Setting a Bad Example

Spanish voters this week handed Al Qaeda its greatest victory yet in the war on terror. For the first time, it managed to topple an enemy's government, and change a major Western country's foreign policy. And they did it with only 10 small bombs, detonated apparently with cheap cell phones, placed during rush hour in the suburbs of Madrid on the eve of national elections. The terrorists managed to persuade enough voters to turn against the ruling, and favored, Popular Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and throw the election to his Socialist opponent, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

And one of Zapatero's first pronouncements was to confirm his party's determination to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. Whatever anyone thinks about the justness of the war in Iraq, it's a sad development for democracy--and a signal to everyone that terrorism not only works, it can even win.

In many ways, the Madrid bombing was the first time a major Al Qaeda action accomplished what it intended. Even looking at it from the terrorists' point of view, the organization's campaign has backfired on it from the beginning. Its ill-conceived bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad in November 1995 inevitably forced Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden to flee in 1996 from their refuge in Sudan, a host country that previously had been eating from bin Laden's palm. The U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam stepped up the pressure on Sudan to such a degree that Khartoum finally moved a long way back into the ranks of civilized nations. The bombing of the USS Cole in Aden provoked Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government to crack down on Islamic militants who previously had a pretty free hand there. They still had Afghanistan and, to some extent, Pakistan. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon led in short order to the destruction of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the denial to Al Qaeda of invaluable bases, training camps and, of course, a friendly state sponsor. Pakistan made a historic volte-face in its former tolerance and even support for Islamic extremism. America's 9/11 galvanized the country into action; Spain's 3/11 provoked what can only be described as an ignominious retreat.

This is not to say that Zapatero and the Socialists are entirely to blame for the Spanish fiasco. Aznar's inept handling of the bombing aftermath was the immediate culprit, with his insistence on blaming ETA even when the evidence started pointing toward Islamic fanatics. Millions of Spaniards took to the streets in an unprecedented show of opposition to terrorism, but what started as an anti-ETA outpouring soon became an antigovernment one. Spaniards can hardly be faulted under the circumstances for voting the Popular Party down, and Zapatero not surprisingly stuck to his party's guns, and promised a withdrawal from Iraq. But it hardly diminishes Al Qaeda's victory that Aznar scored an own goal, and gave the game to the Socialists--and to Al Qaeda.

That the terrorists see it this way immediately became clear. A group called the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, which some analysts believe is a Moroccan affiliate of Al Qaeda, sent a statement to the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat claiming responsibility and congratulating Spain. "Because of this decision, the leadership has decided to stop all operations within the Spanish territories until we know the intentions of the new government that has promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. And we repeat this to all the brigades present in European lands: Stop all operations."

Nor is it enough to say that 90 percent of Spaniards opposed the war in Iraq. Similarly large percentages of Italians are antiwar as well, but when suicide bombers killed 17 carabinieri and Italian troops at their barracks in An Nasariya last November, the Italian public responded with outrage against the terrorists, and determination not to have their deployment there dictated by them. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gained support, rather than lost it. Poles and South Koreans, Japanese and even Thais have taken terrorist casualties in Iraq, and despite thin support back home, their leaders have refused to be chased away. It would have been an act of statesmanship and courage if Zapatero had put a decision on Iraq on hold; it could have negated the inevitable impression of appeasement and robbed the terrorists of their sense of victory.

Not to do so, possibly in the short run, makes Spain safer from terrorism, but it will have the opposite effect elsewhere. Italy and Britain particularly have reason to fear that terrorists will be emboldened by their Spanish victory to try to repeat it in those countries. France has to wonder if this won't encourage Islamists furious over its head-scarf ban to resort to bombs rather than politics to end it. Germany has agreed to run training programs for Iraqi police, angering the opposition, who have already killed German businessmen working on reconstruction in Iraq. Every single American ally in the Coalition has to consider now that their own countries are in even greater danger from terrorism than they were a week ago, thanks to Spain's surrender. And in the long run, so is Spain. To Islamic extremists, Iberia is just a farther West Bank, and one with a substantial, and alienated, migrant population of Muslim Moroccans. Andalusia, in the fanatics' medieval world view, is an occupied territory, and they'll be back.

There's a lot of compensatory talk from Madrid now of getting tough on the terrorists. "They will not have a moment's rest," as Zapatero put it. Good, but the safety that brings will be illusory. Terrorism is a worldwide problem, one that has to be fought in a concerted, cross-borders way. The Spanish now have broken ranks, and everyone else is the worse for it. Europeans have tried to appease terrorists before, and it never worked. France especially has done so, which only brought it periods of respite followed by fresh outrages. It wasn't French constructive engagement that forced Muammar Kaddafi to atone for the bombings of airliners, but the American and British resolve to play hardball over Pan Am 103 from 1998 until the Libyans finally caved this year. The French families of the victims of the 1999 UTA outrage had to settle for the leftovers.

The war in Iraq may well be, as Zapatero describes it, a fiasco. It probably was "based on lies." It certainly does appear that the evidence of WMD was cooked, and badly. But it's also clear to everyone now that pulling out of that country precipitously is not in the best interests of Iraq, and indeed most Iraqis don't even want that. Even Shiite leaders, who represent the majority of the country's population, especially in the Spanish troops' area of responsibility, are content to see a phased and relatively gradual transfer of power. Those who don't, have so little popular support that they're increasingly resorting to Madrid-style tactics, suicide bombings and attacks on civilians, Iraqi and foreign. It's fine for the Spanish to get on their high horse about the Iraq war, and we can even grant they're right. But if the rest of the Coalition were to follow their example and abandon Iraq, the civil war that will inevitably follow will be far worse than anything we've yet seen. Of course that won't happen; America would probably stay even in the absence of allies, with profound consequences for its relationships with the rest of the world. Either way, that would really be a victory for the wrong side in the war on terror.