I’m working today on a magazine article about Democrats and foreign policy, and whether they have an effective vision and strategy for confronting the present challenges — setting aside whatever one thinks of the policies embraced by the current administration. That’s got a monopoly on my time today — as it has for the last few weeks. So let me just put out a few thoughts on the aftermath of Madrid, which I hope to return to, and to dig into in more depth, later.
First, here are four columns on the topic which have appeared in the last several days. I don’t agree entirely with any of them. But they each contain important food for thought. They’re by Bob Kagan, Anne Applebaum, Jim Pinkerton and Timothy Garton Ash.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I find the right-wing charges — now omnipresent in this country — about Spanish ‘appeasement’ to be crass, verging on disgusting, not to mention I think simply untrue.
However, I think Ash has a very good point when he writes the following …
So far as the Spanish voters’ intentions are concerned, the election result was not subjectively a victory for al-Qaida. But it is, as Marxists used to say, an objective victory for al-Qaida. The Madrid bombings look likely to do exactly what a message posted on a radical Islamist website months ago said they should do: exploit the election moment to knock Spain out of the “Crusader-Zionist” coalition in Iraq. Conclusion: terror works.
I don’t see how you get around that. But I don’t think the policy prescription following from that insight is clear. At a minimum<$Ad$> it raises the vexing question of whether we persist in policies or approaches that we realize were mistaken simply because we see that abandoning them, or fundamentally reworking them, might have the perverse effect of encouraging our enemies.
In the case of Spain, if the impression is that the Spanish have been run out of the country, that’s a bad thing. This is especially so since our only real hope of success in the country is to dramatically broaden the military presence, to internationalize it, as the now overworked phrase has it, either through the UN or preferably through NATO — in some version of the Balkan model.
It’s worth noting that the new or incoming Spanish government is on record supporting the continued presence of its troops in the country if such an internationalization of the effort occurs.
(One heartening, encouraging sign in today’s papers comes from the Wall Street Journal, which reports that “Germany — which helped thwart Washington’s pursuit of a United Nations Security Council endorsement for the invasion — privately has asked Spain’s likely new leadership to tone down its anti-U.S. rhetoric.” This is precisely the sort of drawing back from the brink — and distinguishing rather than conflating these different issues — that we need right now on all sides.)
If there is anything good that can come out of this Spanish tragedy, and it certainly looks like close to wall to wall bad, it is that it may force us to shake the attitude of denial that we’re in about the nature of our coalition. A couple of the columns above are right to talk about the increasing danger this all poses to the Atlantic alliance.
But the truth is that we’ve just been fooling ourselves with all this mumbojumbo about New Europe and whatever Spain had meant, up to this point, about Western unity. The idea that there was a hawkish, pro-American, anti-dirigiste New Europe that we were allying ourselves with against Old Europe (i.e., Germany and France) was never more than a fantasy or a farce.
There was some variation in attitudes toward our policies in Iraq across the continent — most notably in Poland. And support was somewhat higher in some countries in the post-Communist east. But by and large popular opposition to our policies was close to overwhelming from one end of the continent to the other.
What we were doing was piggybacking on intra-European struggles over unity, fault lines between the bigger states at the center and the smaller, generally poorer ones, on the periphery. And on the topic of the war, we were relying on leaders who offered their support over the overwhelming opposition of their electorates.
In the short-term that kind of support can be key, especially in a military context. But when dealing with democratic allies, in the medium and long-term, it’s a losing game. In this sense, I don’t think what’s happened in Spain has been a blow to Western unity so much as a wake-up call to an already-existing reality which we must face if we are to wage a real war against Islamist terror as opposed to a war of words over Iraq.
On this latter point I continue to believe what I wrote last August, that “generality, vagueness and abstraction is the problem. They are becoming the engines of policy incoherence and the cover for domestic bad-actors who want to get this country into fights few Americans signed up for.”
Some of this chatter about the ‘war on terrorism’ and ‘appeasement’ and Iraq as a sign of this or that is just disinformation, abuse and lying. But our real situation is genuinely bedeviled and obscured by how deep we are in a thicket of abstraction. This is a struggle of ideas, big ideas. And it’s correct to see it in such terms rather than simply as a matter of police work or military capacity. But it can also makes us stumble, make us stumble or fall prey to the trickery of bad actors.
So, for instance, we have a ‘war on terror’. Then we insist that invading Iraq is part of the ‘war on terror’. But most of our allies don’t agree. And now we have one of our nominal allies in the Iraq war possibly pulling out. So we conclude they’ve bagged on the ‘war on terror’ when in fact they seem to have bagged on the Iraq war (through pressing our manichean view can become a self-fulfilling reality.) And now we’re told that any rethinking of the Iraq war would be a defeat in the ‘war on terror’.
The ins and outs of these arguments are complex, I grant that. Still, I think our preoccupation with abstractions — itself partly a product of nostalgia — gets us shadow-boxing with ourselves and our friends rather than fighting our enemies.
As Lincoln once said, and this applies across the ideological spectrum, “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”