March 19, 2004

March 19, 2004 | Commentary on Europe

Letting Bombs Trump Ballots

"We should seek by all means in our power to avoid war." It sounds noble. But the speaker, Neville Chamberlain, will forever be linked to a doctrine of appeasement for trying to negotiate peace with Hitler.

Unfortunately, we're hearing similar sentiments from the incoming prime minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The bombings that rocked his country seem to have propelled his Socialist Party to an upset victory over the conservative government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a staunch U.S. ally. Aznar's government, which initially sought to lay the blame on Basque separatists who have conducted a terrorist campaign against the Spanish government for more than 20 years, was swept out of office by a voter backlash.

Zapatero already has pledged to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq. Such a withdrawal would weaken the coalition's effort to build a stable democracy in Iraq and make Iraq a safer place for al Qaeda terrorists to operate. This decision has made the Iraqi people the biggest losers in the Spanish elections -- and Osama bin Laden the biggest winner.

This Spanish retreat is a huge political triumph for al Qaeda and like-minded Islamic radicals -- probably their most important achievement since 9/11. Zapatero's Chamberlain-like behavior has handed Osama bin Laden a major victory. We can expect further attacks from al Qaeda or other terrorist groups, targeting other members of the coalition -- such as Britain, Poland, Italy, Ukraine, South Korea and Japan -- that helped us liberate Iraq from Saddam's brutal regime.

But was al Qaeda directly responsible? We don't know yet. The bombings, initially suspected to be the gruesome handiwork of the Basque terrorist group ETA, appear to have been launched at least in part by foreign Islamic militants with possible links to al Qaeda.

Spanish authorities have arrested six Moroccans. One of them, Jamal Zougam, had ties to an al Qaeda cell based in Spain that helped plan the 9/11 attacks. He also is a suspect in the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca that killed 33 people and 12 suicide bombers affiliated with al Qaeda. A videotape from someone claiming to be "the military spokesman for al Qaeda in Europe" proclaimed that the bombings were meant to punish Spain's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Even if it turns out that al Qaeda wasn't involved in the Madrid attacks, the group will be encouraged to launch terrorist attacks against democracies just before scheduled elections, in order to stampede panicky voters and undermine political leaders and governments that have stood strong against terrorism. This raises the already-high risk of an attack in the United States before the November elections.

By turning its back on its allies and unilaterally withdrawing from the 36-member coalition seeking to build stability in Iraq, the new Socialist government of Spain has weakened the Western alliance, undermined the future of free Iraqis, and rewarded terrorists for a bloody attack. This stance may be politically popular in Spain right now, but it's unlikely to buy Spain a separate peace in the war against terrorism, any more than opposition to the war against Iraq bought Turkey protection from the al Qaeda affiliates who killed 52 people in a series of bombings in Istanbul last November.

Al Qaeda is at war with Western ideas, ideals and societies, not just with states. The Islamic extremists who support al Qaeda consider southern Spain to be occupied Muslim land that deserves to be liberated from the "crusaders" who drove out Muslim rulers in 1492. Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahiri, referred to this loss of "Andalusia" in the first al Qaeda videotape released after Sept. 11, 2001, long before Spanish support for the war in Iraq became an issue.

The misguided and unfortunate Spanish reaction to the Madrid bombings therefore is likely to pave the way for much more terrorist bloodshed, inside Iraq and throughout the Western world. Winston Churchill once said that: "An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last." Spain's new Zapatero government has fed a voracious crocodile a substantial meal that will only enlarge its appetite in the future.

James Phillips is a research fellow in Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation (

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

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