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US Media React to Spanish Vote - 2004-03-22

In the wake of the Madrid bombing, Spain voted out the government that supported President Bush’s policies in favor of an opponent. Prime Minister-Elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has called the occupation of Iraq “a fiasco” and announced he would take his country back where it belongs – under the wings of Western Europe. Spain’s reaction has elicited contrasting views in the US media. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Supporters of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar gathered by the headquarters of his Popular Party and accused the new leader, a Socialist, of being soft on terrorism. “Zapatero, president of al Qaida!” they chanted.

US commentators may not have gone as far as that, but many have compared Madrid with Munich of 1938 and Mr. Zapatero with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who acceded to Adolf Hitler’s partition of Czechoslovakia.

Haven’t Europeans learned anything from history? asks columnist Cal Thomas with a heading: “Terror rains on Spain.” “Don't they recall the resignation of Austria's president in 1938 and the annexation of his country by Germany to "avoid war"? This merely increased Hitler's appetite, and he launched World War II by invading Czechoslovakia following British and French appeasement at Munich. Spain will make itself and the rest of the West less safe if Zapatero follows through on his promise of a troop withdrawal.”

Removing those troops from Iraq is ill advised, writes David Brooks in The New York Times. It enhances terrorism: “Al Qaida has now induced one nation to abandon the Iraqi people. The terrorists sought this because they understand, even if many in Europe do not, that Iraq is a crucial battleground in the war on terror. They understand what a deadly threat the new democratic constitution is to their cause. As (a close associate of Osama bin Laden) Abu Musab al-Zaqawi wrote in his famous memo, ‘Where there is democracy, there is no pretext for murder. Where there is liberty, there is no chance for totalitarian theocracy.’”

Appeasement may work in the short run, but in the long term it is a disaster, writes Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution in California. Osama bin Laden and his followers will move on from Spain: “They have no wish to stop attacking anyone until the world is properly under their particular brand of Islam. They are limited in their means, and we have means at our disposal to fight them. But there is no safety in trying to opt out.”

Many commentators are worried that other European countries will follow Spain’s example, sending terrorists the message that their methods work.

The United States remains Al-Qaida’s ultimate target, says columnist Robert Novak. He cites intelligence sources that predict terrorists will stage another major attack on the United States prior to the November elections in an effort to defeat president Bush: “Climaxing over three centuries of defeat and decline on the world stage, Spaniards bowed to terrorism when they voted. Americans are considerably less likely to make that choice.”

Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says Mr. Zapatero’s harsh criticism of Prime Minister Aznar suggests the Iraq war was an act of imperialist aggression, which Spain should never have supported: “Were the Socialists certain that Al Qaida was involved? No, but saying so made it easier to convince voters that the bombs had been placed by Muslims angry that Spain had sided with the United States in the war – and that the only way to make things right would be to get out of Iraq.”

But other commentators say voting for the Socialist Party in Spain is by no means bowing to terrorism. Mr. Aznar’s Popular Party lost in part because contrary to the evidence, it insisted the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible for the Madrid bombing.

David Bach, an American doctoral candidate in political science in Madrid, writes in the Washington Post: “The lesson of Madrid is that the war on terrorism can be won only with the people, not against them or behind their backs. Terrorists wage war against innocent civilians, ordinary citizens like many Madrilenos who took the train to work or school on Thursday morning. The attacks made it painfully clear once more that anyone can become the victim of terrorism, at any time, in any place. In such times of omnipresent danger, the least people expect is not to be misled by those in charge.”

Columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. agrees “The vote in Spain was not a vote for al-Qaida. It was, in part at least, a vote against the manipulation of terror for political purposes.” He disputes U-S Republicans reaction to the Madrid attack: “Thank goodness not everyone in the Republican party is willing to shout “appeasement” as soon as voters in a democratic nation express some differences with our government. It’s reasonable to think that the terrorists of Al-Qaida wanted to affect the Spanish elections. What’s hard to understand is why our own hawks are so eager to hand Al-Qaida a victory by rushing to put down Spanish voters as wimps.”

Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton University and a New York Times columnist, writes that the Spanish Socialists’ victory has been misinterpreted as a boost for terrorism: “My most immediate priority,” Spain’s new leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, declared “will be to fight terrorism.” But he and the voters who gave his party a stunning victory last Sunday don’t believe the war in Iraq is part of that fight. And the Spanish public was also outraged by what it perceived as the Aznar government’s attempt to spin last week’s terrorist attack for political purposes.”

The Iraq war has nothing to do with the battle against Al-Qaida, says Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan. So withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq does not mean giving in to terrorism. VOICE: “There is no evidence at all that the Spanish public desires the new Socialist government to pull back from a counter-insurgency effort against Al-Qaida. The evidence is only that they became convinced that the war on Iraq had detracted from that effort rather than contributing to it. This is not a cowardly conclusion and it is not a victory for Al-Qaida.”

In an interview on WETA public television, Charles Kupchan, professor of international relations at Georgetown University, agreed the Iraq war was central to Spanish voting: “I think one of the effects of the bombing was that it turned the election in Spain into a referendum, if you will, on the war in Iraq. It made it the central issue that divided the center right from the center left. And in that sense the Spanish that were opposed to the war from the beginning were saying we still don’t like it, we don’t like the way this war on terror is being waged.”

In the Los Angeles Times, author Ariel Dorfman writes that Spain is no stranger to bombing and violence. It has had to come to terms with these over the years: “There are commentators in America as well as in Spain who have declared that the Spanish people, by punishing the ruling Aznar government and electing a leader opposed to war, have offered up a victory to terrorism, that from now on fanatics will be able to use their lethal weapons to intimidate the free citizens of the world and blackmail the electorate. Such a claim is not only an insult to the maturity and courage of the Spanish people but also an insult to the intelligence of the world itself.”

Ariel Dorfman in The Lost Angeles Times adds that “just because a sovereign nation decides to reject and oppose an unnecessary, unjust and deceitful war, it does not mean that the people of that nation are not willing to defend themselves.”

Such are the opposing views of the Spanish election in the U-S media.