Thursday, March 18, 2004

The Economist Echoes My Thinking on the Spanish Elections

I find that this Economist article lays out eloquently my very own thoughts about the attacks in Spain and their electoral aftermath. That magazine continues to justify its high reputation for insightful commentary.

IF YOU carry out a well planned atrocity, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than a thousand, and three days later the government that supported an invasion to which you object is unexpectedly defeated in a general election, you are entitled to consider the venture to have been a success. So although Spain's high voting turnout on March 14th, and many Spaniards' apparent ire at the way José María Aznar's government had prematurely blamed Basque terrorists for the outrage, can be taken as healthily democratic signs (see article), there is no escaping the fact that the biggest triumph has been that of the terrorists. Assuming, as is likely, that they are indeed linked to or are members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, they scored another success when the new Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, said he would withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq. This may only be a symbolic move, for that is a mere 1% of the American-led coalition's forces there, but symbols and emotions are what terrorism is all about.

To say all that is not to say that it is wrong to vote out governments that supported the invasion of Iraq a year ago. In some cases, such as Spain, they did so against a huge majority of public opinion. In all cases, their claims that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of dangerous weapons now look to be a blunder, a gamble or a deception. This year both George Bush himself and John Howard, Australia's prime minister, face re-election contests and next year Britain's Tony Blair is also expected to do so. There is now a real possibility that all three could follow Mr Aznar's party into defeat—though Mr Blair may be saved by the fact that his Tory opposition supported the war strongly, too. Such defeats would be natural, in democratic terms. But the tragedy of Madrid is that the terrorists in effect cast the swing vote, given that Mr Aznar's party had looked set to win a comfortable victory, despite opposition to the war, and that such success may now stimulate more terrorism during the other three electoral campaigns. The big question, if such defeats occur, is whether successor governments would be more effective in pursuing al-Qaeda and stabilising the regions within which its terrorists thrive—or less.

Some critics of the war in Iraq say that there is no such danger. There was no genuine link between toppling Saddam and fighting al-Qaeda, so to punish governments for what opponents claim was an illegal invasion is a quite separate matter. Mr Zapatero even appears to think that pulling troops out of Iraq will make things better, on the view that the occupation is itself the cause of terrorism. Yet that policy is irresponsible, because it increases the risk of civil war in Iraq. Even those who opposed the war should now want to help make Iraq secure enough for Iraqis themselves to take back their sovereignty. If other new governments copy Mr Zapatero and prove their anti-war point by withdrawing from Iraq, they will make everyone less safe as a result. And it is a delusion to claim, as Mr Zapatero does, that all would be well if the UN were to take over from the Americans. Few Iraqis think so. It is as well to recall the Dutch UN peacekeepers who looked on helplessly during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995.

Moreover, withdrawal would put the rest of the Middle East at greater risk, too. For even if there was no direct link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, the connection was always indirect and much more long-term: that while he remained in power to threaten his neighbours and required bombing and sanctions to contain him, it would be impossible to move towards a wider peace and modernisation of that whole troubled region. To advocates of the war, including The Economist, sticking with the status quo looked a more dangerous option than toppling Saddam.


The right grounds on which to criticise and even condemn the perpetrators of regime change in Iraq now lie in that slow or non-existent regional progress. They, especially the Bush administration, do deserve criticism for their mishandling of the post-war situation in Iraq, but the correct response is to strengthen the effort to rebuild and secure Iraq, not weaken it. They deserve much more criticism, though, for having so far failed to turn the strategic change represented by the fall of Saddam into a wider and more profound set of changes: notably, a restoration of full relations with Iran and the establishment of some sort of Arab-American alliance to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Such things could never have happened overnight and many a previous attempt, whether American or European, has foundered amid the blood of the Middle East. Yet as the terror in Madrid showed, time is on no one's side. In contrast to its urgency over invading Iraq, the Bush administration has shown little urgency in trying to achieve these wider goals.

Yes, Bush and Blair erred in their selling of the war in Iraq, but that still doesn't mean that removing Saddam Hussein from power was a bad thing. What is more, Zapatero's accusations notwithstanding, the Iraqi people themselves don't seem to agree with his assessment of Iraq being a "fiasco," nor do they seem at all eager to see the sort of hasty pullout that Spain's prime minister elect is advocating. Whatever one feels about the truthfulness of Bush and Blair's campaign to remove Saddam from office, I think it inconceivable that any truly moral human being could argue that leaving him be would have been the proper course of action, or that pulling out of Iraq and leaving it's people to suffer intimidatory violence is a just cause of action. That is precisely what Jose Louis Rodriguez Zapatero is doing, and why I consider him and those swing voters* who won him office appeasers and capitulationists whose confused ideas can only give heart to advocates of terrorism everywhere. Leaders like Bush, Blair and Aznar ought to be held accountable for what they say, but not if that means throwing them out of office and replacing them with unserious individuals like Zapatero, whose rash promise to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq has been (commendably) condemned even by his preferred occupant of the White House, John Kerry.

*It is a fact that the great majority of the Spanish election did not allow the incidents of March 11 to affect their vote, and that the POSE's electoral victory owes largely to what one might the "young and dumb" contingent - that mass of apathetic under-30s individuals who hold all the usual trite far-left views but are usually too lazy to bother to vote. Their baleful influence in bringing to power such a deluded individual is yet another argument against the notion that more political participation is always better, regardless of the circumstances.