The Spanish disease

Posted: Mar 17, 2004 12:00 AM

The reign in Spain died mainly on the train. I apologize for a silly, but irresistible, opening to a deadly and portentous topic: the electoral fall of our ally Jose Maria Aznar's Popular Party in the aftermath of a presumed Al Qaeda terrorist assault on a Madrid train.

The Spanish electorate decided to defeat its government for seeming to bring Islamist terrorist slaughter to Spain. It is true that a large majority of Spaniards never supported their government's decision to send troops to Iraq. Nonetheless, the day before the terrorist attack, every Spanish poll and political expert predicted a solid win for Aznar's party.

But after the attack, about three million Spanish voters changed their impending electoral decision. Thus, their vote was not out of anger at Aznar's policy but out of fear of the terrorists' wrath. And so we are returned to Winston Churchill's lamentation about avoiding crocodiles.

On Jan. 20, 1940, four months after Hitler invaded Poland, Churchill gave a world address to urge the neutral nations of Europe to abandon appeasement and rally round the Union Jack and the French Tricolor (France was still in the fight then) as the surest path to safety against the Nazi onslaught: "At present their (the neutrals) plight is lamentable; and it will become much worse. They bow humbly and in fear of German threats ? Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear -- I fear greatly -- the storm will not pass. It will rage and it will roar, ever more loudly, ever more widely." The European neutrals, however, continued to appease -- until, in the spring, they were devoured.

Appeasers are likely to underestimate the price of appeasement. They always assume that peace and tranquility are available at some price. But the crocodile doesn't want a finger or a toe -- he wants the whole carcass.

The Spanish voters' fear is understandable. But not only have they not saved themselves from further harvest by the Saracen scimitar, they also have increased the likelihood and advanced the arrival of similar slaughters for their cousins in the streets of Europe and America. It is hard not to assume that within the Al Qaeda war councils, advocates of pre-election terror attacks have gained a fearsome advantage.

But notwithstanding the evidence of the terrorists' unlimited objectives, the verisimilitude of logic that appeasement offers the fearful remains comforting -- if falsely so. Appeasement has an awful, seeming logic to it because we all practice appeasement every day -- with our spouses, our children, our bosses, etc. Interlocutors with limited goals are often usefully appeased if the cost of conflict is more than the cost of appeasement ("Yes, dear, I'll be glad to clean up the garage").

And when the cost of non-appeasement (i.e., the decision to fight) is very high, we are strongly motivated to assume our opponent has limited demands -- in order for the cost-benefit calculus to continue to lead us to the comforting appeasement option. I have little doubt but that, since the Spanish election returns, politicians across the globe have become tempted to harvest such votes of fear, because the politicians themselves are suffering under the same false calculus of cost/benefit.

Now we must wait and see which other Western electorates might succumb to the Spanish disease. It would be easy, and comforting, to assume that Americans will be resistant. After all, we are renowned for our unflinching instinct to rally round the flag when American blood has been spilled. But the Spaniard, too, is renowned for his courage -- at least as an individual.

It is only by the vigor and pride of a nation's collective body politic that it may be immune to the disease of appeasement. In the coming months and years, America, Britain, Poland Australia and other countries will all be tested.

Already, millions of Americans have put the war on terrorism out of mind -- content to express support for politicians whose terrorism policy is largely to turn it over to the United Nations and the Interpol. President Bush is mocked by comedians and Washington journalists alike for the assertion that he is a wartime president. Anyone who thinks that is funny doesn't think there is a war. For a threat so minimized, we need not pay the high price of eternal vigilance. There is probably about a four in 10 chance that the American electorate will come down with the Spanish disease this November.

Eventually, of course, as the genocidal nature of the Islamist fury becomes manifest even to the most obtuse, all will rally to the resistance -- as eventually they did in occupied Europe against Hitler. The question that remains is how many more must die before the maximum war-fighting effort is mounted by the united civilized nations.