- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

A terror attack in Spain on the eve of national elections was the primary reason for the defeat of the party of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Polls before the attack favored the ruling party. In its wake, some Spaniards apparently chose to blame Mr. Aznar’s support for the United States in Iraq for bringing on the attack — enough to tip the balance to the opposition Socialists, whohave promised the withdrawal of Spain’s 1,300 troops in Iraq at the end of their tour in July.

There are a few complexities here, naturally. First among them is responsibility for the attack itself. Although evidence of an al Qaeda connection has been mounting, in the initial hours, the government laid the blame at the door of the ETA, the home-grown Basque separatist terror organization. The haste with which Mr. Aznar’s government pointed a finger at the ETA, rather than waiting for more complete information, was likely a factor in voters’ revising their views. The Iraq war was no more popular in Spain than it was throughout Europe. One can understand why the Aznar government would prefer to think that the Madrid attack was something other than reprisal for support for the United States. But it was unwise to act on its preference by blaming the ETA before the facts were in.

One shouldn’t get lost in the nuances, however. If it’s al Qaeda, then clearly, Spaniards are hardly crazy to wonder if a different position on Iraq might have spared them the carnage. And that, in turn, is going to make no end of trouble going forward. Meanwhile, al Qaeda has just bagged its first Western government. That’s not good, either.

My friend Lee Harris wrote a prescient piece on the Web site Tech Central Station in the aftermath of the attack last week. He notes, “We may be on the verge of a frightening new development — the emergence of catastrophic terror as a deliberate tool for manipulating, or even subverting, the democratic process in European nations, and potentially in our own as well.”

Writing prospectively, he continued, “If the Spanish people vote against Aznar’s party, then it will appear to the terrorists that they have succeeded in manipulating the domestic policy of an independent nation.” Since nothing succeeds like success, we can accordingly expect more such attempts. It matters not that Mr. Aznar might have handled matters better; the conclusion al Qaeda and its friends will draw is that enough bodies can make a decisive difference.

The matter gets worse. Already, the election of the Socialist party in Spain bears a certain taint: Rodriguez Zapatero would not be on his way to the prime minister’s office without the al Qaeda intervention. No leader wants to take office under such circumstances. Mr. Harris speculates chillingly about what might happen in the event of a catastrophic attack in the United States on the eve of the presidential election. Al Qaeda may have found something it has hitherto lacked, a way of inserting itself into and disrupting the political order of Western democracies, thereby influencing outcomes and therefore, potentially, policy.

A lot now rides on Mr. Zapatero. If he chooses to interpret his victory as a mandate for appeasement of al Qaeda, even if that’s what the Spanish people want, the net effect will be to encourage al Qaeda to see what other governments can be converted to appeasement. If one set of well-timed bombs yields a permanent alienation from U.S. security policy, then al Qaeda has a huge victory. If, on the other hand, Mr. Zapatero reaffirms his commitment to our common security destiny and to working for success in Iraq (his opposition to the war notwithstanding), then that will be a powerful statement to al Qaeda.

As I said, I don’t think it’s crazy for Spaniards to think that their support for the United States in Iraq brought the attack on. I do, however, think it would be very bad news if political leaders concluded that appeasement will ward attacks off. In the short run, this may be true. We shall see. In the long run, it is disaster. To the extent that we know anything about the motivation of Osama bin Laden and his followers, we know that their ambition is essentially without limit. They have no wish to stop attacking anyone until the world is properly united under their particular brand of Islam. They are limited in their means, and we have means at our disposal to fight them. But there is no safety in trying to opt out.

Of course the more nations that try to opt out, the more heavily the burden falls on the United States. The spirit of appeasement is loose. Whether it will spread and how quickly and with what encouragement from al Qaeda, in the form of how many more bombs going off, we don’t know. But we are likely to find out.

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