When Politics Interferes with the War on Terror
by Stephen Schwartz
America is now deluged with debate over the conflict of political ambitions and prosecution of the War on Terror. Everyone exposed to media coverage of these issues knows that party polarization has come to obscure the issues of civilization survival facing our people.
But the degree of the U.S. political impact on the War on Terror sometimes seems to pale in comparison to the situation elsewhere.
In March 2004, 191 people were killed and almost 2,000 were injured in the bombing of the Madrid commuter train system in Spain. The Spanish government then faced two serious challenges. One was that the conservative government of José María Aznar and his Popular Party had committed the country to participation in the Iraq intervention. The second was that the attack came right before national elections.
Many Spanish voters interpreted the terrorist atrocity as a reprisal for Spanish involvement in Iraq. Whether they were right or wrong on this matter is irrelevant; many might have voted to keep Aznar in power if the prime minister had identified the horror of Islamist terror and appealed to them to hold to the commitment his administration had made. But he did not. Instead, he obstinately blamed the attack on the Basque fascist group ETA, which has a long history of terrorist murders, mainly targeting politicians, police and military officers.
Aznar's motivation for this remains unclear, but the effect among Spanish voters was stunning and, in my view, predictable. The Popular Party was thrown out of power, replaced by the Socialist Party led by José Luis Zapatero. Spain is, in the best of situations, uncomfortable with its military history and traditions – it is the only country in Europe wherein the military profession is despised and participation in it avoided by a large majority. Military careers are typically hereditary, rather than meritorious. In contrast with numerous other countries – including our own – the Spanish military is not perceived as a means of social advancement and achievement.
Much of this disrespect for the military may be traced to attitudes about the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 and the subsequent authoritarian regime of Francisco Franco, who ruled until 1975. But anti-militarism did not begin with Franco; it was a powerful force in some parts of Spain a century ago. Most observers of Spanish politics agree that the victory of the Socialists was as much an expression of anger at Aznar for refusing to accuse the terrorists of Islamist motives as of discontent with the Iraq mission. Voters felt that Aznar had been untruthful with them, and exacted punishment. Spanish troops were withdrawn from Iraq by Zapatero, but continue to serve in Afghanistan.
On February 15 of this year, 29 suspects, 20 of them Arabs and many from Spain's across-the-straits Muslim neighbor Morocco, went on trial in the Madrid assault. Since the attack, however, a bizarre political controversy has persisted in the country. As reported in The Washington Post on February 16, Spain remains deeply divided by the case: The Post noted "leaders of the conservative Popular Party continue to assert that the Basque separatist movement known as ETA had a central role in the bombings. Some independent terrorism experts accuse the Popular Party… of spinning conspiracy theories to escape blame for the bombings and redeem itself with the public."
Media sources for which I have written (full disclosure here), including the Madrid daily El Mundo, were described by the Post as "fueling charges of cover-ups and evidence-tampering [implying] ‘intentional deceit' by government investigators."
Spain is also different from the U.S. in that, where Americans will typically unite, even if briefly, in times of great crisis, the Spanish are deeply fractious and crises more often lead to immediate aggravation of existing rivalries and conflicts. Indeed, American national identity is stronger than its Spanish equivalent, which is beset with regional interests of which the Basque separatists represent only one example.
Non-Spaniards in the West are generally shocked to learn that any major section of Spanish political opinion would blame the Basques, rather than Islamists, for the March 11 atrocity. The Basque fascists of ETA are certainly bloody-minded enough to kill, and may bear responsibility for some ancillary involvement in the case. But trustworthy Spanish experts decry the spread of conspiracy theories, which assert a specific agreement between the opposition Socialists, the Basque fascists, and Islamists to remove Aznar from power by an act of terror. In the U.S., many have criticized ex-President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush for their handling of the al-Qaida menace, but nobody except marginal, paranoid types alleges that Clinton or Bush deliberately conspired with bin Ladin in the mass murder of September 11, 2001.
Aznar himself has never declared support for the anti-Zapatero conspiracy theory. Acolytes of the theory concentrate on minor discrepancies in the investigation of the bombings and anticipate similar gaps in the trial of the 29. But judicial proceedings are very rarely airtight, and the Basque fascists of ETA are not exactly publicity-shy. (Here in the U.S. some questions, mainly about Saudi involvement, remain unanswered in the aftermath of September 11.) Further, the Basque fascist milieu is large and, like any other extremist network, cannot claim to be secure in its organization. Basque terrorism, like all illegal activities, produces defectors and informers. Yet no substantial evidence of a major Basque role in the March 11 killings has been found.
Conspiracy theorists claim such an absence is itself proof of a "cover-up" by the Socialists, who are prosecuting the 29. Yet the 29 are undeniably on trial – more than can be said about the Saudi backers of al-Qaida – and the Socialists have manifested nothing but a real commitment to justice for the victims in the bombings. For their part, they accuse the conspiracy theorists of ignoring facts.
Only one thing can be said with certainty today: the Spanish trial of the March 11 terrorists should be carried to a definitive conclusion without facing frivolous obstacles. Justice is necessary for the ordinary workers and other humble people of Madrid, some of them Arab immigrants, slain as they made their way to work in the morning three years ago. There can be no legitimate excuse for political meddling with the trial of the accused Islamists. If, however improbable it may be, they are innocent, or someone else is guilty, the Spanish judiciary should arrive at such a finding, uninfluenced by wild rumors and sensationalist headline-mongering. The Spanish people, and those who are their real friends, should put party politics and ideology aside until the trial has ended. Unfortunately, Spain, like other European countries, does not impose death sentences today, even on those responsible for terrorist massacres. But that is another matter, for another time.