The Meaning of Madrid

The neocons wanted a new world war – and now they have it. That is the meaning of the Madrid attacks, in which 201 people were killed and over a thousand wounded, for which Al Qaeda has taken responsibility.

In the run-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the neoconservative network – which had been agitating for war in the Middle East for over a decade – came up with a new brand name for their product. Writing in the Wall Street Journal as the Afghan War was lighting up the skies over Kabul, neocon academic Eliot Cohen, the Clausewitz of the War Party, disdained the platitudinous habits of politicians who refused to call things by their right names. Shall we call it the “Afghan War”? No, too limited, he averred:

“The ‘9/11 War,’ perhaps? But the war began well before Sept. 11, and its casualties include, at the very least, the dead and wounded in our embassies in Africa, on the U.S.S Cole and, possibly, in Somalia and the Khobar Towers. ‘Osama bin Laden’s War’? There are precedents for this in history (King Philip’s War, Pontiac’s War, or even The War of Jenkins’ Ear), but the war did not begin with bin Laden and will not end with his death, which may come sooner than anyone had anticipated – including, one hopes, the man himself. A less palatable but more accurate name is World War IV. The Cold War was World War III, which reminds us that not all global conflicts entail the movement of multimillion-man armies, or conventional front lines on a map.”

The war did not begin with Bin Laden – that strangely counterintuitive concept is the key to understanding the mindset of the cabal that lied us into war. The neoconservatives have long argued that Islam itself, and not just the radical incarnation represented by Al Qaeda, is the implacable enemy that has displaced Communism as our principal adversary on the world stage. They didn’t need 9/11 to confirm this, although they naturally jumped at the opportunity it provided, just as they are pouncing on the Madrid attacks as justifying their anti-Islamic jihad.

In mythologizing 9/11 – and, now, 3/11 – Cohen and his co-thinkers, including Norman Podhoretz and former CIA chieftain James Woolsey, have separated the act from its perpetrators. It doesn’t matter that the millions of Muslims the world over who resent the United States for its intervention in the Middle East and its unconditional support to the Likud government in Tel Aviv had nothing to do with the destruction of the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, or the cowardly bombing of the trains in Spain. The whole lot of them are involved in the commission of a “hate crime,” and therefore beyond the pale.

Before 9/11, there was very little support for this sort of fanaticism, except among the numerically tiny neoconservative sect and their Christian Right footsoldiers, whose singular focus on the interests of the Israeli state spring from opposite and yet ultimately congruent theologies. The neoconservative cadre who filled the second-and –third tier positions in the national security bureaucracy had been pushing “finishing the job” in Iraq for a decade, and, when they successfully flooded the newly-installed Bush II White House personnel office with their resumes, they brought their agenda with them.

In the wake of the biggest terrorist attack in American history – not counting state-sponsored terrorism – this exotic ideological blossom became the official ideology of Bush administration. The only difference being that the new dispensation was now out in the open.

The Spanish events have stimulated the War Party into new heights of hysterical righteousness. Amidst the loud gnashing of neocon teeth and the facile anti-European rhetoric of the new American nativists (the loudest of whom are, oddly, Canadians) the clear-eyed analysis of Middle East scholar Juan Cole stands out like a beacon of reason:

“I believe that the Spanish public just recognized the correctness of the ‘opportunity cost’ argument about the Iraq War and anti-terrorism efforts. Let’s say you are in business. If you put your capital, which is limited, into expanding one part of your business (‘X’), you may make money – say 7% percent on your investment. But you had another opportunity to put your money into expanding a different part of the business (‘Y’), and that would have given you a 25% percent return (which you did not know at the time). Giving up the 25% return is an opportunity cost of doing X rather than Y.

“The Iraq War represents an enormous opportunity cost in the counter-insurgency struggle against al-Qaeda and its constituents,” he continues. Instead of going after Bin Laden, in Afghanistan, the Bush administration went after Iraq, as Al Qaeda “struck at Mombasa, Bali, Riyadh, Casablanca, Istanbul, Madrid and elsewhere.”

