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A vote for terror?

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E.J. Dionne, Jr.

Washington Post Writers Group



A vote for terror?

Socialist victory is statement against political manipulation

WASHINGTON -- Here's what some Republican leaders and op-ed page warriors are saying: As soon as terrorist bombs went off in Spain, voters there had a moral obligation to vote for the incumbents who supported President Bush's Iraq policies. To make any other choice was to vote for appeasement.

And so when the votes were counted last Sunday and Spain replaced the Popular Party with the Socialists, an entire nation was immediately painted as a bunch of chickens, this generation's answer to Neville Chamberlain.

"Here's a country who stood against terrorism and had a huge terrorist act within their country and they chose to change their government and to, in a sense, appease terrorists," declared House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Rep. Henry Hyde, Hastert's fellow Illinois Republican, put it even more plainly: "The voices of appeasement are being heard in Europe."

Thank goodness that not everyone in the Republican Party is willing to shout "appeasement" as soon as voters in a democratic nation express some differences with our government. It took the ever-steady Richard L. Armitage, the deputy secretary of state, to bring sanity to the discussion.

"I think the vote that propelled the Socialists into power in Spain, as I understand it, was a protest by the people against the handling of the terrorist event by the sitting government of Spain," Armitage said. The Spanish government "didn't get what information did exist out to the public."

Indeed, Spanish voters had every reason to be furious. As Keith Richburg demonstrated in an excellent report in The Washington Post, the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar "undertook an intense campaign" to persuade the world -- and his country's electorate -- that last week's bombings had been carried out not by al Qaeda, but by the Basque separatist group ETA.

Why? Aznar's hard line against ETA was an electoral asset to his chosen successor, Mariano Rajoy. Aznar's decision to send troops to Iraq was an electoral liability. So it had to be ETA.

Richburg documented Aznar's efforts to persuade allies and Spanish news editors to blame the attack on ETA. To point fingers anywhere else, said Angel Acebes, the interior minister, was "a miserable attempt to disrupt information and confuse people. ... There is no doubt that ETA is responsible."

Long after the evidence began suggesting that al Qaeda or its offshoots were responsible, American officials played along with Aznar. As voters were going to the polls in Spain on Sunday, Secretary of State Colin Powell told "Fox News Sunday" that "ETA is still a candidate for responsibility" while Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, was more circumspect in attributing suspicions of ETA to "the Spanish authorities." The charitable view is that Powell and Rice didn't want to interfere with the Spanish elections -- or undercut an administration ally.

It's reasonable to think that the terrorists of al Qaeda wanted to affect the Spanish elections. What's hard to understand is why our own hawks are so eager to hand al Qaeda a victory by rushing to put down Spanish voters as wimps.

"I think humility is very much in order here," said Sen. Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has repeatedly defended Bush's invasion of Iraq. "We're making a gigantic mistake in characterizing Aznar's party's loss as a victory for al Qaeda. ... I'm not sure that's true, and all it does is reinforce the notion that there is a gigantic split between the Spanish population and America."

Instead of bashing the Spaniards, Biden suggests that the administration come to terms with why there is so much opposition to its policies in Europe, and to start rebuilding bridges. The president, Biden says, "should be getting on a plane and heading to Europe.

"He should say we need a united front in fighting al Qaeda. We need Europe, and Europe needs us." Biden proposes internationalizing U.S. efforts in Iraq through NATO and "taking the American face off this" by appointing an internationally accepted high commissioner to preside over the transformation of Iraq.

For the moment, Spain's incoming prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, didn't makes matters easier when he hinted in a radio interview on Wednesday that he was rooting for John Kerry to defeat Bush. Americans, no less than the Spanish, prefer to make their own electoral decisions. But with so many Bush administration supporters trashing Zapatero voters as appeasers, the new prime minister's preferences are not surprising.

The vote in Spain was not a vote for al Qaeda. It was, in part at least, a vote against the manipulation of terror for political purposes.

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