Monday, March 15, 2004
Let me preface this post by saying that I think the Spanish election is a disaster for the war effort, a disaster for America and, equally so, a disaster for Spain. Aznar is not only the best thing to happen to Spain since the accession of Juan Carlos to the throne but one of the most impressive statesmen in all of Europe. During his eight years Spain strengthened economically, diplomatically, socially, even militarily. It is almost incomprehensible that the Spanish would throw the party that brought them so far out of office in favor of the distinctly unimpressive Socialist alternative.
Moreover, as everyone has noted, the Socialist victory is a big one for al Qaeda. Whether or not al Qaeda proves to be responsible for the attacks on 3/11, the fact is that the Socialists won because the Spanish believed al Qaeda was responsible. Which will only prove to the terrorists that such tactics can win them huge victories that they could not achieve on the battlefield. We'll see more terrorism specifically targeted to influence elections as a result of the apparent success at influencing this one.
End of preface. Now: I want to ask a hypothetical question. Suppose you were opposed to the war in Iraq, as the majority of Spanish were. Let's assume you're not a raving lunatic, that you're worried about al Qaeda and supported America's war in Afghanistan and more generally the effort to wipe out al Qaeda as an organization, but that you were unpersuaded by any connection between Saddam and al Qaeda (as, indeed, there is no substantial evidence of any connection between the two), unpersuaded that Saddam was on the brink of going nuclear (as, indeed, it turns out he was not), and unpersuaded that the war in Iraq was anything but a bizarre American adventure of which you wanted no part. You're convinced that the war was a bad idea that will only make the problem of fighting terrorism worse. How should 3/11 have affected your vote?
Suppose you think the Socialists are no great shakes - corrupt, inept, etc. - but you're generally left of center and you thought Aznar's support of America's Iraq war was a huge mistake. Indeed, you thought it would increase terrorism and make Spain a target. So pre-3/11, you weren't planning to vote - a plague on both their houses, you thought. Should 3/11 have affected that decision? How?
You know that, in the context of 3/11, voting for the Socialists would mean giving the terrorists a victory. Clearly they are punishing Spain for its support for the Iraq war, just as you predicted they would. If you vote Socialist, you're voting the way the terrorists, presumably, want you to. You don't want to do that.
But voting for the Popular Party means rewarding that party for a policy stance that, you believe, just cost the lives of 200 of your countrymen. You don't want to do that, either.
I understand why a number of Spaniards came out to vote against Aznar's party on account of 3/11. They were punishing the guy they thought caused this mess. Clearly, that doesn't mean they thought Aznar was morally equivalent to the murderers, or that they want a terrorist victory. It doesn't even necessarily mean that they think they can escape attack by abandoning the war on al Qaeda. All it means, really, is that they thought the Iraq war was a disaster, and that those who supported the war should be punished.
I think there's something facile about suggesting that the only moral thing for Spaniards to do was rally 'round the flag and not "let the terrorists win." If terrorists had struck Spain in retaliation for their support for America's war in Afghanistan, or for other actions unambiguously directed against al Qaeda, then the contention would be unassailable: the only moral course would be to rally 'round the flag and give more support to the anti-terrorist PP. But Iraq was not Afghanistan; there are entirely coherent arguments to be made that Iraq was the wrong war to fight in early 2003, and endorsing one of these arguments does not implicitly make you a traitor to the cause of fighting terrorism or al Qaeda.
Tacitus points out - correctly - that even if the Iraq war was a distraction in 2003, it is not a distraction in 2004. Now, al Qaeda and affiliated groups are active in Iraq, trying to foment civil war and establish a beachhead from which to expand their activities - not to mention that, having declared themselves opposed to the American occupation, if America leaves on terms that are anything less than triumphant, the terrorists will claim a huge victory, much bigger than their victory in Spain. Now, therefore, Iraq is central to the war on al Qaeda.
But how does that affect the electoral calculus? If you are my hypothetical Spaniard - basically left-of-center, worried about al Qaeda but convinced the Iraq war was an enormous mistake that would strengthen, not weaken, the terrorists - how does the terrorist threat affect your vote? Do you really decide, in the wake of 3/11, to vote for the guy you think is to blame for strengthening the terrorists?
Here's the terrible fact: we are not having a robust debate about how to fight the war on terror. We are having a mendacious debate about whether to fight the war on terror. This is partly the fault of the Iraq war's supporters, who have generally been eager to confuse debate about strategy with debate about the will to win. I can't tell you how many opinion pieces I read weekly that assume that there is no plausible dissent to the Administration's left on any point of the conduct of the war; you can argue that Bush has been too easy on Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia, or Syria, but if you argue that the Iraq war was a mistake then you are either a fool or a traitor. I wish I would never read another such piece.
But it is more the fault of the opposition party. The Democrats tried to get through the 2002 elections by refusing to debate strategy in the war, preferring to agree with the Administration on everything and hope to take the issue off the table. The very fact that they considered such a thing to be possible is an index of their unseriousness; the war is not an "issue" it is the defining question of this decade and, likely, for some time after. Then, in the primary campaign, the candidates have, generally, preferred to carp and criticize rather than propose a strategy of their own. Instead of supporting everything, now they oppose everything. And no one is worse in this regard than John Kerry. The situation in Europe is similar. I am at a loss to tell you what the leaders of France or Germany, or the new leadership in Spain, plan to do about al Qaeda and the threat of Muslim terrorism. I don't think they intend to do anything. For that matter, I'm at a loss to know what Michael Howard is planning to do about it; the Conservatives have been as willing to get to Blair's left on the war as to his right, which is fine in and of itself but there's no sense that their posturing adds up to anything more than posturing, looking for an opening for criticism, as opposed to a coherent strategy of their own. That is why we are having this mendacious debate: not about how to fight and where, but, implicitly or explicitly, about whether.
I'm not a 9/11 Republican (I'm a Giuliani Republican, if you had to boil it down to one thing), but I am a 9/11 voter. That means that the first three things I'm going to vote on in a Presidential election are the war, followed by the war, followed by the war. I'm going to vote for the guy who will be most determined and effective at prosecuting the war on our self-declared Islamist enemies and their allies to a victorious conclusion. Everything else is way, way down the list.
I would love to have two parties, two candidates to choose from. I would love to hear an honest and robust argument about how to win. But we're not having that argument. I cannot articulate clearly the Administration's policy in numerous respects, but I don't doubt their resolve. For the Democrats, I really have no idea where they stand, or if they stand.
So if I were that hypothetical Spaniard - holding his views, not mine - there's no question I'd vote for the PP, regardless of my disagreements, and even if I blamed them for 3/11, because they at least recognize that the enemy exists. But I would not be happy about it. And I can certainly understand why more folks made the opposite call.
And if Bush doesn't want the same thing to happen here, he had best start making the case, not only for the rightness of the war but for the rightness of his decisions about how to fight it.