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March 21, 2004 - The Bombing and then the Vote in Spain Explained

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What to make of the vote in Spain, a few days after the bombing that killed two hundred commuters?  What to make of the folks tossing out the government that was with us in the Iraq war - in spite of the fact ninety percent of the population in Spain bitterly opposed that decision?  It seems the voters are enthusiastic about installing a new government more independent and less compliant with anything George Bush says.  Perhaps they felt their former leaders simply made them a target for no good reason.


Is this really local?  The previous government madly spun the story that the Basques, the ETA, were responsible for this.  They pressured the media to accept this as true.  They told the Germans and Interpol that this was so.  No one bought it.  It wasn’t true.  Well, perhaps that alone caused the shift in the vote.

From the outside - over here - there were two schools of thought on this vote to change the Spanish government.  Over at the Financial Times (UK) they quickly ran a wire item from Reuters.

See Authorities have no clear response for Madrid
Peter Graff, Reuters - March 14 2004 16:53


The thought last weekend was the Spanish people felt their support of Bush’s war had made them a target, and they didn’t like it much.


LONDON (Reuters) - If it was Islamist militants who struck out of the blue in Madrid last week, then it will dash hopes that Western security forces had blunted the threat from al Qaeda since September 11 and all Europe is at risk.

Despite billions of dollars spent tracking Islamic radicals over the past 30 months, despite destroying their Afghan bases and putting thousands of agents on the streets, Western spies heard not a trace of "chatter" from Muslim militants before the bombers killed 200 rail commuters, security analysts said.

While responsibility remained unclear on Sunday for the worst ever guerrilla attack on a European city, a claim from a purported al Qaeda ally and the arrests of three Arabs caused Spain to play down early accusations against Basque separatists.

The broader implication, experts say, is that security is still worse -- perhaps far worse -- than policymakers feared, even in countries like Spain with experience of dealing robustly with political violence and which were well aware their support for U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq had made them targets.

Well, yes, the implication is that these folks didn’t like the price they just paid for that decision to go to war in Iraq beside the United States, and further, they seemed to sense that war in Iraq seemed to have had the net result of making the world far more dangerous.  And the war was supposed to have the opposite effect.


That idea gained momentum all week long.

This in turn would indicate that more and more future elections around the world would come down to being an exercise in punishing those who stood with Bush and his (our) idea that removing pesky, irritating governments was the best way to fix the problem with terrorists - and to deal with "evil" in general.

Yeah, well, but on the other hand the conservative voice of Glenn Reynolds summarized the immediate view from the supporters of Bush, the Republican right from the start.

See TERRORISTS HAVE SUCCEEDED IN TOPPLING THE SPANISH GOVERNMENT where he links to many, many people seeing the vote as a victory for the Islamic Fanatical Devils.   The Basques and all that?  Not important.

Jeff Jarvis observes: "In any case, it's a damned shame that terrorists can have an impact on the election and can help bring in the side they apparently wanted."

Eric Olsen has more thoughts on what is, I'm afraid, a bad day for the forces of civilization.

UPDATE: Roger Simon:

I walk out on my deck, looking across the Hollywood Hills at Runyon Canyon, but my mind is in Madrid, at its splendid Puerta del Sol where I have spent so many wonderful days and where sadly fascists have walked before and for too long. But this time they are not under the flag of Generalissimo Franco. This time, ironically, they rally behind the words of a man, Osama bin Laden, whom El Caudillo would have reviled. But of course the cry of both men is the same: Viva la muerte!

Indeed. Meanwhile Mark Aveyard notes a contradiction: "Remember being told by the left that Saddam's regime and Al Queda had no relationship, that they actually hated each other?  Now they're saying that Al Queda attacked Spain because the US ousted Saddam!"

And Eric Kolchinsky emails: "Al Queda (or any other terror organization) will rightly perceive that they can influence elections through violence.  This vote has greatly increased the probability of a pre-election attack -- here and in Europe."  Yes.  And it's reduced the likelihood of addressing this problem without major bloodshed.  The Spanish electorate has made what seems to me to be a very shortsighted and cowardly decision, and the world may suffer as a result.

