I should preface this post by saying that I have only a loose knowledge of Spain’s internal politics. But judging by English language press reports in this country and abroad, one can glean some basic outlines about the stunning finish of today’s election in the country.
We’ve long known that Spanish Prime Minister Aznar’s support for the Iraq war masked the war’s profound unpopularity within Spain. But a good economy and time had pushed Iraq from the political front-burner. And thus Aznar’s Popular Party seemed on track for a clear, if not overwhelming victory.
The Madrid attacks pushed Iraq back to the forefront, thus crystallizing opposition to the government. And that opposition was mightily intensified by an apparently widespread and growing belief (also seemingly an accurate one) that the government had deliberately withheld or obscured information about who was behind the attacks so as to avoid the backlash which eventually occurred. Namely, they fixed on blaming ETA — the Basque separatist group — despite increasing evidence pointing toward some sort of al Qaida connection.
That seems to be a rough consensus analysis, though it must be extraordinarily difficult to make sense of the volatility of public opinion reacting so rapidly to such a traumatic event.
A couple points suggest themselves.
One of them — discussed in this article in the Post — is just how little Spanish or other Western intelligence services seem to have known about this. There was no chatter, no hints. The entire operation seems to have slipped through entirely unnoticed by anyone. That suggests the possibility that we’re really flying blind on the actual terrorist threat, or at least that it’s quite possible for al Qaida or affiliated groups to launch a major attack without our even getting hints that it’s going to occur, let alone being able to stop it.
Another point touches on the assumptions that many seem to bring to this whole event.
Just after the bombings there was a rush of commentary and news coverage to the effect that this was Spain’s (and Europe’s) 9/11 and that, confronted with the reality of what we’re up against, they’d get religion, shall we say, on the war on terror. And in this case the war on terror could be loosely read as the Iraq War.
Now, clearly, that doesn’t seem to have happened in Spain. But the issue here isn’t simply one of predictive accuracy. The whole line of thinking is based on flawed assumptions and, to a degree, on crediting the administration’s spin about why our policies have been so unpopular in Europe.
America and Europe never saw eye-to-eye on how to take down the network of terror cells and associated Islamist terror groups we know as al Qaida. But the disagreements have been greatly overstated. The heart of the matter, the rub, has always been about whether the ‘war on terror’ in any way included or was in any respect advanced by overthrowing the government of Iraq.
(To frame the matter ungenerously but with real precision, the question came down to whether you fight back against the terrorists by striking back at the terrorists or at someone else.)
Whatever else they thought of the Iraq war, very few people in Europe saw any real logic to the (terror war = Iraq war) equation. Some supported the Iraq war for other reasons. But few saw the two connected as the Bush administration tried to present them. And not a few saw the Iraq adventure as positively counterproductive to stemming the tide of Islamist terror.
Whoever you think is right or wrong in this, that is the nature of the rift over the ‘war on terror’.
Now, if that’s the war as you see it, that Iraq war was either irrelevant to fighting terror or would itself produce more terorrism, then the apparent response of the Spaniards doesn’t seem at all difficult to fathom. Nor is it reducible to facile claims of appeasements.
We’ll be reading these tea-leaves for some time to come.