- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

The war on terror suffered a body blow Sunday as Spanish voters responded to last Thursday’s murderous attacks in Madrid by repudiating the party and counterterrorism policies of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

Thus, with four synchronized bombs, the perpetrators — whether members of the Basque separatist ETA or operatives tied to al Qaeda or some combination — have accomplished a surgical strike with potentially very far-reaching repercussions.

For one, the Socialist leader and incipient premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has made clear he intends to honor his campaign pledge to withdraw Spain’s 1,300-man contingent currently helping to stabilize Iraq. While Mr. Zapatero has left himself some wiggle-room (saying he might reconsider if the situation in Iraq changes or if there is a new U.N. mandate), if he goes ahead with this retreat, terrorists the world over will interpret the attack as a tangible reward for their bloodletting.

Of particular concern for democratic nations would be the reasonable conclusion the timing of this terrorist assault — on the eve of closely contested elections — will result in the rejection of governments seen determined to fight, rather than appease, the terrorists. If such an impression takes hold, it strains credulity that polling in any democracy will be allowed to proceed unscathed.

To be sure, Mr. Zapatero swears his top priority will be “to combat all forms of terrorism.” Yet, it is hard to imagine he will be able to be more effective than was Prime Minister Aznar, whose government is credited with having essentially eradicated the ETA. That is especially true if he adopts policies at home as well as abroad that deviate sharply from Mr. Aznar’s, for example by treating terrorism as a law enforcement problem, rather than a strategic threat, and by promising to “understand the needs of the Basque country.”

The terrorists would be especially gratified if, as Mr. Zapatero suggests, their attack will have the effect of denying President Bush a key partner not only on Iraq, but in the war on terror more generally. The incoming prime minister has pledged he will “return Spain to its rightful place in Europe” and distance his country from Mr. Bush and the U.S. strategy of offensively and, if necessary, pre-emptively engaging terrorist cadres, networks and state sponsors.

The Free World also will suffer to the extent that the attitude of some Spanish voters is reflected in other governments’ policies. As the New York Times reported Monday, “A 26-year-old window framemaker, who identified himself only as David, said he had changed his vote from [Mr. Aznar’s] Popular Party to Socialist because of the bombings and the war in Iraq. ‘Maybe the Socialists will get our troops out of Iraq, and al Qaeda will forget about Spain, so we will be less frightened,’ he said.”

The possibility such naivete could prove infectious is all the more troubling since even some European leaders who have preferred accommodation to confrontation when it came to terrorism and its sponsors appeared jarred by the Madrid bombings. For example, the Associated Press reports French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin “says no country should consider itself safe from terrorism. He says they must be mobilized and that ‘vigilance is essential.’ ”

This is arguably especially true of Spain. As national security analyst Steven Daskal has observed: “Spain was a prominent and beloved piece of the dar al-Islam [Muslim world] for 600 years, and the Islamists’ long-term goal is the establishment of an Islamist regime in what was once the heart of the Moorish empire. It is interesting to note that several of the attackers were not Middle Eastern Arabs, but rather Moroccans (the direct successor of the Moorish state) and Indians (another country claimed as ‘rightfully’ part of the dar al-Islam).

Spain’s upcoming retreat may save it for a while, but in the long run, Spain’s decision in favor of a pro-appeasement government may… result in far greater threats to its security.”

Finally, the Spanish vote may have important implications for our own election less than eight months away. John Kerry has assailed George W. Bush’s war on terror in much the same way Jose Luis Rodrguez Zapatero has criticized Jose Maria Aznar’s supporting role in that war.

Sen. Kerry has said the threat of terror has been “exaggerated” and that it should be treated more as a “intelligence and law enforcement operation.” And the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate has promised to make policy changes similar to those embraced by the incipient Spanish premier — notably, by pledging his policy will give greater weight to relations with allies and cooperation with the U.N.

On March 8, John Kerry announced unnamed “foreign leaders” were telling him: “You’ve got to win this. You’ve got to beat this guy. We need a new policy.” It is unclear at this writing exactly who told this to the Massachusetts senator. One thing is clear, though. “Foreign leaders” of terrorist organizations and their state-sponsors who are doubtless thrilled with their team’s take-down of the Spanish government, would be even more pleased to see the United States get an administration committed to a “new policy” toward terror.

To the extent Mr. Kerry continues to promise the sort of evisceration of U.S. counterterrorism policy now afoot in the wake of the Spanish elections, he may not only enjoy the support of such “foreign leaders.” He may also invite them — however unintentionally — to express that support here in an even more murderous way than they did in Spain.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is the president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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