APRIL 2004

The American right strikes back
Jonathan Freedland
March 19, 2004

Eleven million Spaniards rallied against terrorism. That's not appeasement, says Jonathan Freedland.

Maybe they think it's payback time. In 2001, many American conservatives were appalled by the reaction in some European quarters to September 11, a reaction crudely summarised as "America had it coming".

They insisted it was grossly insensitive to attack the United States and its foreign policy while Ground Zero still smouldered. They were right and I took their side, urging people at least to pause awhile before adding greater hurt to an already traumatised nation.

But look what's happening now. A matter of days after the event branded Europe's September 11, and American conservatives - including some of the very people who were so outraged by the criticisms hurled at the US in September 2001 - have started whacking not just Spanish policy, but the Spanish people.

Witness David Brooks in Tuesday's New York Times, outraged that the Madrid bombings prompted Spanish voters to "throw out the old government and replace it with one whose policies are more to al-Qaeda's liking. What is the Spanish word for appeasement?" Right-wing blog artist Andrew Sullivan also raided the 1930s lexicon for the same, exhausted word: "It seems clear to me that the trend in Europe is now either appeasement of terror or active alliance with it. It is hard to view the results in Spain as anything but a choice between Bush and al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda won." Not to be outdone, former Bush speech-writer David Frum, the man who coined "axis of evil", sighed at the weakness of the Spanish: "People are not always strong. Sometimes they indulge false hopes that by lying low, truckling, appeasing, they can avoid danger and strife ... And this is what seems to have happened in Spain."

Perhaps this is how the Bushites hope to avenge what they saw as European insensitivity two-and-a-half years ago, by defaming the Spanish even as Madrid still weeps. But this assault should not go unanswered if only because, if allowed to settle in the public mind, it will widen yet further the already yawning trans-Atlantic gulf of misunderstanding.

Perhaps this is how the Bushites hope to avenge what they saw as European insensitivity two-and-a-half years ago, by defaming the Spanish even as Madrid still weeps.

Put aside the imprecision (and worse) that comes with the abuse of the word "appeasement": the menace of al-Qaeda is real and serious enough without making hyperbolic comparisons to the Third Reich.

Focus instead on the two grave errors that underlie this latest argument from the right. One is a misunderstanding of democracy, the other is a failure to make crucial distinctions.

The first mistake is the more surprising, for no word is invoked more often in support of the "war on terror" than democracy. Yet these insults hurled at the Spanish show a sneaking contempt for the idea. For surely the Spanish did nothing more on Sunday than exercise their democratic right to change governments. They elected the Socialist party; to suggest they voted for al-Qaeda is a slur not only on the Spanish nation but on the democratic process itself, implying that when terrorists strike political choice must end.

It is a bid to reshape the political landscape, so that parties of the right stand on one side and all the rest are lumped in with al-Qaeda. The tactic is McCarthyite, the natural extension of the bullying insistence that, in President Bush's own words: "You are either with us or you're with the terrorists." If that is the choice, then there is no choice: it is a mandate for a collection of one-party states.

But this is not the heart of the matter. The right's greater error is its failure to distinguish between the war against al-Qaeda and the war on Iraq. About 90 per cent of the Spanish electorate were against the latter; there is no evidence that they were, or are, soft on the former.

On the contrary, there have been two mass demonstrations of Spanish opinion in the past few days: let no one forget that 36 hours before the election, about 11 million Spaniards took to the streets to swear their revulsion at terrorism. It takes some cheek to accuse a nation like that of weakness and appeasement.

The Spaniards showed they knew the difference between the struggle against al-Qaeda and the conflict in Iraq. It is hardly a shock that this distinction is lost on the likes of Frum and company: the Bush Administration worked tirelessly to conflate the two, constantly melding Saddam and September 11 even though the President himself has had to admit no evidence links the two.

The Spanish electorate were not voting for a cave-in to al-Qaeda. On the contrary, many of those who opposed the war in Iraq did so precisely because they feared it would distract from the more urgent war against Islamist fanaticism. (Witness the US military resources pulled off the hunt for bin Laden in Afghanistan and diverted to Baghdad.)

Nor was it appeasement to suggest that the US-led invasion of an oil-rich Muslim country would make al-Qaeda's recruitment mission that much easier.

Of course, this is not to argue that if only the war had not happened then bin Laden and his henchmen would have laid down their arms. Al-Qaeda's leaders are murderous, guilty of the most wicked acts; nothing we can do will reach them.

But that is not true of the many thousands, perhaps millions, drawn to the message of extreme Islamism; the people who would never plant bombs, but might cheer when they go off. These are the hearts and minds that have to be won over if the war on terror is ever to be won.

To assert that the conflict over Iraq made that task harder is not a surrender; it is a statement of the obvious.

It may be comforting, but this struggle cannot be won by painting the world in black and white, with America as the good guy and everyone else cast as terrorists or their allies. It will require nimble, subtle thinking - constantly making awkward but essential distinctions.

So, yes, it is quite true that al-Qaeda will be chillingly gratified by the Spanish result but, no, that does not mean that Spaniards voted for al-Qaeda. Similarly, it is quite possible to be strongly opposed to the Iraq adventure and militantly in favour of the war against bin Laden - indeed the two sentiments can be strongly linked.

There is a difference, too, between appeasing men of violence and seeking to limit their appeal, just as the leaders of global terror must be separated from those who could become their followers. Islam is no monolith, nor is the West, and all the fine gradations within these categories matter enormously.

The world has never looked more like a complex knot, and it will take precision and patience to untangle it. Wrenching away at it in fury will only make the problem harder - and our lives more dangerous.


Jonathan Freedland is a columnist with The Guardian, London.