Spanish Blowback: Iraq War Boomerangs

It was just last week, on the eve of the bloodiest act of terrorism in Europe’s modern history, that Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet warned that the U.S. administration’s optimistic rhetoric on winning the “war on terrorism” was premature.

Al-Qaeda has “infected others with its ideology, which depicts the United States as Islam’s greatest foe,” Tenet told lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“The steady growth of Osama bin Laden’s anti-American sentiment through the wider Sunni extremist movement, and the broad dissemination of al-Qaeda’s destructive expertise ensure that a serious threat will remain for the foreseeable future, with or without al-Qaeda in the picture.”

“Even so, as al-Qaeda reels from our blows, other extremist groups within the movement it influenced have become the next wave of terrorist threat. Dozens of such groups exist,” Tenet noted, including in Europe.

Whether al-Qaeda was behind last week’s Madrid bombings, or whether the perpetrators were part of the “next wave,” both the bombings and their electoral impact – the defeat of one of Bush’s few western allies in the war in Iraq – constitute serious blows to the president and his anti-terror strategy, according to analysts here.

Indeed, that they took place on the eve of an unprecedented US offensive coordinated with some 70,000 Pakistani troops in eastern Pakistan to hunt down bin Laden once and for all underlines the extent to which the administration’s anti-terrorist strategy – which was essentially diverted for 15 months by war in Iraq – might have fallen behind the curve.

“The way the administration has carried out its war – especially its attack on Iraq – may have sown dragon’s teeth,” said one government official who asked to not be identified. “The fact that we and the Europeans had no clue this was coming shows how little we know about the ‘next wave.'”

Hans Blix, the former hapless chief United Nations weapons inspector also suggested that Bush’s decision to take the war on terrorism to Iraq – despite the lack of any documented operational links between Baghdad and al-Qaeda or other Sunni extremist groups – might have made things worse.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Blix said the war had “not put an end to terrorism in the world … on the contrary, the result of this iron-fisted approach has been to give it a boost,” added the Swede, who is due in the United States in coming days for an extended tour to sell his new book, Disarming Iraq.

That also appeared to be the message received by Spain’s Prime Minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose Socialist Party was expected to lose handily to Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s Popular Party until last Thursday’s bombings.

“The war in Iraq was a disaster, the occupation of Iraq is a disaster,” he told a Spanish radio station Monday, suggesting that Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair “engage in some self-criticism” over their decision to invade Iraq.

“Wars such as those which have occurred in Iraq only allow hatred, violence and terror to proliferate,” the new prime minister declared, reaffirming his position that Spain will continue to fight terrorism but that its troops will withdraw from Iraq on Jul. 1 unless the U.N. Security Council takes charge of the peacekeeping operation there, something Bush has long opposed.

Spain has deployed 1,300 troops to Iraq, slightly less than one percent of the total number of foreign occupation forces, but the third largest contingent from western Europe, after Britain and Italy.

Even more important, Aznar, who was not himself running for reelection, was considered among Bush’s top foreign allies, indeed second only to Blair, whose own political popularity has plummeted in the wake of the Iraq war to by far its lowest level in his seven-year tenure amid charges that he and Bush deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Baghdad in the run-up to the war.

Despite Aznar’s prominence preceding the U.S.-led attack – he, Bush and Blair all captured the global media spotlight at their joint “war summit” in the Azores just days before the offensive was launched – he never persuaded more than a small minority of Spaniards that it was a good idea.

Public-opinion polls showed that opposition to the war ran higher in Spain than in almost every other European country except Italy, at over 80 percent.

But Aznar, who was rewarded in part by the administration’s decision to include Batasuna, a radical Basque nationalist party linked to the armed ETA movement, on the State Department list of international terrorist groups, was thought unlikely to suffer much politically, because of the widespread belief that most Spanish voters were unlikely to decide how they would vote based on foreign-policy issues.

Until the bombings, public-opinion polls appeared to bear out that belief.

Spain was also slated to receive other benefits from its backing for the war and participation in the occupation. Last November, US Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue assured Spanish business leaders they would get privileged treatment in bidding for reconstruction projects in Iraq.

The fact that the bombings so clearly influenced the election’s final outcome came as a shock to some analysts, who said the chain of events, including Rodriguez’s pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq, would undoubtedly encourage similar strikes by Islamist militants in western countries.

“The most troubling thing about this is the way the incoming Spanish government is sending a message to terrorists that this may be a potential model for them to affect policy and elections,” said Lee Feinstein, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a centrist think tank here.

“It’s a mistake to call for a withdrawal of troops, as if this were a response to the attacks, because the Socialist Party’s opposition to the Iraq war is long-standing.”

But Feinstein predicted the bombings will likely result in much greater attention by the European Union (EU) to the dangers of international terrorism.

Neo-conservative Democrat and US Senator Joe Lieberman said any withdrawal by Spain would amount to appeasement, a position echoed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

“Anyone who thinks that if … a nation’s troops stay out of a particular military conflict that they’ll be somehow protected from the fanatical Islamic terrorists, is just wrong,” Lieberman said. “That’s the same kind of logic that (British Prime Minister) Neville Chamberlain (used) in Munich to try to pacify Hitler in the late 1930s, and obviously that didn’t work.”

At the same time, the Socialist victory is certain to strengthen the position of France and Germany, which opposed the war in Iraq, inside the EU.

Like Spain’s Socialists, the French and German governments fully supported military action in Afghanistan and elsewhere against al-Qaeda, but strongly opposed the war against Iraq in the absence of any evidence that tied Baghdad to the terrorist group.

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.