Thursday, March 18, 2004

The stunning victory of the Spanish Socialist party in the wake of the Al Qaida bombing attacks that killed 200 in Madrid, and Spanish prime minister Zapatero's subsequent announcement that his country's troops would soon be withdrawn from Iraq, have provoked some odd reactions. Edward Luttwak, who originally opposed the US campaign in Iraq, believes nonetheless that the troop withdrawal announcement was a huge victory for Osama bin Laden, who will view it as a capitulation that invites further intimidating attacks. (In that regard, he has much company on the right-hand side of the blogosphere.) On the left, Mark Kleiman also believes that the results "aren't good news for the war on Al Qaeda", although he suspects that they are a mere electoral accident, borne of surprisingly high turnout among younger voters, rather than a metaphorical electoral white flag raised in response to terrorism.

On the other hand, Volokh Conspirator Jacob Levy believes that a Spanish pullout from Iraq would be irrelevant to the overall war on terror. Crooked Timber's John Quiggin goes even further, claiming that the Spanish reaction is actually a boon to the war on terrorism, since it helps shift attention away from the massive red herring that is Iraq, and towards direct targeting of Al Qaida. Moreover, he argues, any encouragement that Al Qaida may glean from Zapatero's decision will have absolutely no practical impact, because as a fanatical terrorist group, it simply attacks its Western enemies wherever and whenever it can, regardless of whether those enemies attempt appeasement or confrontation in response.

This last point is certainly valid; a Spanish pullout from Iraq will hardly boost the average radical Islamic terrorist's morale at all, compared with the inspiring effect of the murderous bombing that preceded it. And Levy is also correct in saying that the war in Iraq is not the same as the war on terrorism.

But all the participants in this debate are missing the real significance of Zapatero's decision: it's a strong indicator of future Spanish--and potentially future general European--attitudes towards Western assertiveness in general with respect to terrorist groups and their activities. As it happens, Zapatero did not only call Spanish troops home--he also stated that "fighting terrorism with bombs ... with Tomahawk missiles, isn't the way to defeat terrorism....Terrorism is combated by the state of law." European Commission president Romano Prodi expressed similar sentiments: "Europe applies different instruments [against terrorism], suited to help our citizens leave fear behind: using politics and not just force, which has created further fear." Regardless of one's opinion of the situation in Iraq, these comments from European leaders are not auspicious portents for the war on terrorism.

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