Widening Atlantic

17 March 2004

Dialogue of the Deaf: The Widening Atlantic

By Gwynne Dyer

The new Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was very careful in his choice of words. “Military intervention in Iraq was a political mistake,” he said on 15 March. “It divided more than it united; there were no reasons for it. Time has shown that the arguments for it lacked credibility….Mr Blair and Mr Bush must do some reflection…you can’t organise a war with lies. The Spanish troops will come back (from Iraq)”.

Mr Zapatero made exactly the same argument a year ago, when the United States was about invade Iraq and then-prime minister Jose Maria Aznar was cheering it on. Over 80 percent of the Spanish people agreed with Zapatero about Iraq then, and they still do today. He did not say a single word about appeasing terrorism, and nor does anyone else in Spain want to do that after a terrorist attack that killed over 200 commuters in Madrid. They are just sick of being lied to, and they don’t believe that Iraq had anything to do with terrorism..

The reaction in the United States, however, has been distinctly ungenerous. “The plain fact is that the Spanish electorate displayed craven cowardice by electing the Socialists. It embraced the wrong-headed notion — so dismayingly popular in Europe — that to adopt any policy more resolute than abject appeasement of terrorists is to invite terrorist attacks,” wrote the ‘New York Post’.

The ‘Post’ is a Murdoch paper and has to say that sort of thing, but what about the ‘New York Daily News’ writing that the terrorists “must be big fans of the democratic process after watching the lemming-like Spaniards do their bidding,” or David Brooks writing in the ‘New York Times’ that Spanish voters had chosen to “throw out the old government and replace it with one whose policies are more to al-Qaida’s liking. What is the Spanish word for appeasement?” Or the ‘Washington Post’ editorialising that “The danger is that Europe’s reaction to a war that has now reached its soil will be retreat and appeasement rather than strengthened resolve.”

On the contrary. The real ‘danger’ is that those European governments that were always able to tell the difference between fighting terrorism and invading Iraq — ‘old Europe’, in US Defence Secretary Don Rumsfeld’s contemptuous phrase — are growing at the expense of those who went along with Washington in blurring the distinction between the two. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi faces an election in the next year, and runs a similar risk of a rebellion by voters who overwhelmingly opposed his support for the invasion of Iraq. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose day of reckoning is a bit further off, must be feeling apprehensive.

He is right to be, for the Madrid events have only deepened popular doubts about Mr Blair’s Iraq venture. The Murdoch-owned ‘Sun’ predictably praised Mr Blair for his unquestioning support of the Bush administration’s actions, but Steven Glover in the ‘Daily Mail’, traditionally the conservative voice of ‘middle England’, wrote that “Mr Blair…has succeeded in making things worse than they would otherwise have been….This is the story of how a sophisticated modern democracy has been misled by one misguided messianic figure….I do not think that the British people will spare, or forgive, Mr Blair.”

Is there a risk that al-Qaeda would try to deepen this growing alienation from the current governments in London and Rome by ‘doing a Madrid’ on the eve of the next Italian or British elections? Of course there is, for part of its strategy is to isolate the United States from its traditional European allies. It undoubtedly wants Mr Bush re-elected in the United States, since that would perpetuate the US foreign policy of ‘pre-emptive’ military interventions that is the main recruiting tool of radical Islamists in the Muslim world, but it would quite like to break the old trans-Atlantic alliance between the various ‘crusader states’.

Does that mean that those European countries whose governments backed Mr Bush last year must stick with that policy forever or else end up ‘appeasing the terrorists’? Obviously not, although that is the rhetoric that Bush supporters apply to the question. The alliance really is weakening, an the culprits really do live in the White House, not in Europe.

It is generally forgotten in Washington, but all the allies and friends who refused to support the invasion of Iraq willingly backed the counter-strike against terrorist bases in Afghanistan in the first days after 9/11. Germany, France, Canada and even Russia offered troops (although in the end everybody decided that it would be untactful to let the Russians invade Afghanistan twice in twenty years). There was no problem getting UN Security Council authorisation for that one, either. It’s only when the subject changed from terrorism to Iraq that the divisions started growing.

Now the trans-Atlantic alliance is at its weakest in fifty years: ‘Old Europe’ is growing, and in two years ‘New Europe’, the Bush administration’s uncritical ally, may include only a handful of Eastern European countries. The ‘Los Angeles Times’ is a long way from Europe, but it got it exactly right: “The US should read the results (of the Spanish elections) as demonstrating anew that most of the world does not see the Iraq campaign as part of the global war on terror….The sympathy that much of the world felt for the US after the 9/11 attacks has been squandered by invading Iraq with too little global support.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“He is…Mr Blair”; and “Does…Europe”)THIS WEEK marks the first anniversary of the US attack on Iraq.