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March 17, 2004

Who won the Spanish Elections?

By Byron LaMasters

The American right-wing would try to make you believe that the terrorists won. A brief browsing of Town Hall.com or any other conservative news site is filled with articles such as "A Win for Terror", "Blame Spain for Next Terror Attack", and "The Bin Laden Vote". And then Owen Courreges writes that "The Spanish are cowards who allow themselves to be manipulated by murderous terrorists". Is this the best the right-wing can do? Go around and fume that any election victory for a leftist or center-left government for one of our allies means that they have succumbed to Al-Queda? Is it not possible, perhaps, that there is not more to the story?

When I posted on the election the other day, I received the same type of comments in my comment thread... "it was only a good day for terrorists", "I can think of NOTHING more corrosive of democracy", etc. I stand by my post. I probably should have been a little bit more clear about why I think that the election results are good, not only for Spain, but for the world community. That's what I'll elaborate on here.

First, the Aznar government completely botched the 3/11 terrorist attack. Instead of admitting that the government had failed to adequately protect its citizens from a terrorist strike by what is most likely to be al Qaeda, the Aznar government attempted to blame the strike on the Basque separatist group ETA. Blaming the attacks on ETA was politically expedient for the Aznar government. Its much easier to blame a separatist group than to take responsibility for being unprepared for the attack of a worldwide terror organization. The Washington Post reports:

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.


Immediately after Thursday's bombings, Foreign Minister Ana Palacio telephoned her British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, to say that it was ETA, according to a British official, who added, "We had no independent evidence of our own that the Spanish were wrong." Less than two hours later, Straw was on television saying, "It looks to be an ETA terrorist outrage, and that is the information we've received from Madrid."

At the same time, the Spanish Foreign Ministry was sending instructions to its embassies, saying diplomats "should use any opportunity to confirm ETA's responsibility for these brutal attacks," according to a copy of the letter published in the Spanish daily El Pais. Spanish officials have confirmed that the instructions went out, but said they were only for "guidance."


in Madrid, radio stations were referring to "the ETA attacks" and carried none of the discussion about whether others might have been involved.

Managing the coverage of the disaster became a priority for the government, which contacted both the Spanish and international news media, stressing the official line that the bombings were the work of ETA.

El Pais, which was preparing a special edition on the attacks, received several calls directly from Aznar, its reporters confirmed. The editor of the Catalan-based paper El Periodico said Aznar called twice. Aznar "courteously cautioned me not to be mistaken. ETA was responsible," the editor, Antonio Franco, wrote in an editorial Tuesday. At a news conference on Friday, Aznar said he had called several newspapers, saying he wanted to explain the government's view.


On Saturday night -- hours before the polls opened -- the government announced the arrests of three Moroccans and two Indians, and the discovery of a videotape from a purported al Qaeda official asserting responsibility for the attacks. Thousands of Spaniards responded by taking to the streets, banging pots and pans in protests and denouncing the government.

That voter anger swept the Socialists back to power for the first time in eight years.

It's probably best to read the entire article in this morning's Washington Post. It is quite deliberate in laying out the actions of the Spanish government in trying to prevent disclosure of possible al Queda links to the attacks, and place the entirety of the blame on ETA without cause. The Aznar government deceived the Spanish people, and the voters responded. That is, as I wrote, "very good news". Anytime that a government that deliberately deceives its people on matters as important as this - their defeat is "very good news".

Second, not only did the Spanish voters respond their government's attempts to deceive them, but they responded in record numbers. The Spanish election was not a victory for terrorists. In fact, it was an example of the democratic process. The Spanish turnout saw an enormous voter turnout with millions of new voters:

Spanish voters came out in much larger than usual numbers, with a voter turnout as high as 77 per cent. Socialists who were thought to have stayed home last time came pouring out to teach the government a lesson. Particularly significant were the 2 million first-time voters, most believed to have voted Socialist. The election turned out to be a robust exercise in democracy.

How can the terrorists win when millions of new people are brought into a democratic political process? I don't get it.

Finally, the election of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will be good for pushing the timetable forward in Iraq. As Paul Krugman writes, Zapatero's "most intimate priority" is to "fight terrorism". If Zapatero just pulls Spanish troops out of Iraq immediately, that would be unfortunate. However, Zapatero also has a unique opportunity to use his leverage to influence the United States to further internationalize the situation in Iraq. Such pressure could help legitimize in the minds of the Iraqi people the process towards democracy in that country and lessen the burden on the American troops now in Iraq. The New York Times editorialized on this very idea, yesterday:

The Socialists, under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, ran on a platform of withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq unless a United Nations-led force takes charge after June 30. Mr. Zapatero now has an opportunity to use his new mandate to pressure Washington to seek U.N. help. The Bush administration has already learned it needs the United Nations. That, like the defeat of Mr. Bush's allies in Spain, should help the president to realize what it really takes to win a permanent international war against violent outlaws like Al Qaeda. The peaceful nations of the world are all in this together, and they must work as partners.

