Right Hook

Spain's post-3/11 upheaval: David Frum says the terrorists have won, Andrew Sullivan fears a pre-November "blood bath" inside the U.S., and David Brooks blames Colin Powell.

By Mark Follman
Published March 18, 2004 12:24AM (EST)

If last Thursday's terrorist bombings in Madrid sent shock waves through Europe and across the Atlantic, the stunning upset in Spain's national election on Sunday ripped open a new chasm in the debate over Europe's role in the U.S.-led war on terror. Socialist leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's decisive victory over the staunchly pro-Bush Popular Party of José María Aznar defied the predictions of leading political analysts who believed the Madrid attacks would jolt not just Spain, but the whole of Europe toward the right. The outcome was shocking to many, but perhaps less so in hindsight: A vast majority of Spaniards resented Aznar for backing Bush's invasion of Iraq and feared that it made their own country more vulnerable to terror attacks. And after the bombings, many apparently resented the government for trying to blame the carnage on Basque separatists and suppress evidence pointing to al-Qaida. Whatever the reasons for the Socialist victory, antiwar Europeans are celebrating what they see as a thunderous rebuke of Bush's aggressive -- and divisive -- foreign policy.

Conservatives are responding to the election bombshell with a mix of defiance, deep concern and guarded optimism. Initial reactions Sunday carried an undercurrent of shock and disbelief: "Terrorists have succeeded in toppling the Spanish government," declared blogger Glenn Reynolds on InstaPundit.

"Terrorism has won a mighty victory in Spain," agreed National Review contributor and former Bush speechwriter David Frum. "The culprits who detonated those bombs of murder on 3/11 intended to use murder to alter the course of Spanish democracy -- and they have succeeded."

James Taranto, editor of Opinion Journal, quickly declared that Spain's socialists are in cahoots with the terrorists themselves -- as is presidential candidate John Kerry, by virtue of association:

"The war on terror suffered a setback [Sunday] when Spain elected a Socialist government, apparently in response to last week's terror attacks in Madrid. The Socialists and the terrorists are on the same side, at least as far as the liberation of Iraq goes ...

"CNN quotes the prime minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, as saying, 'I think Spain's participation in the war has been a total error.' Zapatero still vows to withdraw his country's 1,300 troops from Iraq on June 30, unless the U.N. takes military command. (As we noted Friday, Zapatero is one of the few foreign leaders to have openly endorsed John Kerry.)"

Taranto sought to downplay fellow conservatives' concerns that a rising tide of anti-Bush sentiment in Europe could seriously undercut the U.S. president's war policies.

"It's too early to tell if al-Qaida's tactical victory in Spain will turn out to be a strategic one as well ... Spain's vote for appeasement may turn out to be a lagging indicator; perhaps 3/11 will turn out to cause Europeans to wise up, even if Spanish voters were not quick enough to do so ...

"Buck up, guys. Every war has casualties and setbacks, and this isn't the end of the world. If we mope, the terrorists will have won. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss, stop wringing the hands that should wring bin Laden's neck!"

But pro-war blogger Andrew Sullivan sees no potential silver lining in the Spanish election results, and fears it could signal that al-Qaida is now winning the war against the West. Sullivan insists there is no middle ground whatsoever between Bush's strategy for invading Iraq and redrawing the map of the Middle East, and European appeasement, or "active alliance" with terrorists.

"The E.U. Vows Surrender: Romano Prodi, the chief of the European Commission, puts it as bluntly as anyone: 'It is clear that using force is not the answer to resolving the conflict with terrorists,' Prodi said. 'Terrorism is infinitely more powerful than a year ago.' This is classic appeasement. And it's also demonstrably untrue. Al Qaeda has been seriously weakened since 9/11, thanks almost entirely to those countries, especially the U.S., that chose to confront it. But it seems clear to me that the trend in Europe is now either appeasement of terror or active alliance with it. It is hard to view the results in Spain as anything but a choice between Bush and al Qaeda. Al Qaeda won."

