Ever since the Spanish voted out the ruling Popular Party, there has been talk that the people’s choice was somehow a victory for Al Qaeda, or at least a dangerous gesture of appeasement. This line of argument requires that we agree to two givens, both of them controversial:
1. The Bush administration and its allies are fighting terror effectively, so any other political choice is a vote against a successful war on terror.
2. The Spanish made their choice out of fear, hoping that by removing their pro-Bush leader they would appease the Islamists and prevent future attacks.
As far as the first point goes, among my strongest complaints against the Bush administration is that it has not done nearly enough to combat terror. Bin Laden is still at large, Al Qaeda is still clearly capable of impressive attacks against Western capitals, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia remain essentially as they were before 9/11, and security measures at home have been half-hearted and underfunded. The Iraq war may well end up improving the lives of Iraqis, but it was a misdirected salvo in the war on terror ? a costly and distracting endeavor that pulled resources and attention from the real threat, which was and is the shadowy underworld of Islamist terrorism. They get their weapons and logistical support from Pakistan, not Iraq, and their money from Saudi Arabia. Remaking the Middle East is dandy, but the failure to focus on Al Qaeda is legitimate grounds for criticism.
On the second point, I’m not at all convinced that the Spanish voted out of fear. In fact, Aznar’s government was craven and cowardly in the days after the Madrid bombings, at a time when bravery and leadership were called for. Instead of coming forward with everything they knew, the government covered up mounting evidence that the attack was mounted by Islamists, instead blaming ETA [via Talking Points Memo]. Why? Because Aznar’s participation in the Iraq War has been deeply unpopular, while his successes against ETA helped bring him to power.
As the Washington Post points out:
Suspicion that the government manipulated information — blaming ETA in order to divert any possible link between the bombings and Aznar’s unpopular support for the war in Iraq — helped fuel the upset victory of the Socialist Workers’ Party in Sunday’s elections. By then, Islamic extremists linked to al Qaeda had become the focus of the investigation ….
On Saturday night — hours before the polls opened — the government announced the arrests of three Moroccans and two Indians, and the discovery of a videotape from a purported al Qaeda official asserting responsibility for the attacks. Thousands of Spaniards responded by taking to the streets, banging pots and pans in protests and denouncing the government.
That voter anger swept the Socialists back to power for the first time in eight years.
So the Spanish voted against the party that had failed to protect the Spanish people from Islamist terrorism and then refused to face up to what had happened in Madrid. I’m not sure how a vote for the status quo ? a government that fought terror by sending a few troops to Iraq and by lying in the face of disaster ? would have been braver than a vote for change.