The Spanish election result

Recent articles in the conservative press (e.g. by Martin Wolf in the Financial Times, reproduced below in full) have hailed the PSOE election victory as a win for al-Qaida. I can’t help but think that this is an insult to the intelligence of the Spanish electorate. For a counter view, see A victory for Spain, not al-Qaida by Ivan Briscoe, at openDemocracy. Note, you may have to register first. This is free and well worth the effort, IMHO, as the quality of the writing at this site is generally of a very high standard.

Terrorism will thrive unless the world unites against it
MARTIN WOLF. Financial Times. London (UK): Mar 17, 2004. pg. 19

The defeat of the Popular party of Jose Maria Aznar, Spain’s outgoing prime minister, has given al-Qaeda a resounding victory. That seems quite evident. The bombings have demonstrated the political effectiveness of terrorism; they have fractured the coalition in favour of the Iraq war; and they are likely to promote a realignment of forces against the US within the European Union, at the expense of Tony Blair. If this is not a victory for the terrorists, I find it hard to imagine what would be.

Whether the Socialists’ victory is to be viewed in this way is a different question from whether Mr Aznar’s party deserved the hammering it received. Many argue that the voters would not have responded as they did if the outgoing government had not attempted to pin the blame on Eta, the Basque separatist organisation. Many also insist that Mr Aznar should not have aligned himself with President George W. Bush’s allegedly criminal war in Iraq. Both propositions are arguable. But the truth remains that the bombings transformed the result from the one expected. That – and that alone – is what must matter to the perpetrators of this outrage.

Too many people believe that people must be mad if they are evil. But it is far more sensible to assume that one’s enemies are only mad “north-north-west”. However insane their objectives, they understand what they are doing and why. That was true of Adolf Hitler. It is true of al-Qaeda’s leaders as well. Osama bin Laden has made no secret of his objective, which is to restore the seventh- century Caliphate and drive “the crusaders” out of Islamic lands. Mr bin Laden (if he is still alive) will never achieve his objectives in full. But it is not inconceivable that his terrorist enterprise could obtain control over a nuclear-armed Pakistan or over Saudi Arabia, which contains a quarter of the world’s oil reserves. And what would the world look like then? “Appalling” can be the only answer.

Driving powerful outsiders out of the Islamic world is a necessary condition for securing such broad aims. Success in that would enhance the terrorists’ prestige among the populations of Islamic countries and so make pro-western regimes even more vulnerable than they already are. That is not an unattainable objective.

One of al-Qaeda’s boasts is that it defeated and destroyed the Soviet Union. Now its enemy in chief is the US. Peeling off America’s allies would be an intelligent way of isolating and, in the minds of the terrorists, ultimately defeating the sole superpower. Over the weekend, after a terrorist attack, the Spanish electorate threw out a government allied closely with the US. It would be surprising if at least as big an outrage were not planned for London. If the UK withdrew from the alliance as a result, an isolated US might consider abandoning the struggle inside the Islamic world. If it did, al-Qaeda would have secured its immediate objective. If it did not, the west would be fractured. Either way, the terrorists could reasonably believe that, notwithstanding inevitable setbacks, they were making good progress in their long war. Their prestige – and recruitment – would rise.

The election in Spain is now history. So is the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Democrats naturally accept the outcome of the Spanish election. Few even of the opponents of the war in Iraq presumably believe Mr Hussein should be returned to power. Recrimination over bygones serves no useful purpose. What is necessary, instead, is to form an intelligent view of the dangers that lie ahead. If we think carefully, the challenges we confront become somewhat clearer, even if all the answers do not – and cannot.

First, the Islamic terrorists are not going to vanish. Such terrorism can neither be prevented nor defeated altogether: there are too many targets and too many would-be perpetrators. Like it or not (we do not, of course, as al-Qaeda constantly reminds us), we in the rest of the world have to endure.

Second, the terrorists are prepared to go to any lengths to achieve their aims. This creates, in extreme form, the classic liberal dilemma: how do people who believe in freedom respond to those who would use that tolerance to threaten it. Fiat justitia, ruat caelum -let justice be done though the heavens fall – is an unacceptable motto in such circumstances. The first job of the state is to keep people safe. We cannot make our world perfectly safe from these terrorists. But people believed to be planning the deaths of tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of innocents can also not be allowed to roam freely.

Third, we cannot concede control either over nuclear weapons or over a large part of the world’s oil reserves to such people. These are vital national interests. If the west were to withdraw from engagement in the Islamic world, al-Qaeda would be a long way towards what it considers to be its divinely ordained victory. Yet it is equally evident that the terrorists’ home bases can be eliminated only if the Islamic world first makes it impossible for people dedicated to the mass murder of innocents to find a home of any sort inside it. Western policy must be guided by the aim of securing that co-operation from the Islamic world, however difficult that task may be.

Fourth, success even in limiting terrorism depends on the closest possible co-operation among the largest number of countries. Given this, virtually all the rhetoric and much of the practice of the Bush administration have been nothing short of a disaster. The administration might have secured support for the war in Iraq if it had not first trampled on the sensibilities of its allies. Language matters. The US cannot win this struggle on its own, or by military means alone. It needs to re-dedicate itself to the principle of acting multilaterally where possible and unilaterally only when necessary. But the rest of the world needs also to abandon its reflex anti-Americanism.

Finally, let us at least recognise the scale of the danger. Armed with nuclear weapons, fanatics of this kind could make fear the enemy of civilised life on this planet. These people are, alas, far from insane. They are true believers, unburdened either by restraint or by remorse. They have suffered losses since September 11 2001. But they have also made gains: the election result in Spain was one. They have learnt, yet again, that terrorism can work. The rest of the world has to unite in response. No good can come from squabbling over the mistakes of the past. If we cannot now co-operate wholeheartedly, only our mortal enemies will prosper.