So the shortsighted cowards of Spain – the majority of voters – are destroying civilization by thinking only of their safety and thus “letting the terrorists win.”

If you click on the Reynolds item he has links to all his sources and many, many more.  Everyone on the right was immediately appalled that majority of voters in Spain could be so cowardly, gutless, weak, craven and pusillanimous as to decide that siding with Bush and the United States was not in their self-interest, and in the interest of the greater good.  I guess the idea that these Spanish folks just don’t get it.  They don’t understand the evil of fanatical Islam.

And that view gained momentum all week long too, culminating in Bush’s speech this week on the anniversary of the start of the war.  The idea there was no one could have “a separate peace.”   Everyone had to join us in fighting terrorism.  And that meant our war (disassembly) and reconstruction (reassembly) of Iraq.


The sticking point is all the commentators (left, mainly) all week long arguing their usual point, which has been taken up by John Kerry and the Democrats – the Iraq war was a war of choice against a country that turned out to be no real threat at all, with no real link to the actual bad guys, the real terrorists, al Queda.  Bush and many of the administration now admit there was no link.  Only Cheney holds the opposite view.  The basic idea here is that this war was an inconceivably wrong-headed waste of time, money and lives.  It bled resources that could have been used to go after the real bad guys, and resources that could have been used to increase domestic security.  This is no sensible way to fight terrorism.


I can see that.  And the right claiming the Spanish don’t understand the evil of fanatical Islam also seems a bit odd.  

They don’t?  I think the year was 711 when Muslim forces invaded and then in seven years finally conquered the whole Iberian Peninsula.  Their rule didn’t end until 1492 when Granada was conquered.  El Cid and all that.  Glenn, they know.  The center of Muslim rule was southern Spain - Andalusia.  They know.  And heck, the French know too.  If Charles Martel hadn’t stopped the Islamic army at what is now Lyon the Rhône valley in 739 France would be even more Muslim than it is now.  This is basic stuff.

The Spanish vote?  Maybe this is about Bush more than it is about al Queda.  The Spanish, it seems, don’t want to stand with a madman who stirs up all this stuff one more time.

Ah, but what to I know?



Spain Pulls Out of the Coalition of Grudgingly Willing - A Second Round of Scrutiny from the Other Side of the Pond



Spain?  Obviously a nation of pragmatists or, looking at it the other way, a nation of cowards who don’t see the nobility of our war on all evil and full of folks with an unreasonable hatred of the heroic George Bush… that is, in Spain the craven appeasers of terrorism have won.

Take your choice.

First up we have Matthew Yglesias - a Writing Fellow at The American Prospect magazine in Washington, DC.  In addition, his work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Center for American Progress, and Tech Central Station.  Yglesias is a 2003 graduate of Harvard where he majored in philosophy, was Editor in Chief of The Harvard Independent and wrote an honors thesis on the implications of John Rawls' political liberalism for public education.  And he has a blog.

Here he suggests the bombing and surprising election in Spain is good for the conservatives here in the United States – it sets up a model:


The right would like to set up the following argument: If there are no attacks between now and the election, then Bush has defended us from terror and deserves re-election; if there is an attack between now and the election, then voting for Kerry would be appeasement.  Spain is just the dry-run.


So young.  So cynical.

And then he adds this:


On The Other Hand

If -- as much of the right keeps telling me -- yesterday's election in Spain really is a victory for al-Qaeda in the war on terror, and George W. Bush is leading the global war on terror, does it follow that Bush is mismanaging our side and leading to our defeat?


This fellow is fond of snarky logic.  Harvard corrupts people, doesn’t it?


Then there is Christopher Hitchens.  He weighed in this week.