Pointing out that not even the attack on a Spanish cultural center in Morocco gave the Aznar government some reason to expect they were a target – they were too busy defending their decision to send Spanish troops to Iraq against the 91 percent of the voters who oppose it – Professor Cole poses a few pertinent questions:

“How much did Spain spend to go after the culprits in Casablanca? How much did Bush dedicate to that effort? How much did they instead invest in military efforts in Iraq?

“Instead of dealing with this growing and world-wide threat, the Bush administration cynically took advantage of the American public’s anger and fear after September 11 and channeled it against the regime of Saddam Hussein, which had had nothing to do with September 11 and which never could be involved in such a terrorist operation on American soil because its high officers knew exactly the retribution that would be visited on them. Only an asymmetrical organization could think of a September 11, because it has no exact return address. Even for a state to give aid to such an operation against a super power would be suicide – how could you be sure the superpower would not find out about the aid?”

Given what we are learning about ingredients that went into the “cooked” intelligence the White House fed Congress and the American people, how could you be sure that they wouldn’t just fake the evidence? After all, that’s what they did to Iraq. The question now is: who’s next?

Back to Professor Cohen for that, who characterizes Iran as the biggest spoke in the axis of evil, and mentions Iraq as an obligatory afterthought:

“The overthrow of the first theocratic revolutionary Muslim state and its replacement by a moderate or secular government, however, would be no less important a victory in this war than the annihilation of bin Laden.”

Tarry not over the Bizarro World absurdity of an ostensibly conservative administration crusading to impose secularism by force of arms worldwide, there’s a double irony here: the Iranian-inspired fundamentalist Shi’ite groups previously harbored in Tehran have filled the power vacuum created by the Ba’athist collapse. Just as some of us predicted, Iranian influence has never loomed larger in the region, and the alleged “threat” posed by Tehran is the latest neocon bugaboo taken up by this administration.

The smoke had barely cleared from lower Manhattan before Cohen and his fellow neocons had their sights set on Tehran, as well as Baghdad. At every opportunity they sought to expand and extend the scope of the hostilities, and draw in as many participants as possible: after all, you can’t have World War IV without a whole lot of different countries jumping into the fray. A war to eradicate a bunch of marginal bandits who exist on the geographical and ideological fringes of Islam just won’t do.

Professors Cohen and Cole represent antipodal arguments in the debate over how to deal with the threat posed by Al Qaeda and similar groups. The former seeks not only to expand the definition of the enemy, but also to diagnose and eradicate what the neocons regard as the ultimate source of the problem. Just as the “Great Society” liberals once sought to wage a “war on poverty” by getting at the alleged “root causes” of crime, unemployment and racial conflict, so today’s neocons have embarked on a similar urban renewal project in the Middle East.

As Bush II begins to morph into Lyndon Baines Johnson, both in his foreign and domestic policies, many conservatives and Republican voters are mystified. This is perhaps due to the complex history of what neocon godfather Irving Kristol calls “the neoconservative persuasion.” Starting out as a rebellion of “Great Society” liberals against the antiwar McGovernites, the neocons, in their Republican incarnation, have now widened their horizons and shifted their social engineering operations overseas. The radicalism of this project is aptly judged “neo-Jacobin” by the economist and conservative columnist Paul Craig Roberts, citing the recent excellent book by Professor Claes Ryn, which makes this very trenchant point at some length.

Professor Cole, on the other hand, takes a focused, ruthlessly pragmatic and essentially conservative strategic view, which is to home in on Bin Laden, personally, and narrow his base of support in the Islamic world. He writes of the disparity between outlays for Iraq and the Afghan theater, and continues:

“Let me repeat that. Maybe $1.3 billion for Afghanistan. $250 billion for Iraq. Bin Laden and his supporters are in Afghanistan. What is wrong with this picture?”

What is wrong with this picture is that this administration, like Professor Cohen, never seemed much interested in the actual perpetrators of 9/11. For a long time they even pretended he was dead. That the Bush administration is launching yet another Afghan operation as election season heats up could be a coincidence and, then again, maybe not. At any rate, Osama is suddenly back in the news, apparently resurrected just in time for Easter.

