Zapatero is the kind of guy who reminds me of the need for smart American leadership. In fact, he reminds me of why, raised in Europe, I chose to become an American.

Despite Spain’s dictatorial past under Franco, Zapatero seemed to me mealy-mouthed about totalitarianism and tyranny. Moral relativism oozed from his lawyerly repartee. He illustrates why Orwell felt compelled to say: it’s not enough to be antifascist; you must also be in principle anti-totalitarian. The European left has often had a hard time with this notion.

Asked about Russia and Georgia, Zapatero came back with rhetorical questions. “What was the purpose of the creation of NATO?” he asked. “To defend ourselves against Russia or Communism? The expansion of NATO, and NATO today, what is it defending?” As for the Georgians, Zapatero mused, “were they enslaved by Russia or Communism?”

Who cares?

The Georgians were enslaved by a Soviet totalitarian system. So were the Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Estonians and countless others. That nightmare is vivid for them, as is America’s fight for their freedom. They do not want to risk falling back. They want the “normality” they feel NATO — and the European Union — guarantees them. It’s a psychological thing. Spain should get that.

But Zapatero’s more concerned about “certain gestures that may provoke Russian nationalism.” He seems to buy into Vladimir Putin’s nonsense about the “encirclement” of Russia, which spans from Eastern Europe to Northern Asia, by the likes of Lilliputian Georgia, if it were allowed into NATO.

“To think that Georgia will be more secure if it’s in NATO, that won’t be the case,” he said. “All we’ll achieve is a greater divide between Moscow and the rest of the world.”

Wrong. NATO locks in liberal democracy. It brings stability and prosperity, not threats, to Russia’s environs.

Zapatero is also wrong about the United States. He said it was a “diverse, creative, dynamic” country, but “it does not need to have a mission.”

But America was born as an idea and cannot be itself unless it carries that idea forward. That’s the tragedy of the Bush years: the undermining of American ideals. The United States is inseparable from the hope given Emma Lazarus’s “huddled masses yearning to be free;” it is bound to the struggle to ensure that, as Lincoln put it, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Obama, if he wins, should get Zapatero to the White House pronto. These are ideas worth discussing between friends.

* Text By ROGER COHEN (NYT, 8 Oct.2008)