FANNING ISLAND, Republic of Kiribati -- Out here, in the Gilbert Island archipelago, nearly halfway ?round the world from Spain, there is one topic that dominates nearly every conversation: the effect of the March 11 Madrid train bombings on the Spanish elections three days later.
The rush-hour explosions that killed 201 and wounded more than 1,750 were not only a devastating tragedy for the people of Spain, but a profound example of what every terrorist organization seeks to achieve: political change through violence. For the people of the United States and the Bush administration, the Madrid attack -- and its subsequent political fallout -- ought to be heard not as a wake-up call but as an alarm bell.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Spain has been one of our staunchest allies in the Global War on Terror. The moderately conservative Popular Party government of two-term Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar supported every U.S. initiative in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At the request of President Bush, Aznar dispatched 1,300 experienced Spanish counter-terrorism troops to aid coalition forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom -- despite surveys showing that nearly 90 percent of Spaniards opposed the commitment.
When Socialist candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced, as a centerpiece of his party's campaign, that he would withdraw the Spanish troops if elected, Aznar held firm. And less than two weeks before last Sunday's elections, it appeared as though the Socialists -- trailing by more than 8 points -- would go down to defeat.
But the bombings changed everything. The day after he swept to an unexpected victory, Prime Minister-elect Zapatero announced that, absent a new U.N. resolution, Spain's sons would come home from Iraq immediately after an interim government assumes the reigns of power in Baghdad on June 30. After a call from the president urging him to reconsider, Zapatero told Spanish radio: "My position is very clear and very firm. The occupation is a fiasco."
In the days since this public rebuke by Zapatero, the Bush administration has sought to shore up its other allies in the crucial effort to bring about a democratic transition in Baghdad. The president directed a full court press to hold the fragile alliance together and contacted the leaders of each nation with forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prime Ministers Tony Blair in the United Kingdom, Australia's John Howard and Silvio Berlusconi in Rome all say that they are still with Bush. But his personal diplomacy may not be enough. Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende emerged from his March 16 meeting in the Oval Office unwilling to say whether 1,300 Royal Netherlands troops now in Iraq will remain after June 30.
Unfortunately, official Washington seems to be drawing the wrong conclusions about what is happening here. In the immediate aftermath of the Madrid bombings -- the worst ever in Western Europe -- some in the administration speculated anonymously that this would "bring the Europeans around." One insider I called from London the morning of the Madrid attack told me he believed that "this will make Schroeder and Chirac see that we're all vulnerable." The Spanish elections showed that was -- at best -- wishful thinking.
Now, after the change of government in Madrid and another suicide bombing in Baghdad, others in Washington are focusing their ire on Spain.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert said that "they chose to change their government and to, in a sense, appease terrorists." True, but it misses the point. House Majority Leader Tom Delay got a little closer when he observed, "If we follow the new Spanish government and we accept failure in Iraq and permit victory by the terrorists, there will be no counting the number of people around the world who will suffer the consequences." Also true -- but Spain may be a precursor of what we are facing not just in the anti-terrorist alliance, but in our own country, as well.
Those who want to blame Spain for dumping a conservative government in favor of a Socialist administration favoring a withdrawal from the War on Terror ought to examine closely what happened on the Iberian peninsula -- and heed the lesson here at home. Throughout his campaign, Zapatero was committed to getting Spain out of the anti-terror alliance Bush forged in the aftermath of 9-11. His position was so well known by December 2003 that a Jihadist website posted the prediction: "The Spanish government will not stand more than two or three blows before it will be forced to withdraw. If its forces remain (in Iraq) after these blows, the victory of the Socialist Party will be all but guaranteed."
Those who carried out the Madrid attacks -- whether ETA terrorists, Islamic Jihadists, or an unanticipated coalition of the two -- accurately assessed that they could affect the outcome of a democratic election by perpetrating a heinous act. That they succeeded in doing so ought to be the most important lesson derived from the events of the last 10 days. Rather than throwing stones at the people of Spain for voting as they did last Sunday, official Washington ought to apply the lesson to another democratic election that is just around the corner -- ours.
Zapatero's upset victory means that the Jihadists we are now fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and the mountains of Pakistan now have a new incentive to try even harder to pull off another major attack inside the United States. They have proven that they can alter the outcome of an election in Spain. We're the next logical target.
During the campaign in Spain, the incumbent Popular Party made much of their "zero tolerance" for terrorism and boasted that under their watch ETA terrorist attacks had been effectively thwarted. Zapatero's opposition Socialists maintained that the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns were wrong "because fighting terrorism with bombs (and) Tomahawk missiles isn't the way to defeat terrorism." Availing himself of a sympathetic media, Zapatero harped that Spanish citizens were vulnerable at home, pledged less militancy and greater reliance on the United Nations, and promised to strengthen domestic police agencies because, "Terrorism is combated by the state of law."
If this sounds vaguely similar to a campaign closer to home, listen carefully to Sen. John Kerry's disparaging critique of the Bush administration's strategy of fighting terrorism as far as possible from the United States. Those who kill and use terror to bring about political change are reading our newspapers on the Internet. They watch our television on bootlegged satellite signals. They comprehend the difference between a president who has pledged to "stay the course in Afghanistan and Iraq" and a challenger who wants to "work more closely with the United Nations" and who believes "the war in Iraq is wrong, wrong, wrong!"
And they are invigorated when the challenger's political supporters say that, "The president was the one who dragged our troops into Iraq, which apparently has been a factor in the death of 200 Spaniards over the weekend," as former presidential candidate Howard Dean did this week. The alarm bells are ringing.