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.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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