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The Price Of Courage

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March 12, 2004 -- YESTERDAY, terrorists took the lives of almost 200 Spanish civilians, wounding perhaps 1,400 more. Ten coordinated explosions struck three morning commuter trains entering Madrid.

It happened on the 21/2-year anniversary of the attacks on Manhattan and Washington - 30 months to the day. The symbolism was intentional.

The facts are still coming in. The Spanish government initially blamed the ETA, a Basque separatist organization with minimal popular support and a maximum will to violence. But evidence of al Qaeda links - including a letter claiming responsibility - soon surfaced.

And it's startling how closely yesterday's killers followed the 9/11 template. The terrorists exploited the openness of public transportation - this time trains, not planes - to stage dramatic, merciless and nearly simultaneous strikes on massed civilians. It was 9/11 on rails.

Whatever their other human flaws, terrorist leaders aren't stupid. They learn from successes and failures. Even beyond the tactical details of the attacks, the greatest lesson the terrorists drew from 9/11 was the importance of thinking big, of staging stunning, interconnected attacks that, amplified by the media, appear even greater than the painful sum of their parts.

If anyone doubts that the War on Terror is global or that it's a struggle between civilization and barbarity, yesterday gave further proof that we have no choice but to fight with all our resources.

Why strike Spain? The letter from the "Brigade of Abu Hafs al-Masri" reportedly said: "This is part of settling old accounts with Spain, the crusader, and America's ally in its war against Islam."

But the deeper reasons those trains were attacked was because of Spain's growing success, because of the Madrid government's courage, and because of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's vision.

Spain has not only taken a firm stand against domestic terrorism, but joined the global War on Terror as an equal partner. The most striking strategic moment of Operation Iraqi Freedom wasn't the opening salvo lighting up Baghdad, but the Azores summit before the war began. The three boldest leaders of Western civilization stood shoulder to shoulder: President Bush, the valiant Tony Blair and Prime Minister Aznar - in many ways the bravest of the three.

On the eve of war, Aznar faced a situation much like the one FDR faced between 1939 and Dec. 7, 1941. FDR knew that we had to join the fight, but the American people didn't appear ready to accept that necessity. Aznar went FDR one better. He ignored the political torpedoes - a majority of Spaniards didn't support sending their troops to Iraq - and did what he saw as essential for the future of his own country and our common civilization.

Aznar risked all politically to do the right thing.

As a result, the forces of international terror want vengeance against Spain.

Equally threatening to the international extremists has been Spain's recent renaissance. In the generation after the death of Franco, Spain came from behind on virtually every front. It's now the most promising country in Europe - culturally, diplomatically and economically.

With our "old establishment" fixated on what our secretary of defense affectionately termed "old Europe," remarkably little has been broadcast or written about the new Spain's transformation from ugly duckling to strategic swan.

What happened was almost unique: The dreary decades of Franco's rule climaxed centuries of Spanish stagnation. Spain, the great colonial power, in the end had "colonized" and brutalized itself. Spain had slipped so far behind the rest of Europe that it resembled a Latin American banana republic.

But Franco's death and the virtues of Spain's indispensable man, King Juan Carlos, unleashed 400 years of pent-up social, creative and intellectual energies.

Spain's progress has been without peer in Europe. Freedom worked.

The first milestones on the path out of tyranny and stagnation appear in the arts. And Spanish film, literature and even cuisine have become the most innovative in Europe. On the business front, Spanish banks and investors think strategically: They've poured billions into Latin America through good years and bad, taking a long-term view. Then Spain produced a prime minister - Aznar - with a revolutionary vision of his country's place in the world.

Spain's back.

Although some Spaniards still indulge in leftist tirades against the United States, that's just a hangover from the black years - when Washington was all too ready to excuse Franco's oppression. We've moved on, and the Spain that matters has moved on. Like the Arab street, the Spanish street clings to the past - and determines nothing.

Along with the United Kingdom, Spain is the obvious strategic partner for the United States on the Atlantic littoral.

Our three countries have synergistic ties across the ocean - not only with each other, but with Latin America and Africa, the two continents with the most undervalued potential. In this new century, our interests converge.

As a result, the threats against us also converge. Terrorists hate successful democracies, public freedoms and thriving economies. Foreign and domestic, the forces of terror hate all that 21st century Spain stands for.

The losses suffered by the Spanish people on March 11, 2004, were as devastating to our allies and friends as the losses of 9/11 were to us.

Spain stood by us. Now we must have the vision to stand by Spain.

Ralph Peters is the author of "Beyond Terror: Strategy in a Changing World."

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