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After Madrid

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  • After Madrid

    Sorry about another thread of the same topic, but my other one got hijacked by arguments about wmd.

    The hydra bites, Al-Qaeda and the attack on Madrid

    Mar 18th 2004
    From The Economist print edition

    Governments come and governments go, but the fight against terrorists must be stronger than ever

    IF YOU carry out a well planned atrocity, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than a thousand, and three days later the government that supported an invasion to which you object is unexpectedly defeated in a general election, you are entitled to consider the venture to have been a success. So although Spain's high voting turnout on March 14th, and many Spaniards' apparent ire at the way José María Aznar's government had prematurely blamed Basque terrorists for the outrage, can be taken as healthily democratic signs (see article), there is no escaping the fact that the biggest triumph has been that of the terrorists. Assuming, as is likely, that they are indeed linked to or are members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, they scored another success when the new Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, said he would withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq. This may only be a symbolic move, for that is a mere 1% of the American-led coalition's forces there, but symbols and emotions are what terrorism is all about.

    To say all that is not to say that it is wrong to vote out governments that supported the invasion of Iraq a year ago. In some cases, such as Spain, they did so against a huge majority of public opinion. In all cases, their claims that Saddam Hussein had stockpiles of dangerous weapons now look to be a blunder, a gamble or a deception. This year both George Bush himself and John Howard, Australia's prime minister, face re-election contests and next year Britain's Tony Blair is also expected to do so. There is now a real possibility that all three could follow Mr Aznar's party into defeat—though Mr Blair may be saved by the fact that his Tory opposition supported the war strongly, too. Such defeats would be natural, in democratic terms. But the tragedy of Madrid is that the terrorists in effect cast the swing vote, given that Mr Aznar's party had looked set to win a comfortable victory, despite opposition to the war, and that such success may now stimulate more terrorism during the other three electoral campaigns. The big question, if such defeats occur, is whether successor governments would be more effective in pursuing al-Qaeda and stabilising the regions within which its terrorists thrive—or less.

    Some critics of the war in Iraq say that there is no such danger. There was no genuine link between toppling Saddam and fighting al-Qaeda, so to punish governments for what opponents claim was an illegal invasion is a quite separate matter. Mr Zapatero even appears to think that pulling troops out of Iraq will make things better, on the view that the occupation is itself the cause of terrorism. Yet that policy is irresponsible, because it increases the risk of civil war in Iraq. Even those who opposed the war should now want to help make Iraq secure enough for Iraqis themselves to take back their sovereignty. If other new governments copy Mr Zapatero and prove their anti-war point by withdrawing from Iraq, they will make everyone less safe as a result. And it is a delusion to claim, as Mr Zapatero does, that all would be well if the UN were to take over from the Americans. Few Iraqis think so. It is as well to recall the Dutch UN peacekeepers who looked on helplessly during the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia in 1995.

    Moreover, withdrawal would put the rest of the Middle East at greater risk, too. For even if there was no direct link between Saddam and al-Qaeda, the connection was always indirect and much more long-term: that while he remained in power to threaten his neighbours and required bombing and sanctions to contain him, it would be impossible to move towards a wider peace and modernisation of that whole troubled region. To advocates of the war, including The Economist, sticking with the status quo looked a more dangerous option than toppling Saddam.

    On that view, the stance taken against Saddam by Messrs Bush, Blair, Howard and Aznar could prove to have been politically suicidal but historically noble. But will it, really? One year after the invasion it remains too soon to say. Many things have improved in Iraq since Saddam's regime was removed, but the situation remains fragile and the danger of civil war real (see article). A new opinion poll this week suggested that Iraqis are rather more positive about the change in their lives than outsiders are, but attitudes vary around the country. The invasion itself, and the show of American strength that it entailed, has produced some promising changes in the surrounding region, too, in relations with Libya, Syria, Iran and Pakistan, and glimmerings of democratic reform in Saudi Arabia. Those moves have so far been modest, however, and this week the Saudi authorities underlined that fact by arresting some prominent reformists. Moreover, such modest gains have been overshadowed by the complete lack of progress in pacifying the region's most bitter conflict: that between Israel and the Palestinians.

    The right grounds on which to criticise and even condemn the perpetrators of regime change in Iraq now lie in that slow or non-existent regional progress. They, especially the Bush administration, do deserve criticism for their mishandling of the post-war situation in Iraq, but the correct response is to strengthen the effort to rebuild and secure Iraq, not weaken it. They deserve much more criticism, though, for having so far failed to turn the strategic change represented by the fall of Saddam into a wider and more profound set of changes: notably, a restoration of full relations with Iran and the establishment of some sort of Arab-American alliance to persuade the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Such things could never have happened overnight and many a previous attempt, whether American or European, has foundered amid the blood of the Middle East. Yet as the terror in Madrid showed, time is on no one's side. In contrast to its urgency over invading Iraq, the Bush administration has shown little urgency in trying to achieve these wider goals.

    Would new governments, led by John Kerry, Mark Latham (in Australia) and Michael Howard (in Britain), do better? It is premature, in all three countries, to judge. No doubt, all would find the reality of government tougher than the theory of opposition. What is clear, though, is that the challenge is the same whether these countries elect new leaders or stick with the old ones: it is to combine the immediate task of detecting and punishing terrorism with the broader, longer-term tasks of blocking weapons proliferation and persuading the Muslim world to modernise. That will require a greater effort to capture al-Qaeda's fugitive leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, involving even more pressure on Pakistan's government to catch those terrorists and at the same time to prevent its own nuclear secrets from being sold to them or to other countries. It will require some new version of the tentative “Greater Middle East Initiative” for democratic reform just floated and then withdrawn by the Bush administration. And it will require a big new push on Israel and Palestine.

    It is fashionable to argue that all this will require greater co-operation, on a multilateral basis, than the Bush administration has managed to achieve during the past three years, and more emphasis on the “soft” power of persuasion and influence. That is true, but it will also require military toughness, redoubled intelligence efforts and intensified security. This is no time for weakness or appeasement. That is the ultimate lesson from Madrid
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