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March 17, 2004

Did al-Qaeda Win the Spanish Elections?


by Juan Cole

This silly question is being asked by billionnaire Rupert Murdoch's and Conrad Black's media outlets all over the world in blazing headlines. For some strange reason, the billionnaires aren't happy that the Socialist Workers' Party won the elections in Spain, and are trying to portray the outcome as cowardice on the part of the Spanish public.

The entire argument is specious from beginning to end. First of all, the Iraq war had nothing to do with the battle against al-Qaeda. Nothing whatsoever. Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz and others were pressing for a war against Iraq in the 1990s before al-Qaeda had even become much of a threat to the US (certainly, they do not bring it up in their writings of the period). There is no evidence for any significant collaboration between the secular socialist Arab nationalist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the neo-Caliphate hyper-Sunni fundamentalist movement of al-Qaeda. (Az-Zaman is reporting that Saddam proposed Bin Laden for "Man of the Year" in 2002; I believe the report is a fraud, but even if it were not, it would have been nothing more than a publicity stunt. It wasn't a terrorist operation or proof of one).

So, Jose Maria Aznar, in supporting Bush on the war against Iraq, was not standing up to al-Qaeda.

I believe that the Spanish public just recognized the correctness of the "opportunity cost" argument about the Iraq War and anti-terrorism efforts. Let's say you are in business. If you put your capital, which is limited, into expanding one part of your business ("X"), you may make money say 7% percent on your investment. But you had another opportunity to put your money into expanding a different part of the business ("Y"), and that would have given you a 25% percent return (which you did not know at the time). Giving up the 25% return is an opportunity cost of doing X rather than Y.

The Iraq War represents an enormous opportunity cost in the counter-insurgency struggle against al-Qaeda and its constituents. After the Afghanistan War, the Bush administration forgot to ask Congress for any money for Afghanistan reconstruction, and Congress helpfully put in $300 million. This year, the Bush administration will put $1 billion into Afghanistan, an immense country devastated by 25 years of war (for which the US bears some responsibility), in which the Taliban is having a resurgence. It is a tiny amount. The US has 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, but has not caught Bin Laden or al-Zawahiri, and some of the major successes in capturing al-Qaeda figures have been achieved by the Pakistani military. Afghanistan's poppy cultivation is expanding and the drug trade is creating opportunities for narco-terrorism. The Afghanistan GDP is $5 billion a year; $2 bn. of that comes from poppy cultivation for heroin production.

Since the end of the Afghanistan War, al-Qaeda has struck at Mombasa, Bali, Riyadh, Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid and elsewhere. Some chatter suggested that Ayman al-Zawahiri himself ordered the hit on Istanbul. The attack on a Spanish cultural center in Casablanca in May of 2003 now appears to have been a harbinger of the horrible Madrid train bombings last week. How much did Spain spend to go after the culprits in Casablanca? How much did Bush dedicate to that effort? How much did they instead invest in military efforts in Iraq?

Instead of dealing with this growing and world-wide threat, the Bush administration cynically took advantage of the American public's anger and fear after September 11 and channeled it against the regime of Saddam Hussein, which had had nothing to do with September 11 and which never could be involved in such a terrorist operation on American soil because its high officers knew exactly the retribution that would be visited on them. Only an asymmetrical organization could think of a September 11, because it has no exact return address. Even for a state to give aid to such an operation against a super power would be suicide how could you be sure the superpower would not find out about the aid?

The initial outlay for the war against Iraq was $66 billion. Then Bush came back and asked for another $87 billion. He will ask for a similar amount again after the November election if he is reelected. It is outrageous that Congress allows him to postpone this request instead of being held accountable for it. The Iraq adventure is likely to have cost the US nearly $250 billion by next year this time. The US is no safer now than it was before the Iraq war, since Iraq did not have any weapons that could hit US soil and would not have risked using them even if it did.

Let me repeat that. Maybe $1.3 billion for Afghanistan. $250 billion for Iraq. Bin Laden and his supporters are in Afghanistan. What is wrong with this picture?

There is not and cannot be such a thing as a "war on terror." Terror is a tactic. There can be a global counter-insurgency struggle against al-Qaeda and kindred organizations. But a large part of such a struggle must be to deny al-Qaeda recruitment tools and propaganda victories. The way the Bush administration pursued the war against Iraq, as a superpower-led act of Nietzschean will to power, simply made it look in the Middle East as though al-Qaeda had been right. Bin Laden's message was that Middle Easterners are being colonized and occupied by the United States.