See To Die in Madrid: The nutty logic that says Spain provoked Islamist terrorism
Christopher Hitchens, SLATE.COM, Posted Monday, March 15, 2004, at 12:28 PM PT

I must admit this whole item was so heavily sarcastic even I could make little of what he was getting at.  And I LIKE sarcasm.  Most of it seems to be an argument that no matter what anyone nation does – support Bush or repudiate him or just shrug – the bad guys will kill anyone anywhere.  And that is just the way it is.  Spain can stay in Iraq or go home.  Same for the UK or Australia or Japan or Fiji.  Even we can stay or go home.  It doesn’t matter one whit.

So what should we do?

Hitchens ends with this:


I find I can't quite decide what to recommend in the American case.  I thought it was a good idea to remove troops from Saudi Arabia in any event (after all, we had removed the chief regional invader).  But, even with the troops mainly departed, bombs continue to detonate in Saudi streets.  We are, it seems, so far gone in sin and decadence that no repentance or penitence can be adequate.  Perhaps, for the moment, it's enough punishment, and enough shame, just to know that what occurred in Madrid last week is all our fault.  Now, let that sink in.


Hitchens suggests a problem that admits of no possible solution.  I guess he was having a bad day.

Josh Marshall on the other hand does a more useful analysis.  Here’s some of it.


Let’s fall back for a moment and think about what this whole fight is about.  Al Qaida (and militant Islam generally) sees itself as the inheritor of a world-historical religious movement which, according to their view of cosmology and eschatology, is supposed to be at the vanguard of history.  In the orthodox Muslim view of history, the ‘lands of Islam’ expand but they never recede.  The Islamic world should be the most powerful, the most advanced by various measures, probably the wealthiest.  Viewed from that perspective almost everything about the contemporary world is turned upside down, almost a blasphemy in itself.  The US, from their perspective both a secular and a Christian power, is the dominant power even in the heartlands of Islam.  Add to this that our secularism is another level of blasphemy.  From the perspective of revanchist, militant Islam, almost everything about today’s world is nearly the opposite of what they believe their religion says it should be. (Thus, they're somewhat aggravated.)

So the whole point of this endeavor is to sweep us out of the heartlands of Islam, put Islam back on the march on its frontiers and purify the religion itself within the Abode of Islam, as they call it.

… The key point is that it’s not hard to see how invading and occupying part of the heartland of Islam is going to rile them up a bit since it brings into sharper relief their whole worldview of a cataclysmic struggle between the West and Islam.


… In any case, just because al Qaida has adopted the Iraq cause as their own doesn’t mean we’ve damaged al Qaida by taking down the Baathist regime - especially by doing it so incompetently.  Just as likely - in fact far more likely - is that we’ve just handed them a useful recruiting tool while distracting ourselves from pursuing more effective means of extirpating them.


In short?  Just what Hitchens said, without the sarcasm.  The war was a dumb idea and didn’t help with terrorism at all.

So it doesn’t matter if Spain pulls out of the Coalition of Grudgingly Willing.  They’re not more safe.  They’re not less safe.  This is an al Qaida effort beyond all that.  It really doesn’t matter.

Hey, if the Spanish voters want to toss out the fellow who kissed Bush’s butt in spite of most everyone saying that was really dumb, well, more power too them.  As if it matters…

But too, it’s not just the Spanish.


Thanks to George Paine here – this is also what happened this week.


Thursday Polish president Aleksander Kwasniewski said he felt that Poland had been "taken for a ride" by the Bush Administration.  Kwasniewski said, on the other hand, that Polish troops would remain in Iraq until the occupation is over, asking a group of French journalists - "What would be the point of pulling the troops if it meant a return to war, ethnic cleansing and conflict in neighboring countries?"


According to an AP report, however, Kwasniewski may be looking at withdrawing Polish forces ahead of schedule, because "Everything suggests that pullout from Iraq may be possible after the stabilization mission is crowned with success and, in my assessment soon, it may be the start of 2005."


Previously the planned pullout date for Polish forces in Iraq had been mid-2005.