Professor Cole presents the clearest case against the WWIV worldview I have yet read:

“There is not and cannot be such a thing as a ‘war on terror.’ Terror is a tactic. There can be a global counterinsurgency struggle against al-Qaeda and kindred organizations. But a large part of such a struggle must be to deny al-Qaeda recruitment tools and propaganda victories. The way the Bush administration pursued the war against Iraq, as a superpower-led act of Nietzschean will to power, simply made it look in the Middle East as though al-Qaeda had been right. Bin Laden’s message was that Middle Easterners are being colonized and occupied by the United States.”

Instead of working to isolate Bin Laden, pin him down, and destroy him, American policies have swollen the ranks of his allied terrorist organizations, and extended their reach into the heart of Europe. I would further suggest that this is a matter of “blowback” – a self-inflicted catastrophe – in another important sense. Even as NATO troops continue to guarantee the Kosovar gangster state and the “independence” of Bosnia, the only Muslim state on the continent, the Islamist radicals who fought alongside American troops against Serbia are now plotting jihad in the heart of Europe.

The vision first expressed by Professor Cohen, and since echoed by his epigones, such as the dynamic duo of David Frum and Richard Perle, envisions a vast and immediate expansion of U.S. government operations not only abroad but also on the home front. We “require” says Cohen,

“Something more than the $20 billion a year in defense spending increases over the budget now in the offing. Similarly, the creation of a homeland security office without real powers, the reluctance of the government to open comprehensive, formal inquiries into the disaster of Sept. 11, and the absence of big, imaginative programs – mass scholarships for public health programs, for example, or, more ambitious yet, a really substantial program of scientific research to emancipate the West from dependence upon Persian Gulf oil – tell us that Washington is somewhere between a war footing and business as usual.”

Professor Cohen was hopeful early on that this administration would take the right track, and his fear of “lapsing into a covert war of intelligence-gathering, arrests, and the odd explosion in a terrorist training camp” turned out to be a false alarm. It doesn’t matter that more attention to the covert war of intelligence-gathering and arrests could conceivably have prevented 3/11. Such an allocation of resources and attention would have been, according to Professor Cohen, “a sign that” we “would rather avoid calling things by their true name.”

In the wake of 3/11, the War Party is reprising, reinforcing, and further elaborating on their basic message: Striking their favorite Churchillean pose, the neocons denounce the European “culture of appeasement.” Al Qaeda, they argue, having learned they can influence the outcome of elections by acts of well-timed terror, exposed the Spaniards – and the whole of Old Europe – as “cowards,” which can only invite more terrorism. In the wake of the Spanish catastrophe, the punditi are already looking forward to fresh catastrophes, in Britain, France, Italy, and perhaps even an “October surprise” in the U.S.

The advocates of “World War IV” have a built-in advantage of inestimable value. Every fresh disaster seems to confirm their dark prognosis. The more they fail, they more they win.

This, I believe, explains a phenomenon first noted by the perspicacious Brendan O’Neill:

“Has anybody else noticed an element of gloating at the horror in Madrid among pro-war commentators? Amid the expressions of revulsion and sorrow at the killing of 200 Spaniards on Thursday, some seem almost excited by the prospect that Europe has been ‘shocked’ back to its senses and might now do its duty in the war against terror.”

O’Neill mentions Andrew Sullivan as a prime example of this repugnant trend, and, while hysteria seems to be Sullivan’s permanent condition, the panicky tenor of his neoconservative confreres is due to the fact that Americans seem to be coming to their senses. Support for the Iraq war and occupation is falling dramatically, and there is almost no support for new adventures except in the editorial offices of National Review and the Weekly Standard. It’s time to ratchet up the fear factor a couple of notches. If we aren’t on Orange Alert – or above – by Election Day then we can declare the war on terrorism over and ourselves the victors. No wonder the War Party is gloating.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].