The Real Spanish Disaster

Almost the first spoken words of the new Spanish prime minister after his election March 13 was to call the war in Iraq a disaster.

The disaster, however, was not in Iraq but in Spain. I do not just mean the backpack bombings that killed about 200 Spaniards on Spanish trains. Rather, it is the result of the Spanish election and what it portends.

The new Spanish leader thought Spain was a target of al-Qaida attack because it supported the effort in Iraq. In this he was right. France was not bombed; Spain was. This semi-security by no means proves that France's turn will not come in one form or another. The Spanish reasoning concludes that if it had not involved itself in this war, it would not have been targeted.

The logic of this approach is that no general threat exists except in the fevered imaginations of the Americans. The defeated Popular Party bought into it. The only “enemy” is the enemy that thinks there is an enemy. Al-Qaida comes away looking like geniuses, as they are in many ways.

Not only have they caused major disruption in the United States, but they have also found an effective way to neutralize a democratic people. Panic them before an election so they will enclose within themselves. No more participation in any action that might actually stop the al-Qaida movement by the only means that movement understands.

What are we to make of all of this? First, if the Iraq war had nothing to do with al-Qaida, why does this same alQaida attack Spain except because of its connection with the war? By its own implicit admission, the Iraq invasion has plenty to do with al-Qaida.

A free people can use or be manipulated into using their freedom against themselves.

The al-Qaida operatives by now realize what a brilliant political move they made in killing those 200 innocent Spaniards. This one did not even need a suicide bomber. Several segments of al-Qaida also think they must reverse Spain's success in finally expelling Islam back in the 15th century.

Their memories are long, their ambitions great.

They realized, as they suspected, that there was little real will to confront them and their terrorist efforts. Spain was, even more than Sept. 11 in the United States, a perfect laboratory to experiment in “new weaponry.” It makes the research in New Mexico on nuclear weapons seem obsolete. Sophisticated weapons are useless to protect people who do not want to be protected or, better, do not want to take the means to protect themselves.

In the theory of the Muslim movements behind al-Qaida, the official organization that declared war in the first place, there are no “innocents.” It is interesting how this presumed line in the sand between combatant and noncombatant has disappeared. As soldiers they are simply ineffective. As cowards who deal in innocent lives, they are lethal.

But theirs are calculating minds. They know the innate unwillingness of Western peoples to see what is at stake. We can expect this new weapon, bombing innocents to determine elections, to be a regular factor of elections in Poland, Italy, England and the United States. Its political purpose will be systematically to elect into positions of power weak and cowardly leaders who will not pursue the movement with a steady and unrelenting force.

The Spanish election again reveals that, already, a world war is going on. It is not the kind of “world war” among nation-states we might expect. But it is planned and plotted to undermine the remaining forces that might prevent the ideal of the Muslim radicals from achieving their long-desired goal. It is quite possible for this movement to succeed if it reads the moral and political weaknesses and cowardice of Western people correctly.

Already the demographic war is being rapidly lost in Europe. Declining populations and unwillingness to act explain a good deal of the fear we see in Europe. A formidable enemy is in place because of the success of inexpensive terrorist tactics, together with the declaration that no innocent people are recognized in the West, that suicide bombing is a kind of martyrdom.

Some three policies seem to be open to us at this point. We can continue President Bush's policy of finding and destroying terrorist groups wherever they are found. This effort can work, but it requires a greater political cohesiveness in the West than exists. It also involves the recognition that the present governance in the Muslim world itself needs to be changed. It is an up-to-date version of making the world safe by, not for, democracy.

The only trouble is, as the Spanish election shows, we cannot expect many democracies to see what is at stake. Perhaps better, they see what is at stake and choose to drop out.

Secondly, we could, as the terrorists themselves seem to want, elect to every political office, where real opposition might be mustered, men who will not fight. Such leaders will have some elaborate rationalization, usually involving an inept United Nations, about dialogues or other modes that simply cannot work with such a determined enemy and his weapons of terror.

Finally, we could follow what I call a revised “farewell address” policy. This view would argue that these are not our problems. We do not care very much what kind of regimes exist elsewhere. No one will harm us if we withdraw from the world. We need to limit our ambitions and our interests. The world will not be safe for democracy, ever. The best policy is to stay armed at home.

If the Spanish elections mean anything, the most likely immediate future is the second. Bombings before elections will be used to elevate into power essentially weak-willed political leaders who have a mandate to do nothing in hopes they will not be terrorized.

The way to get rid of this moral obstacle is simply to declare and carry into effect the thesis that no one is innocent. This is what the Spanish election suggests. It is a war of minds. Many do not wish to see what is happening. Here lies the real disaster.

Jesuit Father James Schall is a professor of political science at Georgetown University.