In light of "bin Laden's victory in Spain," Sullivan says that the vast majority of voters there have twisted themselves backward around their own antiwar logic -- a transgression that could cost Europe and the U.S. some serious bloodshed in the coming months.

"It's a spectacular result for Islamist terrorism, and a chilling portent of Europe's future ... It might be argued that the Aznar government's dogged refusal to admit the obvious quickly enough led people to blame it for a cover-up. But why did they seek to delay assigning the blame on al Qaeda? Because they knew that if al Qaeda were seen to be responsible, the Spanish public would blame Aznar not bin Laden! But there's the real ironic twist: if the appeasement brigade really do believe that the war to depose Saddam is and was utterly unconnected with the war against al Qaeda, then why on earth would al Qaeda respond by targeting Spain? If the two issues are completely unrelated, why has al Qaeda made the connection? ...

"The truly scary thought is the signal that this will send to other European governments. Britain is obviously next. The appeasement temptation has never been greater; and it looks more likely now that Europe -- as so very often in the past -- will take the path of least resistance -- with far greater bloodshed as a result. I'd also say that it increases the likelihood of a major bloodbath in this country before the November elections. If it worked in Spain, al Qaeda might surmise, why not try it in the U.S.?"

An unusually sober David Brooks of the New York Times says "it was crazy to go ahead with an election a mere three days after the Madrid massacre," and that "reversing course in the wake of a terrorist attack is inexcusable." After implying that the popular political will of the Spanish electorate was hijacked by fear and confusion, Brooks makes a case similar to Sullivan's: that the Spaniards have sold out the rest of the free world.

"I don't care what the policy is. You do not give terrorists the chance to think that their methods work. You do not give them the chance to celebrate victories. When you do that, you make the world a more dangerous place, for others and probably for yourself.

"We can be pretty sure now that this will not be the last of the election-eve massacres. Al Qaeda will regard Spain as a splendid triumph. After all, how often have murderers altered a democratic election? And having done it once, why stop now? Why should they not now massacre Italians, Poles, Americans and Brits? ... There will be other aftershocks from the Spanish election. The rift between the U.S. and Europe will grow wider. Now all European politicians will know that if they side with America on controversial security threats, and terrorists strike their nation, they might be blamed by their own voters."

With Europe taking a turn for the worse -- at least from the perspective of war hawks in Washington -- Brooks beats up on the hawks' fallback punching bag inside the administration, Colin Powell. The secretary of state, he says, failed to market Bush's jingoistic foreign policy effectively on the continent.

"Nor is America itself without blame. Where was our State Department? Why hasn't Colin Powell spent the past few years crisscrossing Europe so that voters there would at least know the arguments for the liberation of Iraq, would at least have some accurate picture of Americans, rather than the crude cowboy stereotype propagated by the European media? Why does the Bush administration make it so hard for its friends? Why is it so unable to reach out?"

Writing in the Australian, syndicated columnist Mark Steyn addressed concerns inside the Land Down Under that it could be the next target. There's nothing the Australians can do about that, he says.

"The question then is what does a nation have to do to avoid being targeted by the Islamists. Canada refused to take part in the war on Iraq, but whoever makes Osama's audio tapes these days still named the disinclined dominion as one of al-Qaida's enemies. Ireland did no more than allow American aircraft to continue their practice of refuelling at Shannon but that was enough for Robert Fisk to volunteer them for a list of potential Islamist targets. Turkey refused to let the US attack Iraq from its territory, but they made the mistake of permitting the British to maintain consular and commercial ties, so a bunch of Muslims in Istanbul got slaughtered anyway ...

"If Islamic terrorism were as rational as Irish or Basque terrorism, it would be easier. But Hussein Massawi, former leader of Hezbollah, summed it up very pithily: 'We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.' You can be pro-America (Spain, Australia) or anti-America (France, Canada), but if you broke into the head cave in the Hindu Kush and checked out the hit list you'd be on it either way."

