March 15, 2004,
The results of Sunday's election in Spain, in which the pro-American Popular party was voted out of office in an upset by a Socialist party profoundly at odds with American policy in Iraq and elsewhere, doesn't leave much room for interpretation. Economics wasn't the issue. Job creation and education weren't topics of widespread debate. The war in Iraq, which the conservative Aznar government strongly supported, despite the overwhelming opposition of most Spaniards, had largely evaporated as a factor in the polls before the voting. Not even the horrible terror attacks of Thursday did much to change voters' minds.
The thing that made the difference to Spanish voters was the growing apprehension that al Qaeda was responsible for the attacks. In the first few hours after the atrocity, homegrown ETA terrorists were blamed by the government for the attacks. If true, this would have strengthened the government's strong antiterrorist position. But subsequent evidence of possible al Qaeda involvement evidence mostly unverified and still under investigation was used by the Socialists in noisy street demonstrations supported by Spain's left-wing press as proof that al Qaeda was targeting Spain because of its support of the U.S. in Iraq and that the government had lied in claiming the ETA was the culprit, despite the fact that potential Arab involvement had been discovered by the outgoing government. BBC reports from Madrid cast the election as a referendum not just on the war, but on whether or not Spanish voters were willing to face the consequences of joining the war on terrorism.
They were not. Spanish voters went to the polls to apologize for their government's actions. There was no other issue on the ballot. The results bode ill for America's antiterrorism campaign. As the Daily Telegraph reports today, the new Spanish prime minister has signaled his desire to move away from the U.S.; withdrawing troops from the Coalition in Iraq was one of the Socialists' main campaign promises, and indeed, it was one of the first acts announced by the new government. By the time you have lunch today, reports the BBC with some satisfaction, Spanish troops will be packing their bags to go home.
But the reaction in the left-wing European press is predictable. The Guardian had already sounded the note the night before the elections in an editorial that reflected the Spanish mood accurately: "We need to take the fight against terror out of America's hands. We need to get beyond the them and us, the good guys and the bad guys, and seek a genuinely collective response. Europe should seize the moment that America failed to grasp." As Spain's left-wing El Pais celebrated the Socialists' "unprecedented" victory, in Libération, the defeat was seen as the price of Aznar's "lies" about al Qaeda culpability. Suddeutsche Zeitung told readers that Aznar was being punished for supporting America's antiterrorism policies in Iraq and elsewhere. In the Independent, Robert Fisk reminded his readers that "The West was warned." He's not referring to September 11, of course.
The ultimate wisdom of allowing al Qaeda terrorism to determine national elections is still to be seen. But as the Socialists in Spain get "beyond the them and us, the good guys and the bad guys," and attempt to find the common ground they have with whomever killed 200 innocent citizens and wounded 1,400 others, that country's apology for supporting the war on terrorism will be heard with appreciation by al Qaeda and ETA, the IRA, Hamas, and every other terrorist organization in the world.