There is no evidence at all that the Spanish public desires the new Socialist government to pull back from a counter-insurgency effort against al-Qaeda. The evidence is only that they became convinced that the war on Iraq had detracted from that effort rather than contributing to it. This is not a cowardly conclusion and it is not a victory for al-Qaeda.

The Aznar government dragged Spain into the war against Iraq and the subsequent occupation even though 91% of Spaniards opposed it. It is only logical that the voters would take the first opportunity to rebuke the Popular Party for ignoring popular opinion. Although it keeps being said that the conservatives were leading in the polls before the Madrid bombings, polls are notoriously unreliable. Polls once suggested Dewey would beat Truman, too. I think the conservatives were doomed all along, and the polling just wasn't showing how unhappy people were.

Here is what Zapatero said about all this, according to the Washington Post:

' "The war [in Iraq] has been a disaster; the occupation continues to be a disaster," Zapatero told a radio interviewer. At a news conference later, he called the Iraq war "an error." He added, "It divided more than it united, there were no reasons for it, time has shown that the arguments for it lacked credibility, and the occupation has been poorly managed." He pledged to continue to combat international terrorism, but said the fight should be conducted with "a grand alliance" of democracies and not through "unilateral wars," a clear reference to Iraq. '

and here is Reuters:

' The European Union (EU) called emergency counter-terrorism talks in response to the Madrid attacks and Spain said it would host a meeting of anti-terrorist services from across the bloc in the next few days. A memorial service for people killed in the attack was scheduled to be held at a Madrid cathedral on Tuesday evening. Zapatero, expected to take office in about a month, said his immediate priority would be "fighting terrorism" and promised to improve relations with France and Germany that were chilled by their disagreement with Aznar's support for the Iraq war. '

Here's my rough rendering of Zapatero's full statement, which Fox Cable News will not read out in its entirety

"Tonight I commit myself to commence a tranquil government and I assure you that power is not going to change me," affirmed Zapatero between the applause of hundreds of people who congregated to celebrate the triumph. . "My most immediate priority is to fight all forms of terrorism (Mi prioridad mas inmediata es combatir toda forma de terrorismo). And my first initiative, tomorrow, will be to seek a union of political forces to join us together in fighting it. " After defining himself as "prepared to assume the responsibility to form the new government", Zapatero described his priorities. . "I will set out to strengthen the prestige of democratic institutions . . . to move Spain into the vanguard of European development and to guide myself by the Constitution at every moment" . . . "the government of change - he added - will act from the dialogue, responsibility and transparency. It will be a government that will work by cohesion, concord and peace."

After nearly four years of White House rhetoric stolen from old Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, the determination in this speech to pursue anti-terrorism with an eye to establishing social peace and creating the conditions of human development hits me as a gale of fresh air.

So this is what al-Qaeda was going for with the train bombs? To create a "grand alliance" of democracies against it? Zapatero's speech is a victory for Bin Laden?

No, it is a defeat only for the Bush administration and the Neoconservative philosophy of Perpetual War. They hold that the US, the UK and Turkey are the only permanent allies and shifting coalitions "of the willing" are put together for particular wars, depending on who can be cajoled, bribed or bamboozled into joining up. This system of US-led shifting coalitions removes all restraint on US militarism. If you have permanent allies, like Germany and France, you might have to pay attention to them. If all you have is a shifting coalition, you can do what you please when you please. Multilateralists are like a set of married couples who are old friends; the Neocons' unilateral superpower is like Hugh Hefner, surrounded by a constantly changing bevy of hand-picked "girlfriends."

Unfortunately for this adolescent power fantasy, the real world does not reward naked power and action solely in self-interest. NATO and the United Nations have hung the US out to dry in Iraq, ensuring that its troops take the brunt of the ongoing insurgency. The Turks decided early on that they wanted nothing to do with this dangerous adventure in a place that they saw as a hotbed of religious and ethnic radicalism barely contained by the ramshackle Baath structures of repression. So that "permanent" ally turned out to be no such thing.

With the secession of Spain from the "coalition of the willing," the rug has been pulled out from under the Bush doctrine of preemption, the Bush commitment to US military action without a proper UNSC resolution, and the Bush conviction that you can fool all the people all the time. Since Bush administration militarism and desire to go about overthrowing most of the governments in the Middle East actually was highly destabilizing and created enormous numbers of potential recruits for al-Qaeda, the Spanish actions are a great victory for the counter-insurgency struggle against al-Qaeda.


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    Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Visit his blog.

     

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