Oh well.


What else did Paine survey?


The Italian government also appears to be feeling around, seeing if it's possible to criticize the Iraq war without major retribution from the United States.


Italian European Affairs Minister Rocco Buttiglione this week told the newspaper Il Messaggero that "The war may have been a mistake. Perhaps there were ways it could have been avoided."  But as the interview continued Buttiglione went even further, saying "What is certain is that it wasn't the best thing to do."


There were four major Western or Eastern democratic nations in the Bush Administration's so-called Coalition of the Willing.  Those four nations were Poland, Spain, Italy and Britain.  Poland and Spain have now all but repudiated the war, and senior government officials in Italy are themselves repudiating the war in what may be a sign of future Italian government policy.  Two thirds of Italians, according to a recent poll, support the full withdrawal of Italian troops and Carabinieri from Iraq.


As the LA Times reports, both the Netherlands and Honduras are withdrawing their military contributions from Iraq even as "diplomats speculate" that El Salvador and Guatemala will do the same.


Only Britain stands alone, and Tony Blair himself remains in serious political trouble due to the Iraq fiasco.


And if we lose Fiji? 


Paine concludes:


It must be time for some of the brilliant Bush Administration diplomacy — as exemplified by Donald "I don't do diplomacy" Rumsfeld and John "Syria and Iran are next" Bolton — to kick into high gear and glue Coalitionstan back together.  Such crack diplomacy seems, after all, to be the Bush Campaign's major campaign plank (along, of course, with the "bring it on" militarism and aggressiveness) this year.


This is what happens when you treat allies like mushrooms.  This is what happens when you feed long-term, traditional allies lies in order to get them to participate in your war.  Some allies are willing to go along initially out of respect for the long-term relationship, but as soon as it becomes absolutely clear that they've been "taken for a ride" they, fortunately or not, change their tune.


Ouch!  That’s harsh.  And Paine did that summary before South Korea announced that although they’re sending three or four thousand troops, they won’t deploy them to northern Iraq as we commanded them to do.  Too dangerous.  A lot of them might die.  And they have their own domestic political considerations back in their corner of Asia.


Seems Bush can’t catch a break this week.


Well, it does come down to credibility.  Our position? This: the Iraq business will make things better and is actually CENTRAL to fighting terrorism – trust us.  Really.


That ceased to be an easy sell this week.  Spain, Poland, maybe Italy, South Korea – not to mention Netherlands and Honduras and El Salvador and Guatemala - are possibly bailing on us.


What happened here?  Why aren’t the countries buying our view of things? 


This is not good.  We can call these peoples cowards and mock and insult them and chant we’re right over and over, but that doesn’t seem wise.  As a method of keeping other nations with us through thick and thin, this sort of talk, although the rhetoric of choice for our government, may no longer work, if it every did.


And then there are our own political concerns at home.  Bush is up for reelection [sic] isn’t he?


Here’s what Josh Marshall says about that this weekend, in thinking through how all the events this week might be something Bush’s opponent might consider:

Indeed, the president's loss of credibility should be central to Kerry's attack on his stewardship of the country's security.


We are accustomed to thinking about a president's and the country's 'credibility' abroad as a factor of his willingness to use force.  Credibility is key because it is central to a president's ability to protect the country and advance its interests.


But what we are seeing right now is that the president has lost his credibility with the world.  Whether foreign leaders want Bush to be reelected is, from a domestic political perspective, irrelevant.  Indeed, it can easily backfire on a candidate who seeks to mobilize it against him.


The key is simply that the president has no credibility.  He has lost the trust of the country's allies in part because he has repeatedly deceived them -- dealt with them falsely or simply lied to them. But to a critical degree neither do they fear him.  This is what we're seeing as our few remaining allies in Iraq ramp back their deployments in the country (Spain, South Korea, possibly Poland) and abandon our foolishly shortsighted effort to advance our interests by dividing Europe.


