Did terrorists succeed in toppling the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, one of the Bush administration’s staunchest allies in the Iraq War? A surprising number of commentators appear to believe just that. By voting for the Socialist opposition, which promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq by June 30, many appear to believe that a majority of Spaniards in last Sunday’s elections acted as unwitting accomplices in the terrorists’ cause.
It is true that the governing Popular Party led in the polls until days before the elections, and it would likely have been re-elected but for the horrific train bombings in Madrid that occurred just 72 hours before the voting started. But that does not mean voters turned against the government out of fear of the terrorists. The reality is more complicated.
Those who believe the Spanish electorate was cowed by the bombings assume Aznar’s support for the Iraq War represented a principled stance in support of the U.S.-led war on terror. It is a view shared by President George W. Bush and many in his administration, who would surely have hailed a victory of Aznar’s Popular Party as proof that those who stand up for what is right are likely to be rewarded. Indeed, just two days before the elections, Bush sang Aznar’s praises, telling Spanish television, "He is a man that understands the war on terror, clearly knows the stakes and knows that we must never give an inch to the terrorists." In other words, a vote for Aznar’s party is a vote against the terrorists.
But this analysis is flawed in at least two important respects. Nearly 90 percent of the Spanish population opposed Aznar’s decision to support Bush’s war against Iraq. They saw it as a dangerous, destabilizing, and unnecessary intervention that was likely to result in more ill than good. While most Spaniards may not have blamed the terrorist attacks on Aznar’s support for Bush, the bombings enhanced the salience of the Iraq issue just days before the election. Indeed, turnout last Sunday rose significantly, especially among the young, to the apparent benefit of the Socialist Party.
Another flaw in this reasoning is in assuming that Spaniards, like Americans, see Iraq as the central front in the war on terror. They don’t. For them, as for most Europeans, the war in Iraq and the war on terror are completely separate. In fact, the train bombings in Madrid (like the earlier attacks in Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Turkey) underscored that toppling Saddam Hussein had not ended the threat of terrorism. To the contrary, it may even have encouraged it — which is how many Spaniards interpreted last week’s terrorist attacks.
The train bombings put the government in a quandary, which it tried to escape by pointing the finger at ETA, even though this Basque terror group had never engaged in a terrorist act of this magnitude. Even as signs of al Qaeda involvement multiplied, and the inevitable link to Iraq became politically salient, the government insisted that ETA more likely than not was responsible for the attacks. None of this rang true to a majority of Spaniards.
The widespread fear that the ouster of a trusted ally by Spanish voters severely weakens Europe’s willingness to cooperate with the United States in combating terrorism is therefore based on a misreading of recent events. Spaniards of every political stripe — conservative and socialist — are united in their commitment to stand up to terror. All of them, after all, have lived with the reality of terror for many, many years. The same is true for all other European allies — be they new or old.
The scale of the latest catastrophe means that Spain and all European countries now realize that terrorists can strike as easily in Barcelona, Berlin, Birmingham or Bologna as they can in Boston or Buffalo. The need to strengthen international cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence, and, when necessary, military operations has clearly been underscored — as European ministers meeting just yesterday made clear.
There is another lesson here, which has to do with governance in a democracy. Governments that ignore the wishes of their own people — and that over time fail to convert them to their cause — will likely suffer the consequences at the polls. The same goes for governments that manipulate information or mislead their voters. It is a lesson all democratic governments, interested in re-election, would do well to heed.
Ivo H. Daalder is a special adviser to the Center for American Progress and a senior fellow at the Brookings Insitution.
This story originally appeared in NRC Handelsblad on March 17, 2003. Reprinted with permission.