Like many of his conservative colleagues, Steyn skips any nuanced debate about how to best combat global terrorism; his advice is to back Bush, or else.

"So the choice for pluralist democracies is simple: You can join Bush in taking the war to the terrorists, to their redoubts and sponsoring regimes. Despite the sneers that terrorism is a phenomenon and you can't wage war against a phenomenon, in fact you can -- as the Royal Navy did very successfully against the malign phenomena of an earlier age, piracy and slavery.

"Or you can stick your head in the sand and paint a burqa on your butt. But they'll blow it up anyway."

"Jews are the canary in the coal mine"
Meanwhile, other conservatives are warning of different issues that may fuel the terror war in Europe. Columnist Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe sees a chilling new wave of anti-Semitism at work:

"[In April 2002] much of official Europe resented the attention being paid to the return of anti-Jewish hatred to the continent where 6 million Jews were murdered between 1938 and 1945. 'Stop saying that there is anti-Semitism in France,' the French president, Jacques Chirac, admonished a Jewish editor. 'There is no anti-Semitism in France.'

"Official Europe takes the attacks on Jews, most of which are the work of Muslim immigrants from the Middle East, more seriously now ... And yet the hatred spreads ... [It] has been most palpable in France. There have been so many attacks on Jews in recent months that the chief rabbi has urged religious boys and men to wear baseball caps instead of yarmulkes outside their homes. In November, a newly built wing of the Merkaz Hatorah school outside Paris was gutted by arson. Last week, in a newspaper column headlined 'Jewish children are in danger,' six French scientists described recent episodes of anti-Semitic violence in Parisian schools. In one of them, a girl was thrown to the ground and beaten by 20 students, who were yelling, 'Dirty Jew! Dirty Jew!' ...

"Whether this [Madrid] massacre, like those in Istanbul and Bali and at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, was the work of radical Islamists, the world will know soon enough. What the world should already know but so often forgets is that Jews are the canary in the coal mine of civilization. Anti-Semitism is like cancer; unchecked, it can metastasize and sicken the entire body. When civilized nations fail to rise up against the Jew-haters in their midst, it is often just a matter of time before the Jew-haters in their midst rise up against them."

Blogger and self-proclaimed reformed liberal Meryl Yourish sounds a more introspective note of concern than the high-profile pundits of the right, and is even cautiously optimistic in the wake of Spain's 3/11.

"We lost a lot of battles in WWII. But we won the war. And we helped Europe rebuild.

"We're winning the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorist-sponsoring nations are beginning to give up their murderous habits (Libya, anyone?). As W. pointed out more than once, we're in it for the long haul. This war is going to take time. We're not going to win all the battles. And some battles -- like the election in Spain -- aren't going to be apparent until they are upon us.

"Yes, I'm worried. Yes, I think that Al Qaeda will consider this a victory to be imitated. But I still have confidence in our own intelligence services, and in our military. Naivete? Perhaps. I prefer to call it optimism."

"The Tears of Quixote"
But novelist and center-right blogger Roger Simon expresses the agony that many conservatives are feeling about Spain's appearing to drift over the horizon -- with more of Europe perhaps to follow -- during a time of global turmoil.

"I just received email from Franco Aleman of Hispalibertas. (Oddly we were writing each other simultaneously, six thousand miles apart.) Franco, on his way to bed in Barcelona, wrote me the following regarding the results of the vote in Spain today. (He, by the way, is not anti-socialist. Economics is clearly not the point in this instance.)

"I am ashamed of being a Spaniard. We have just surrendered on behalf of the whole West. This is a real tragedy for all; now they know what works.

"Meanwhile, it is a beautiful day in Los Angeles and 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!"

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2004 Elections Al-qaida Terrorism