The outcome of the Spanish elections this week teaches us a valuable lesson: Democracies require leadership in times of crisis. Much has been made of the voters’ decision to oust the ruling Popular Party because of its support of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. But until terrorists slaughtered innocent commuters on their way to work in Madrid last week, the Popular Party was widely expected to win a majority of seats in the Spanish parliament. Then the terrorists struck, and the Spanish population reacted in fear and anger. But it was the failure of Spain’s leaders to lead in this moment of national crisis that directed that fear and anger toward themselves and the United States rather than at the murders.
Outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has been a loyal ally to the United States, but his reaction to the attacks in Madrid left much to be desired. From the first moments after the attack, Aznar’s government seemed anxious to blame anyone but the likeliest of suspects, Islamist terrorists. No doubt Spanish authorities had to consider the possibility that the attacks came from the Basque terrorist movement ETA, which has been responsible for more than 800 killings in the last 30 years. But the methods were uncharacteristic of ETA and similar to Al Qaeda’s modus operandi. Within hours of the attacks, evidence indicated Islamists were to blame. Still the government stubbornly kept pointing the finger at ETA, even while arresting Moroccan and Indian Moslem suspects.
The elections might have turned out very differently if the government had shown leadership instead of fear for its own survival. What if Aznar had addressed the Spanish people and made a direct case against Al Qaeda and its wannabe imitators cropping up in North Africa and elsewhere in the Moslem world? What if he had told his people what the Islamists themselves say is their motive in targeting Spain — namely that they consider Spain part of Islam’s empire and have not forgotten the ignominy of 1492, of being driven from their kingdom in southern Spain over which they had ruled for more than 700 years? What if Aznar had reminded Spaniards that long before the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda operatives — including Mohammed Atta — were plotting in Spain. Atta visited Spain to meet with his comrades-in-arms in 2001, just two months before he flew a plane into the World Trade Center.
One can imagine Tony Blair giving such a speech. Indeed, he has done so in the face of strenuous opposition from his own party time and again. Unfortunately, neither Aznar nor his hand-picked successor, Mariano Rajoy, chose to try to lead in similar fashion, and so the people went with the demagogue who was willing to blame America for Spain’s tragedy.
No doubt John Kerry is delighted at the outcome of the Spanish elections and hopes he’ll have similar success in ousting the governing party here at home in November. But he should be worried. Spanish appeasement puts all of us at risk. The Islamists will attack again — perhaps the next target will be France, or Italy, or even the United States.
Throughout the primaries, the Democratic presidential contenders (with the exception of Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Dick Gephardt) behaved irresponsibly, using the war in Iraq to fan partisan hatred. Now that John Kerry is all but officially the party’s nominee, he should be very careful in what he says and does. He should leave no doubt in any would-be terrorist’s mind that any attempt to manipulate the U.S. elections through terrorism would be met with unified and deadly response.
Kerry has said almost nothing about how he would fight the war on terrorism, except to hint that he believes acts of terror are crimes that should be prosecuted accordingly. If the terrorists believe that Kerry would be a less aggressive adversary and that he would pull back from Iraq and Afghanistan, they may well try to repeat their Spanish electoral success, using the same tactics. It’s up to Kerry to set them straight, and the failure to do so in unambiguous terms should weigh heavily on his conscience.