Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The rain in Spain is not as sad as the blame in Spain,

I.
APPEASEMENT OR ACCOUNTABILITY? READING TEA LEAVES IN THE SPAINISH ELECTIONS,

At Daniel Drezner's blog there is much handwringing and woe-betide-us for the fall of Aznar's Popular Party to the Socialist. There is also much woe-is-us over the "possibility" that Alqueda may have successfully attempted to influence the Spanish elections.

Additionally, Brooks in the NYT writes in his column:

I am trying not to think harshly of the Spanish. They have suffered a grievous blow, and it was crazy to go ahead with an election a mere three days after the Madrid massacre. Nonetheless, here is what seems to have happened:

The Spanish government was conducting policies in Afghanistan and Iraq that Al Qaeda found objectionable. A group linked to Al Qaeda murdered 200 Spaniards, claiming that the bombing was punishment for those policies. Some significant percentage of the Spanish electorate was mobilized after the massacre to shift the course of the campaign, throw out the old government and replace it with one whose policies are more to Al Qaeda's liking.

What is the Spanish word for appeasement?

There are millions of Americans, in and out of government, who believe the swing Spanish voters are shamefully trying to seek a separate peace in the war on terror.

I'm resisting that conclusion, because I don't know what mix of issues swung the Spanish election during those final days. But I do know that reversing course in the wake of a terrorist attack is inexcusable. I don't care what the policy is. You do not give terrorists the chance to think that their methods work. You do not give them the chance to celebrate victories. When you do that, you make the world a more dangerous place, for others and probably for yourself.


Dan quotes Ed N. Luttwak in the NYT as writing:

Even those who view the Iraq war as a strategic error for the United States — and I'm one of them — cannot take seriously the Zapateros of Europe, who seem bent on validating the crudest caricatures of "old European" cowardly decadence. It was an act of colossal irresponsibility for the Socialists and the Spanish news media to excoriate the Aznar government for asserting that ETA, the Basque separatist movement, was probably behind the attacks.

Were the Socialists certain Al Qaeda 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.


II.
DID THE SPAINARDS BLINK?

First of all the oldman rejects the idea that the Spainish media had it in for Aznar's government. As the oldman's last point on the subject cited sources showing, immediately after the Madrid 311 (11-M) bombings the Spainish newspapers blamed ETA. Indeed, interviews with people on the street (polls were not being taken during the mourning period) showed that most people thought that the ETA was involved. This wasn't a mere guess in the dark. The compressed dynamite and remote triggered explosions were signatures that pointed toward ETA.

However, as MSNBC reports Aznar's government tried to politicize the bombings fearing (rightly) that their political opponents would try to capitalize upon it to blame Aznar's government for the bombing:

MADRID, March 16 - In the first frantic hours after coordinated bomb blasts ripped through several packed commuter trains Thursday morning, the government of outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar undertook an intense campaign to convince the Spanish public and world opinion-makers that the Basque separatist group ETA had carried out the attacks, which killed 201 people and wounded more than 1,500.

Beginning immediately after the blasts, Aznar and other officials telephoned journalists, stressing ETA's responsibility and dismissing speculation that Islamic extremists might be involved. Spanish diplomats pushed a hastily drafted resolution blaming ETA through the U.N. Security Council. At an afternoon news conference, when a reporter suggested the possibility of an al Qaeda connection, the interior minister, Angel Acebes, angrily denounced it as "a miserable attempt to disrupt information and confuse people."

"There is no doubt that ETA is responsible," Acebes said.


Within days, that assertion was in tatters, and with it the reputation and fortunes of the ruling party. Suspicion that the government manipulated information -- blaming ETA in order to divert any possible link between the bombings and Aznar's unpopular support for the war in Iraq -- helped fuel the upset victory of the Socialist Workers' Party in Sunday's elections. By then, Islamic extremists linked to al Qaeda had become the focus of the investigation.

