Something Rotten In Europe

The appearance of appeasement in Spain


Maybe it was just a coincidence that the March 11 train bombings in Madrid came exactly 2 1/2 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.—and, for an added frisson, exactly 911 days after 9/11. Maybe it was a deliberate, harrowing message to the West. Even without this eerie detail, the images of death and destruction in Spain were bound to evoke echoes of America's Sept. 11. For many Americans, though, the solidarity quickly turned to bafflement and even bitterness at the Spanish people's reaction.

After the election-eve revelation that the bombings had been carried out by Al Qaeda to punish Spain for its participation in the US war effort in Iraq, the voters did not stand tough and rally around the government led by pro-war Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Instead, they threw out Aznar's Popular Party, which had led in the polls before the attack, and backed the antiwar Socialists. The prime minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, has already called the war "a fiasco" and pledged to withdraw the small contingent of Spanish troops from Iraq unless the United Nations takes over by June 30.

Much of the US commentary on these events has expressed sentiments ranging from concern to dismay to anger. The election results have been widely seen as a capitulation, a craven surrender in the war on terror. Conservatives have been especially scathing: "This weekend's election was Spain's most inglorious hour since the restoration of democracy," wrote David Frum in his online diary at National Review Online. "Terrorists have often attempted to intimidate free peoples—almost invariably without success. Now at last they have won. And they will be back." A Wall Street Journal editorial was starkly subtitled, "The bombers 'voted,' and Aznar's party lost in Spain."

Others caution that the situation cannot be reduced to such a simplistic formula. To a great extent, the Spanish vote represented a backlash against the Aznar government's brazen attempt to mislead the public and manipulate the media in order to blame the bombing on ETA, a Basque terrorist group. The outrage over the attack and the cover-up spurred very high voter turnout—in particular, among disaffected, left-leaning young people. What's more, some polls suggest that the Popular Party's lead had started to erode in the days before the attack.

And yet, undeniably, the outcome was influenced by anger at the government for getting involved in a war that about 90 percent of the population opposed, and thus apparently putting its people in harm's way. At Reason, Julian Sanchez writes that this should not necessarily be seen as appeasement. The war in Iraq, he argues, is not the same as the war on terror; Zapatero has vowed to pursue tough antiterror measures and stressed that Spanish troops will stay in Afghanistan. Sanchez wonders if all the hue and cry about Spanish appeasement and surrender is really self-defeating, since it does assure the terrorists that they have won.

That's all very well. But if perceptions matter as much as actions, shouldn't Zapatero have been careful to avoid the perception that his pledge to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq—even if, in his view, it is based on sound policy considerations—was a capitulation to terrorism? Nor is it very reassuring to hear Zapatero say that terrorism must not be fought "with bombs [and] Tomahawk missiles" but, rather, "by the state of law" (whatever that means).

The Euro-bashing that has become fashionable in the United States of late can be irritating; but on such occasions, it is hard not to conclude that something is rotten in the states of Europe. Romano Prodi, the chief of the European Commission, responded to the Madrid bombings by saying, "It is clear that using force is not the answer to resolving the conflict with terrorists." An editorial in The Guardian, a leading British newspaper, scoffed, "Are those who perpetrated the commuter train bombings to be hunted down and smoked out of their lairs…?" and preached about the need to "get beyond the them and us, the good guys and the bad guys." Of course, that applies only when the bad guys are terrorists; the same concern is not extended to the Israelis, who are slammed in the same editorial for responding to terrorism with retribution.

The United States, and President Bush in particular, have often been accused of an overly simplistic, black-and-white approach to complex international conflicts. But if this is moral complexity, I'll take a black-and-white approach any time.