More thoughts on Spain

Several left bloggers, and most of Kevin Drum’s commenters, seem to be missing the point about the Spanish elections. If the consequence of major terrorist actions is to induce voters to elect politicians who will pursue — for whatever good reason — policies the terrorists favor, that constitutes an incentive for more terrorist actions. So if the Spanish voters were saying to al-Qaeda, “Okay, we give up; we’ll do what you want; just don’t hurt us again,” that would be bad for the world and dishonorable of the Spanish voters.

I’m a little bit disappointed that so many of the warbloggers seem eager to adopt this interpretation, and to trumpet their contempt for a country now grieving for its dead. It might be the right interpretation, and a certain amount of contempt would be justified if it were the right interpretation, but this really isn’t the moment to by adding insult to injury.

Of course, the alternative interpretation — or better say “another interpretation,” since they aren’t mutually exclusive — is that the Spanish electorate was angry at having been bullshat by the Spanish government, which leaped to finger the wrong group for the bombings in order to use the bombings to its domestic political advantage. (Beautiful Horizons has some specifics: apparently the counter-terror investigators in Spain knew within hours that ETA hadn’t done it, and some senior officials threatened to resign when Anzar continued to speak as if ETA had done it.) I can see how that possibility might send shivers down the spines of those hoping for a Bush re-election in November.

But I still have to ask the warbloggers one question: Why are you so eager to see bad news here? Why do you prefer to see the people of Spain as a bunch of cowardly appeasers, and the election result as a victory for al-Qaeda? Isn’t the eagerness to see bad news in the War on Terror exactly what you love to accuse your opponents of?

Whatever mix of interpretations is true, it’s certain that the Spanish voters just voted to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. One question people in Washington (and we, as their bosses) ought to be asking is why our government hadn’t done more in the run-up to the election to make it clear to the Spanish people that acting in concert with the United States had direct benefits to Spain.

The Administration has been gleefully public in threatening and taking reprisals against those of our allies, including France, Germany, and Canada (but not, for some reason, Russia) that failed to follow our diplomatic and military lead. But the flip side of that — benefits for those who have helped us — hasn’t been nearly as obvious. What victory suitable for domestic political consumption did the Bush Administration give Anzar and his Partido Popular. What victory has it given to Blair, or Berlusconi?

If there’s a single idea that runs through the “Mirrors of Princes” literature from Xenophon to Machiavelli to Neustadt, it’s that a ruler has to make it advantageous to others — and especially to those who are not already his intimate friends — to cooperate with him, and disadvantageous not to cooperate. Both domestically and internationally, the Bush administration seems to be fixated on only on the nasty half of that formula.

And whatever the reasons for what the Spanish electorate just did, the results make it clear that American unpopularity abroad has real consequences, and that it would be in our security interest to have an administration in power capable of attracting popular support in democratic countries for our fight against al-Qaeda and its friends.

Bill Clinton was and is a supporter not merely of anti-terrorist policy generically, but of the Iraq invasion as well. He spoke up at a crucial moment in the British debate on the war in support of the Bush-Blair position. Both domestically and internationally, Clinton has considerable prestige. Yet the Bush crowd has been so eager to have Clinton to use as a domstic political whipping-boy that they have never tried to engage that prestige on their side of the debate.

Many Democrats dislike George W. Bush in part because he was and is a war President. I see “war is not the Answer” bumper stickers on the same cars that have Dean and Kucinich bumper stickers on them.

But some of us dislike George W. Bush largely because he has proven to be such an inept war President. November Matthew Yglesias has details. We’re hoping, this November, to elect a better one: a President capable of rallying the allies we need for this war, a President for whom homeland security is more than an excuse to do a little union-busting, a President who will not subordinate victory against terror to domestic political advantage, a President less in thrall to the House of Saud and therefore more willing to demand that Saudi support for al-Qaeda and for Wahhabist hate education cease.

Earlier thoughts on Spain here

Update Quite possibly neither of my proposed explanations (the Spanish electorate was waving a white flag or the Spanish electorate was punishing a government that lied to it) was correct. Turnout in this election was unexpectedly high, perhaps because some people who would otherwise have been non-voters were mobilized to make a gesture of civic solidarity. As in most countries, the potential electorate in Spain as a whole leans somewhat to the left of the sub-group that actually votes, in part because the non-voters tend to be young. So it may be that the terrorist attack didn’t change anyone’s mind about which party to vote for, but merely increased turnout in a way that happened to help the PSOE opposition.

Which just goes to show that lots of wierd stuff happens in politics, and lots of things mean less than they seem to mean.

I’m a little bit embarrassed at having missed what seems in retrospect like an obvious hypothesis. (Duhhh…if something changes in an election, it’s either due to vote-switching or changes in turnout.) But the people who have spent the last two days insulting a nation in grief ought to be substantially more embarrassed.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

6 thoughts on “More thoughts on Spain”

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