Mr. Zapatero, for his part, cannot view his victory as a mandate for isolationism, an option that is simply not available to any member of the European Union. It is instead a summons to join Europe and the United States in the kind of intense and broadly based cooperation that can provide the most sustained and effective answer to the tragedy of Madrid.

Agreed. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction of blaming the terrorists for the Spanish election results, lets look at the results as an opportunity to continue the war on terrorism with a greater emphasis on cooperation with the world community.

Posted by Byron LaMasters at March 17, 2004 08:01 AM | TrackBack


Who knew? The Al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked in Spain had ties to Ansar Al-Islam. Ansar Al-Islam, if you recall, was the Kurdish Al-Qaeda group in northern Iraq that SecState Powell tied to Musab Abu Zarqawi, the 'Afghan Arab' allegedly treated for wounds sustained fighting our troops in Afghanistan in a Baghdad hospital for Baath big shots.

Posted by: TX Pundit at March 17, 2004 09:21 AM

Christopher Hitchens comments on the notion that Madrid provoked Al-Qaeda by acting in Iraq...

Posted by: TX Pundit at March 17, 2004 09:32 AM

The rightwingers seem to be avoiding answering this question - When the US pulled out of Saudia Arabia, did the terrorists win?

Let's see you spin that.

Posted by: Jason Young at March 17, 2004 10:24 AM

So, Daniel Shore is a right-winger?

Because he agrees with me that this was a victory for AQ.

Posted by: Blue at March 17, 2004 11:05 AM

Good post, Byron. It amazes me that so many intelligent people are willing to believe that the fact that al Qaeda will proclaim this as a victory is mutually exclusive from recognizing that the election itself was sound and positive. Not only is it a good sign that the any people turned on a government that lied to them, but that it was Spain in particular-- as I pointed out on my own blog (with some help from the NY Times), Spain is only a few decades removed from Fascist rule under Franco, and that apparently played a decent role here as well.

Posted by: Sean at March 17, 2004 11:22 AM

You have to understand the rightwing nutjob's point of view.

In their minds, there are only two kinds of people in the world: rightwing nutjobs, and terrorists. You're either with us, or you're with the terrorists, remember? Rightwing nutjobs just lost in Spain, so by definition terrorists have won!

Now, is this the result Al Qaida wanted? Who knows? AQ probably prefers the status quo in Iraq; it's good for recruiting, and it gives them another "failed state" to operate from. So to the extent this election leads to a resolution of the Iraq situation, I'd venture this is bad for AQ. AQ may just not know it yet, or they may know it but are just trying to convince people of their power by proclaiming they got the result they wanted in Spain.

Oh, and although Daniel Schorr isn't a rightwing nutjob, he has become considerably more conservative over the years. In any case, if he's arguing this result is good for AQ, I think he's wrong but time will tell.

Posted by: Mathwiz at March 17, 2004 12:16 PM

not so bad now...the Spanish will be sending troops to Afghanistan in a few months when the new NATO force is set up. Al-Qaeda will continue to find some other pretext (probably Afghanistan) to target Spain and the rest of Europe. And BTW, Spain's contigent is second to Poland's in size in Iraq - the Poles have 2,500 troops.

So perhaps we would all be better served to calm down.

We did not announce that we were going to pull out of Saudi Arabia right after a major terror attack, Jason.

Since we have pulled out, Al-Qaeda has continued to kill innocent people in Saudi Arabia. So no dice that merely having troops on Saudi soil was Bin Laden's only (though originally stated) grievance. His grievance is with the twentieth, or perhaps in Spain's case, late 15th centuries. You guys have said nothing about Al-Qaeda being pissed with the Spanish for their 'crusader' forebears in 1492. Perhaps because you don't like to admit that these grievances run so deep, that most changes in U.S. policy aren't going to matter to Al Qaeda. "We are not fighting to get something from you, we are fighting to eliminate you." as one sheikh from Hezbollah put it.

And I'm not a right wing nutjob. I'm not even sure if I'm that conservative anymore. I bring up Christopher Hitchens, a leftist who favored the liberation of Iraq, for people who opposed the war to comment, and I get an awkward silence. They don't know how to respond to a case for war from the Left.

So don't assume that everyone who comments on the war or thinks that this was a win for Al-Qaeda is 'right wing'. That's a gross oversimplification.

