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The Calculus of a Bombing
March 19, 2004
By Y. A. Espinoza

Forgive me for sounding impolite, but after the bombings in Madrid, can we really say that the world is a safer place?

The political fallout has been fast and furious, as well as the interpretations abounding over the attack. New Socialist prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has pledged that Spanish troops in Iraq will be coming home soon, and blasted George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair for organizing the war "with lies."

Whether Mr. Zapatero is speaking from conviction or political inexperience belies the problem of how to frame the Spanish election in the first place. If al-Qaeda or a group linked with it is indeed responsible, can we interpret the election results as Islamic fundamentalism dictating European policy, as Wilfried Martens, head of the European People's Party declared?

This statement is one of those hasty constructions that does more harm than good. By Mr. Martens' reasoning, the election results would mean that millions of Spanish voters are tools of Islamist radicalism, and that the Socialists are cowards ready to call it quits. It also presupposes a level of sophisticated political divination that seems too improbable to attribute to al-Qaeda or its sycophant supporters: by carrying out a terrorist attack, the plotters gambled that it would bring down a government and humble a European state into appeasement. For terrorists, timing may be everything, but being able to steer the outcome of a vote? Possible, but highly improbable.

A more viable interpretation of Spanish electoral anger might be that the people wished to find another government more capable of protecting them, and most importantly, listening to them when 90% of the population is against the government's foreign policy. If Islamist radicals are indeed behind the bombing, they might cluck with the satisfaction that they brought about political change in Spain, but then they would be conflating the struggle against terrorism with the invasion of Iraq - a feat formerly accomplished by the American and British governments. And such a belief among these radical killers is nothing but false comfort, because I have yet to hear anyone in Spain as saying they're ready to sue for peace with people who blow up trains or fly jets into buildings.

For American voters, there is another question that must be faced: wasn't the invasion of Iraq supposed to make the world a safer place? Since the fall of Baghdad, there have been any number of bombings in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq itself and now Spain. The Administration kept a steady cadence of conflating terrorism and Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the invasion, and further cemented that concept by declaring that America had taken the struggle against terrorism to its center, Baghdad.

Cooler and better informed heads knew this to be patently untrue: whatever Saddam Hussein's sympathies for suicide bombers or financial support to the families of, Iraq was hardly a terrorist haven. Yet now with al-Qaeda still able to operate with impunity - and this is apparently proved in the case of the Madrid bombings - how can the White House still insist that the invasion of Iraq was connected to terrorism - or that we're winning the battle against terrorists?

As of this writing, no one in the media has bothered to connect these dots, or even blithely bring up the question for the body politic. It bears repeating: the government insisted that we would all be safer once Saddam Hussein was out of power, and yet two hundred more civilians later, that claim is specious if not fantastical. We are decidedly not any safer from radical Islamist butchers. While no thinking person would rush to the defense of an odious wretch like Saddam Hussein, continued terrorist attacks in the world arguably demonstrate that al-Qaeda isn't as harmed by the dictator's deposition as was previously believed.

And in an ironic twist, the invasion of Iraq might now be added to the list of the terrorists' irrational grievances. Prior to the war, Iraq had no connection to September 11 or international terrorism. The Bush Administration confused the two and has now created a problem which earlier did not exist. Namely, a seductive but false calculus is now running rampant, which is why the aforementioned Mr. Martens can think the Islamists scored an electoral victory in Spain.

They have done nothing of the sort, but unless there are enough voices to combat this illogical assessment, more and more American voters will perceive it as inherent European weakness, and that we need the strong leadership of the Bush Administration to keep up the fight. Politically, that translates into a second term for Mr. Bush, whose foreign policy has pushed a phony issue, Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, over a real, potent one: terrorism. The results couldn't be deadlier.

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