III.
WHAT IS THE LESSON?

Make no mistake, the Spainish victory of the Socialist party cannot help but be construed as a victory for Alqeuda. However, the blame does not fall upon the Socialist party. Aznar's government had been already weakened on several issues. They had been forced into admitting mishandling the worst environmental disaster in modern Spainish history, an oil tanker running aground off the shore of Spain. Aznar had also gambled away his credibility asserting that there were indeed WMD in Iraq. The subsequent failure to find any WMD heavily damaged his reputation with his public.

Aznar had successfully conducted a counter-terrorism campaign cracking down on ETA. However, he then over-extended in Iraq with more than 90% of the population not supporting the Spainish support of the US military action there. With his credibility already riddled with holes and having lost the trust of the public, when the perception of an attempt to politically manipulate the Spainish electorate arose at the last minute before the elections the Popular Party was NOT given the benefit of the doubt by the voters. With an unusually high turn-out at 77% versus roughly 55% for the last election and the fact that before 11-M the Popular Party was comfortably ahead of the Socialist Party in the polls, the only reasonable conclusion is that Spainish voters clearly had decided that they no longer trusted or wanted Aznar, his successor, and his Popular Party in order to run the country.

So Aznar did it to himself. The lesson is that governments cannot lie to their voters, and then invoke the boogie man of "handing a victory to terrorists" in order to persuade the voters to not hold them accountable. Personally, the oldman thought Aznar's choice to support the United States was brave, but as a Spainish Aznar supporter and pro-Iraq-War poster named brios suggested on Dan's blog, Aznar should have simply stated that it was a realpolitick decision to side with the United States rather than a conviction about WMD intelligence. So the lesson is that governments cannot abuse the trust of their voters, and then count on the specter of giving aid or comfort to terrorist causes in order to bail them out at the voting booth.

As MSNBC reports on the European reaction:

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen an actual terrorist attack specifically timed for an election in another country and dictate a nation’s foreign policy,” says Steven Emerson, a noted terrorism specialist and author of American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us.“It’s an incredible feat for al-Qaida or whatever group carried it out.”

The devastation wrought by the bombings -- the worst act of terrorism in European history –- helped topple a Spanish government that had been seen as a certain victor in the March 14 general elections. Instead, the Popular Party, which had ruled for eight years, lost in a landslide to the Socialist Party, which stood fervently against the Iraq war and has since promised to pull out Spain’s 1,300-strong contingent unless the United Nations is put in charge by June.


Eventually the lies become too much and the voters rebel. One thing we know for sure is that there was nothing stopping Aznar from coming clean before the elections. Nothing was stopping Aznar from leveling with his public, either in the run up to the War in Iraq or later. He failed to do this and lost the trust of his public. Transparency, public trust, and credibility still matter at the voting booth, and terrorism does not trump all other issues. This is a lesson that the neo-Republicans who have captured control of the Republican party here in the States should take to heart.

As this MSNBC article reports on the post-11-M scene in Spain:

MADRID, March 15 - The hand-lettered sign at the sidewalk memorial for the 200 victims of last week's deadly train bombings starkly summed up a sentiment of many who came to pay respects Monday afternoon. It read: "They Died to Support Bush."

Sunday's stunning electoral defeat for the ruling party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, one of President Bush's closest European allies, reflected a late surge of public anger over the government's support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq triggered both by the attacks and by the sense the government had sought to exploit the bombings for political gain, according to political analysts and voters.

Several added that it also reflected a sense of alarm and despair that seems to cut across the political spectrum over the way the United States is wielding power in the world.

Trust & Transparency trumps terrorism. If no one can trust you, then you are of no use to anyone no matter your other qualifications.

UPDATE: This NYT article summarizes the Aznar government attempt to suppress discussion of the responsibility for the 11-M bombings:

But interviews with scores of Spaniards of both parties indicated that a number of things happened after the attacks that shifted the balance to the Socialists. Voters flooded the polls on Sunday in record numbers, especially young people who had not planned to vote. In interviews, they said they did so not so much out of fear of terror as out of anger against a government they saw as increasingly authoritarian, arrogant and stubborn. The government, they said, mishandled the crisis in the emotional days after the attacks.

Voters said they were enraged not only by the government's insistence that the Basque separatist group ETA was responsible, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, but they also resented its clumsy attempts to quell antigovernment sentiment.

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