Posted by: TX Pundit at March 17, 2004 01:45 PM

Excellent post, Byron. I read Hitchens' piece on this and agreed completely. If one subscribes to the logic that the attacks were somehow provoked by the Spanish government, one must also subscribe to the notion that they could somehow have been prevented. Pretzel logic. And I'm a leftist anti-war nutcase whose husband fought in Operation Iraqi Oilfield Freedom.

Posted by: Deanocrat at March 17, 2004 02:15 PM

Oh, and click my name for an EXCELLENT piece from the Alternet on this subject.

URL is http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=18151

Posted by: Deanocrat at March 17, 2004 02:18 PM

I'm still not persuaded, but I will acknowledge that this is a much more persuasive post than your original one, which unfortunately beginning with its title, Bush Lackeys Defeated" bore all the hallmarks of reflexive anti-Bushism without any further thinking. I remain very concerned that the nuance you're reading into the Spanish electorate's actions may be missed, or ignored, by al Queda.

Posted by: Beldar at March 17, 2004 05:40 PM

Bah. "Qaeda." (Freudian slip, I'm hungry and was thinking of nachos ... ummm, queso!)

Posted by: Beldar at March 17, 2004 05:41 PM

Re this quote from an earlier comment:

The rightwingers seem to be avoiding answering this question - When the US pulled out of Saudia Arabia, did the terrorists win?

This specific result was one that the terrorists at one time desired, but when and as it actually happened, neither in substance nor in perception was it a "terrorist win." No one not even someone drinking bin Ladin-brand Koolaid thinks we pulled out of Saudi Arabia for any reason other than that the regional threat to invade Saudi Arabia and the consequent threat to world energy supplies (yes, the basing of troops there was, in large part, all about oil) was eliminated last spring as the First Marine Division and the Army's Third Infantry Division converged on Baghdad.

Likewise, when the day comes that Iraq's new democracy is sufficiently stable that the last coalition forces can leave that country, that won't be a case of the terrorists winning, but rather, of them losing, and losing big.

Unifying theme: When the terrorists have been marginalized and made irrelevant, then the occurrence of an event that they happen to have called for in the past doesn't constitute a "win" for them. Unfortuantely, that's not obviously the case with the Spanish election.

Posted by: Beldar at March 17, 2004 05:52 PM

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is the latest poster boy for those desperately trying to find some justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
We know about the non-existant "weapons of mass destruction" and Iraq's ability to strike London on 45 minute's notice. And there are the dubious claims by the stealers of the 2000 presidential election that we are in Iraq to actually build democracy. (Gimme a break!)
When all else fails, there are the hints that Saddam was behind 9/11. Sometimes the connections are so far fetched one could see Saddam and Osama having fewer degrees of separation to Kevin Bacon than to each other.

Now, al-Zarqawi is supposedly linked to the Madrid bombings. That may very well be true. But very quickly the alleged connections get threadbare. Ansar Al-Islam, which al-Zarqawi is supposed to have links to, was active along the Iranian border with the Kurdish enclave of Iraq which was NOT under Saddam's control.
Saddam had no great love for either the Kurds or for armed groups who could present themselves as alternatives to Saddamite rule.
There have been unproven sightings of al-Qaeda operatives in Baghdad floated by the Bushies since a few months after 9/11. However, even though Iraq has been under US military control for almost a year, no solid link between Saddam and Osama has been found. Late last fall, there was the forged document, downplayed even by the administration, which placed Atta in Baghdad just months before 9/11. But that's the "best" the Saddam-Osama linkers have been able to do.

TX Pundit obviously subscribes to the "clash of civilizations" nonsense which fuels the far right worldview. According to this view, Western civilization and Islamic civilization are locked in a life or death struggle for control of the world. This is very interesting because it's one area where Islamic extremists and right wing fundamentalists think alike. And both would like to establish dictatorial theocracies based on their own narrow and selective interpretation of their holy books.
Worrying about what name Osama calls Spain is idiotic. What does it prove if he calls it "al-Andulus"? The Hebrew word for Spain is "Seferad". Does this mean that Sephardic Jews are plotting revenge for being driven out of the country by "Christian" monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492?*
I've met a few Turks and have have had some frank but civil discussions with them on regional politics. But at no time did they bring up the possibility of refighting the Battle of Vienna. That issue was settled by Jan Sobieski in 1683.

Trying to link fringe but dangerous terrorist groups to some grandiose Pan-Islamic conspiracy theory serves no purpose other than to incite hatred of Muslims and exploit fear for political reasons.
I am not a pacifist and think that Noam Chomsky is an idiot at best. I don't even like his linguistic theories. It is necessary to strike back at al-Qaeda as quickly and as forcefully as possible. These people want to harm me and you simply because we are Americans. They must be taken out of circulation one way or another. You won't find me shedding any tears over conditions in Guantánamo. If anything, I'm sorry that my taxes are being used to feed these scum.
That's why I'm totally disgusted by an administration whose already half-assed efforts in Afghanistan are being weakened by the obscene diversion of resources to the sideshow in Iraq.

