Commentary

Spanish Flu: Paying the price for America’s mistake

This article originally appeared in Reason March 15, 2004
When the U.S. assembled its international coalition, ranging from Great Britain to Micronesia, to topple Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, it relied on governments willing to override their people’s wishes. America’s war received popular support in no countries other than Kuwait and Israel.

Now Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s Popular Party may have paid the ultimate political price for backing the Bush administration, losing an election that it long was expected to win. Other American allies, most notably John Howard in Australia, Tony Blair in Great Britain, and Junichiro Koizumi in Japan, might eventually meet the same end.

Only Britain and Australia offered serious military aid in the war; Poland provided 300 soldiers but begged Washington not to mention its contribution publicly. Most nations — Slovakia, Norway, and scores of others — simply wrote letters of support.

Millions of people around the world marched against the war, but few seemed inclined to punish their governments for backing the U.S. After all, the official letters cost little more than the postage necessary to mail them.

Allied casualties were few even for Britain. And there the opposition supported Prime Minister Blair’s pro-American policy. With the war over, Washington promised bountiful goodwill and generous reconstruction contracts for its friends. It looked like a win-win game after all.

No longer.

The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction buried the claim that Iraq threatened world peace and stability. The failure to establish an alliance with al-Qaeda voided the promise that overthrowing Saddam Hussein would weaken Islamic terrorism.

To the contrary, turning Iraq into an unstable protectorate garrisoned by the U.S. and allied states created both a new battleground with and a new, albeit cynical, grievance for terrorists. Blowback to America’s friends as well as America seemed inevitable. British sites were hit alongside synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey. The monstrous attack on the Madrid train station increasingly appears to be the work of an al-Qaeda affiliate.

The reaction of Spanish voters was hardly surprising. Many complained that the government had manipulated the investigation, attempting to blame the Spanish separatist group ETA, against which the Aznar government had run a sustained campaign. Officials in Washington played along, in a desperate attempt to aid a friendly government in need.

With evidence suggesting an al-Qaeda connection, however, Spaniards blamed the government for turning them into a target. It is bad enough to take a nation into war based on a mistake or lie. It is horrific to do so when the result is to bring war back to the homefront.

It’s important not to read the election upset as a single-issue event. Pre-election polls, which showed the Popular Party ahead by 3 to 5 percent, are no guarantee that the Socialists would not have won in the absence of the Madrid attacks. Doubts about the economy and international trade have drawn support to socialist parties throughout Europe. It certainly wasn’t lost on Spaniards that their country had been home to Islamist terror cells prior to the Iraq war, or that, immediately after 9/11, Spain began an aggressive effort to root these cells out. To see the vote solely as a referendum on Iraq is to continue the error of believing every event in every sovereign country is really about America.

Already American hawks are decrying alleged allied weakness. Not only did Prime Minister Aznar’s party lose, but incoming Socialist Party Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero announced that he plans to withdraw Spain’s 1,300 troops from Iraq when their tour ends in July.

It was bad enough that the French and Germans opposed the U.S. Now, America’ paper warriors complain, Washington’s few friends are fleeing.

For instance, Rod Dreher, columnist for the Dallas Morning News, calls the Spanish election result, “terrible news. It shows that the Europeans are willing to be cowed by terror into voting for appeasers. Message to terrorists: commit terrorism on the eve of elections, say you’re doing it to punish the government for standing by the United States, and you can drive a wedge between Western allies.”

However, the real wedge is Washington’s demand that allied states act contrary to allied interests. Spain — along with Australia, Britain, Japan, Poland, South Korea, and the rest of the civilized world, in fact — often have cause to work with America.

Containing the Soviet Union, truly an “evil empire,” as President Ronald Reagan termed it, was one reason for unity. Combatting transnational terrorism such as al-Qaeda is another. Dealing with regional crises and potential hegemonic threats is yet another.

But it was not in Spain’s, or Australia’s, or Britain’s, or Japan’s, or Poland’s, or South Korea’s interest to back war against Iraq. It is not in their interest to contribute to the occupation force in Iraq. Alas, they all are likely to pay the price for Washington’s misguided Iraq invasion, which has made brutal, murderous terrorism more rather than less likely.

As an American, I am happy that other states — the more, the merrier — are willing to alleviate Washington’s burden by following the U.S. over the cliff of unnecessary war and endless occupation. But I don’t expect them to do so.

Allowing a terrorist attack to influence a democratic election is awful. However, it is hard to begrudge foreign electorates the right to toss out governments that have sacrificed their nations’s interests to win favor in Washington.

“We did not want to go to war,” demonstrators shouted at Mariano Rajoy, the ruling party’s candidate for Spanish prime minister as he voted. Nevertheless, the Popular Party took Spain into war. And the Spanish electorate punished it for doing so.

Voters in Australia, Britain, Japan, Poland, South Korea, and elsewhere might make the same judgment. America’s friends should stand with Washington when the cause is just, the action is necessary, and the consequences are positive.

But foreign peoples obviously do not feel blind loyalty to every administration that holds power in Washington. Especially when that administration sacrifices facts for ideology and presses their governments to act against their own wishes.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books. He is a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.