Madrid 2004 = Munich 1938? Not Even Close

For neo-conservative and other right-wing US hawks, Madrid has suddenly become Munich in 1938 and Spain’s Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

In an extraordinarily unanimous campaign, newspaper columnists and television commentators are flooding the media with cries of “appeasement,” the dreaded epithet with which Chamberlain was permanently tagged after his meeting in Munich with Adolf Hitler, which permitted the Nazis to slice off a major chunk of Czechoslovakia.

In the hawks’ view, the electoral defeat of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s People’s Party in the wake of last Thursday’s bombings, followed by Zapatero’s pledge to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq by Jul. 1, marks a collapse of will by a key US ally in President George W. Bush’s “war on terrorism” that will only encourage Islamist extremists.

“Neville Chamberlain, en EspaƱol” was the title of the featured column by Ramon Perez-Maura of Madrid’s ABC newspaper on the neo-conservative editorial page of Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, while the New York Times‘ David Brooks asked in his biweekly column Tuesday, “What is the Spanish word for appeasement?

Tony Blankley, editorial page editor for The Washington Times, was quick to put a name to what he called Zapatero’s “policy of appeasement” – “The Spanish Disease” – while the increasingly neo-conservative editorial writers at the Washington Post worried that the Socialist leader’s “rash” response to the bombings will mark the beginning of a domino effect throughout Europe.

“The danger is that Europe’s reaction to a war that has now reached its soil,” the Post said, “will be retreat and appeasement rather than strengthened resolve,” a point echoed by Edward Luttwak, a longtime fixture of the national-security commentariat who wrote in the New York Times, “the Zapateros of Europe … seem bent on validating the crudest caricatures of ‘old European’ cowardly decadence.”

The image was starkly drawn as well by Robert Kagan, the neo-conservative who coined the phrase “Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus.”

Warning that the bombings and the election results in Spain “have brought the United States and Europe to the edge of the abyss,” the cofounder of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose alumni include the most powerful hawks in the Bush administration, poured scorn on European Commission President Romano Prodi’s comment after the attacks that, “It is clear that using force is not the answer to resolving the conflict with terrorists.”

“Are Europeans prepared to grant all of al-Qaeda’s conditions in exchange for a promise of security?” asked Kagan. “Thoughts of Munich and 1938 come to mind.”

While some of these commentators conceded that Aznar might himself bear some responsibility for the sudden turn of events – notably by trying to blame the Basque group ETA even while evidence that the perpetrators were radical Islamists was becoming overwhelming – the basic thrust of all their comments was that, by supporting Zapatero, the Spanish electorate had lost its will to confront the larger terrorist threat, just as Chamberlain had done in handing over the Sudetenland.

This interpretation of the Spanish electorate’s choice and of Zapatero himself obviously ignored a number of factors, among them the fact that the Socialist leader said explicitly from the moment of his victory that he was committed to the fight against terrorism.

“My most immediate priority is to fight all forms of terrorism,” he said. “And my first initiative, tomorrow, will be to seek a union of political forces to join us together in fighting it.”

That right-wing commentators here generally ignored that vow, or refused to take it seriously, helps illustrate their view – which they have been hawking since Sept. 11 with great success among the US public – that Iraq is part of the larger war on terrorism, as opposed to there being two different conflicts.

In the hawks’ view, opting out of one war means opting out of both – a notion that accords very well with their “you’re either with us or you’re against us” political philosophy.

But the Spanish electorate, like much of the rest of the world, clearly did not see it that way. “In this country, Iraq and terrorism are indelibly linked in the public mind,” according to Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In Europe, they are almost indelibly separated.”

“Indeed, there’s a general sense in Europe that the war in Iraq has certainly not advanced the struggle against terror and probably degraded it,” he added, noting Tuesday’s release by the Pew Global Attitudes Project of surveys in eight European and Arab countries that showed strong majorities who concur in that assessment.

Juan Cole, a Middle East specialist at the University of Michigan, asserted that, by mixing Iraq with al-Qaeda, the neo-conservatives – in particular – had made a strategic error in the war against terrorism, which was now coming home to roost.

“Aznar, in supporting Bush on the war against Iraq, was not standing up to al-Qaeda,” Cole wrote, noting that the former prime minister’s decision to deploy troops and spend financial and intelligence resources in Iraq meant those same assets could not be used against al-Qaeda, even when it was clear from last May’s attack on a Spanish cultural center in Casablanca that Islamist terrorists had Spain in their sights.

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

In that respect, Zapatero’s pledge to refocus the war against al-Qaeda can hardly be called a “victory for (Osama) bin Laden,” according to Cole.

But aside from this rather fundamental disagreement over whether Iraq is or is not part of the war against terrorism, the eagerness with which the hawks have taken to comparing the Spanish electorate’s verdict to the 1938 Munich agreement also betrays a basic distrust of democracy, about which the neo-cons have long been ambivalent.

In their view, it was liberal democracies that appeased Hitler in the 1930s and so paved the way to World War II and the Nazi Holocaust. Indeed, the perception that “liberals” failed to fight for their principles in the 1960s is what first alienated neo-conservatives from the Democratic Party.

The neo-cons’ perception that Spaniards voted for the Socialists out of fear of al-Qaeda’s wrath confirms to them that democracy, particularly of the European variety, is weak.

“Now all European politicians will know that if they side with America on controversial security threats, and terrorists strike their nation, they might be blamed by their own voters,” wrote Brooks, who argued that US voters would, in a comparable situation, rally around their president.

“Does anyone doubt that Americans and Europeans have different moral and political cultures?” he added.

But this contention ignores the growing weight of political opinion that the main reason for the last-minute swing to the Socialists was public outrage with the Aznar government’s attempts to withhold and manipulate what it knew about the perpetrators for its own political advantage, as well as citizens’ opposition to the Iraq war.

Such attitudes were reported by journalists’ following the election in Madrid.

“In interviews,” the New York Times reported, “they said they (voted for the Socialists) not so much out of fear of terror as out of anger against a government they saw as increasingly authoritarian, arrogant and stubborn.”

That lesson might cut a little too close to the bone for the hawks, who led the drive to war in Iraq.

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.