Paul Krugman recently expressed feelings similar to mine regarding Iraq and the fight against terrorism:
The truth is that Mr. Bush, while eager to invoke 9/11 on behalf of an unrelated war, has shown consistent reluctance to focus on the terrorists who actually attacked America, or their backers in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

This reluctance dates back to Mr. Bush's first months in office. Why, after all, has his inner circle tried so hard to prevent a serious investigation of what happened on 9/11? There has been much speculation about whether officials ignored specific intelligence warnings, but what we know for sure is that the administration disregarded urgent pleas by departing Clinton officials to focus on the threat from Al Qaeda.

After 9/11, terrorism could no longer be ignored, and the military conducted a successful campaign against Al Qaeda's Taliban hosts. But the failure to commit sufficient U.S. forces allowed Osama bin Laden to escape. After that, the administration appeared to lose interest in Al Qaeda; by the summer of 2002, bin Laden's name had disappeared from Mr. Bush's speeches. It was all Saddam, all the time.

If it were al-Qaeda's intent to influence the Spanish election, they didn't go about it very well. A normal reaction by voters to such an event would have been to rally around the country's leaders at a time of crisis. It was the ruling Popular Party that shot itself in the foot by downplaying and attempting to cover up the al-Qaeda connection. For those who have a very short attention span, be reminded that Aznar and his cronies tried to blame the Basque ETA movement for the bombings so voters would not be reminded of the Middle East and thus the very unpopular involvement of Spain in Iraq. Spanish voters reacted to these lies by throwing the liars out of office.
That should be a lesson to anybody who attempts to manipulate a national tragedy for their political gain.

The Spanish voters acted in a normal way to devious leaders. To this I say:
¡Viva Zapatero!

* By contrast, Jews and Muslims peacefully co-existed in Spain for 700 years. When forced out of Spain by Ferdy and Izzy, a majority of the Jewish refugees were welcomed in Muslim lands such as the Ottoman Empire and North Africa.

Posted by: Tim Z at March 17, 2004 07:20 PM

I don't agree with everything you say, Tim (Chomsky's linguistic theories seem spot on), but I understand your reasoning in those places.

As for peaceful co-existence, Baghdad was probably the most heavily populated Middle Eastern city before Llyod George's religious determination to support a Jewish homeland and the Jewish migration there.

In Peace to End All Peace, David Fromkin points this co-existence out, and that the conflict we see today is because of several things, not the least being the anti-Semitism among the British soldiers. The Palestinians were willing to sell land to Jews, partly from coercion from Lloyd George's government but mostly from the desire to make money.

Knowing who our enemy is is critical to winning. The muddled thinking about Iraq and al Qaeda shows that this administration hasn't figured that out yet. It is obvious that our intelligence about Wahhabis, Iraq, al Qaeda, and elsewhere in the Mid East is lacking. It reminds me of Britain thinking their Egyptian expertise easily translated into Arab expertise, which lead to the missteps all through the first half of the 20th century.

What you think you know is different from what you know, and you better understand the difference.

"I have not seen smoking-gun, concrete evidence about the connection" between Iraq and al Qaida.
- Secretary of State Colin Powell, 1/9/04

Posted by: Tx Bubba at March 18, 2004 08:53 AM

If you are worried about al-Qaeda seeing the Spain election as a victory for themselves, then you must also worry that they see our pullout of Saudi as a victory. WE may not agree it is a victory for them, but in their little minds, who knows what they are thinking? They get to check that goal off their list, and their egos are probably big enough to convince themselves that they scored a victory. It wouldn't be surprising if we found a bin Laden recruiting tape that holds up their "win" as justification that what they are doing is working.

To me, I don't think we can bother ourselves to care about how the terrorists view the results of their actions. They are going to spin things to their own advantage regardless of any outcome. They aren't ever going to stop until they blow themselves all up. Our only hope is to try to keep new terrorists from being created/indoctrinated, otherwise the cycle will continue to repeat itself.

Posted by: Jason Young at March 18, 2004 10:34 AM

Western civilization and Islamic civilization are not locked into a desperate struggle for control of the World...

Western civilization already controls the world, and the only way that Islamic civilization could wrest control away, is if Western civilization collapses, which, at this point, is unlikely.

The terrorists are only fighting a rear-guard action to preserve their own cultures, and they're not likely to win that struggle.
In a hundred years, Arabs will be Westernized, or, if not, about as relevant to the modern world as the bird-hunting stone-age tribes of South America.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at March 19, 2004 03:37 PM
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