Right-wingers in this country are casting this pattern as a cosmic moral drama of appeasement, with the faint of heart cowering before the grand struggle.  In fact, the president is reduced to a mix of taunt and begging, pleading with other countries not to abandon him.  What is a leader without followers?  Not a leader.


The president's campaign ads have heavily pressed the point that when confronted with a threat, he takes action - but with conspicuous inattention to what action he takes, or whether it makes any sense or diminishes the threat.


The message of these ads amounts to ...

Vote Bush: When Dangers Threaten, You Know He'll Go Berserk!


But again, the president has damaged the country's hard credibility by lying to our allies and isolating us from them.  For half a century the United States has been the guardian of a prosperous and increasingly democratic world order.  If our allies are really abandoning us and making 'separate peaces' with gangs of murderous religious fanatics what does that tell you about this president's leadership?  His credibility abroad or even his ability to use hard power to advance the country's interests?


The president made the mess and he lacks the credibility, thus the strength, to clean it up.


Credibility is the thread that ties this whole election together.

Well, maybe it does.


So these bombs go off in Spain.  More than two hundred die.  And the Spanish and then a whole lot of others step back and question what we’re doing.  We took out Saddam Hussein.  So what?


A lot of the world previously with us is calling for a “time out” to rethink this.  Is there a better way to make the world safer than what we’ve been trying?  Maybe this destroy and rebuild Iraq effort isn’t working so well.


This is not a question Bush needed coming up in an election year.  His supporters can mock all these nations and call them cowardly quitters.  Bush himself can plead with them to stick by his idea that reinventing Iraq as a secular democracy as the one single absolutely key effort in fighting terrorism. 


But there were no weapons of mass destruction, finally, to prove his case about any immediate threat there, and his administration had to admit Iraq really wasn’t in cahoots with al Qaida – there was, finally, no evidence of that  - and only the American people believe that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis planned and carried out the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks more than two years ago.


So in one week the world says hey, let’s step back and think about this.  And we are reduced to saying please don’t DO THAT! - Just trust us.


And a single answer comes back.  Why?





Oh, and by the way, folks really are thinking of alternatives.  Richard Overy is a professor of modern history at King's College London, and author of The Dictators, which will be published by Penguin in June.


In the Guardian (UK) this weekend he offers this:

What, then, are the alternatives?  Could anything different have been done?  Should something different be done now?  Of course.  War should have been avoided and other ways explored to get Iraq to re-enter the world economy, and to feed and supply its population properly.  The west could show that it is serious about tackling the question of a Palestinian state, instead of using it as a fig leaf to clothe its ambitions in the region.  Blair could show that he values a commitment to a common European defence and foreign policy, which might have avoided war altogether.


Today we could confront terrorism differently.  It is a profound irony that Blair has helped to defuse the Ulster crisis and reduce terrorism by the very means that he has abandoned in his crusading zeal against the world enemy. 


Terrorists do not blow people up just because they are nihilistic thugs.  Terrorism is born of fear, resentment and powerlessness in the face of the massive power and cultural expansion of the west; it is about real issues for those who perpetrate its acts of violence.  Palestinians die because they want to free Palestine.  Understanding those issues on their own terms and adjusting our politics in order to do so does not mean that we endorse violence.

Understanding those issues on their own terms and adjusting our politics?  We here in United States have chosen a leader who doesn’t do such nuance.  That we will probably elect him for another four-year term suggests that as a people we ourselves don’t so such nuance.  Blair may make adjustments.  He may have to make adjustments.  But recall Bush’s interview with Tim Russert a few weeks ago – “I’m not going to change, see?”  How many times did he say that, knowing how much that would please the American public?  For us, leadership is not ever changing you mind.


Understanding those issues on their own terms and adjusting our politics?  We see that concept as precisely an endorsement of violence.  How else would you see it?  Understanding stuff is for wimps.




One is reminded of a quip from John Maynard Keynes -  "When the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir?"


Bush wouldn't get the joke.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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