War etc

It Should Not Go Unanswered

Jonathan Freedland responds to Andrew Sullivan and the rest of the ‘Vote Socialist-Vote Bin Laden’ gang, in a strong piece in the Guardian today.

Maybe they think it’s payback time. In 2001, many American conservatives were appalled by the reaction in some European quarters to 9/11, a reaction crudely summarised as “America had it coming”. They insisted it was grossly insensitive to attack the United States and its foreign policy while Ground Zero still smouldered. They were right and I took their side, urging people at least to pause a while before adding greater hurt to an already traumatised nation.
But look what’s happening now. A matter of days after the event branded Europe’s 9/11, and American conservatives – including some of the very people who were so outraged by the criticisms hurled at the US in September 2001 – have started whacking not just Spanish policy, but the Spanish people.

Witness David Brooks in yesterday’s New York Times, outraged that the Madrid bombings prompted Spanish voters 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?” Rightwing blog artist Andrew Sullivan also raided the 1930s lexicon for the same, exhausted word: “It seems clear to me that the trend in Europe is now either appeasement of terror or active alliance with it. It is hard to view the results in Spain as anything but a choice between Bush and al-Qaida. Al-Qaida won.” Not to be outdone, former Bush speechwriter David Frum, the man who coined “axis of evil”, sighed at the weakness of the Spanish: “People are not always strong. Sometimes they indulge false hopes that by lying low, truckling, appeasing, they can avoid danger and strife … And this is what seems to have happened in Spain.”

Perhaps this is how the Bushites hope to avenge what they saw as European insensitivity two and half years ago, by defaming the Spanish even as Madrid still weeps. But this assault should not go unanswered if only because, if allowed to settle in the public mind, it will widen yet further the already yawning transatlantic gulf of misunderstanding.

Put aside the imprecision (and worse) that comes with the abuse of the word “appeasement”: the menace of al-Qaida is real and serious enough without making hyperbolic comparisons to the Third Reich. Focus instead on the two grave errors that underlie this latest argument from the right. One is a misunderstanding of democracy, the other is a failure to make crucial distinctions.

The first mistake is the more surprising, for no word is invoked more often in support of the “war on terror” than democracy. Yet these insults hurled at the Spanish show a sneaking contempt for the idea. For surely the Spanish did nothing more on Sunday than exercise their democratic right to change governments. They elected the Socialist party; to suggest they voted for al-Qaida is a slur not only on the Spanish nation but on the democratic process itself, implying that when terrorists strike political choice must end.

It comes from the same mentality that prompted Republicans in 2002 to run TV ads against the Democratic senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in the Vietnam war, placing his face alongside those of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. It is the same thinking that led one Republican congressman to quip recently that a vote in November for John Kerry will be a vote for Osama. It is a bid to reshape the political landscape, so that parties of the right stand on one side and all the rest are lumped in with al-Qaida. The tactic is McCarthyite, the natural extension of the bullying insistence that, in President Bush’s own words, “You are either with us or you’re with the terrorists”. If that is the choice, then there is no choice: it is a mandate for a collection of one-party states.

Exactly and it is precisely for those reasons that people on the left who supported the liberation of Iraq and who consider themselves to be in favour of a militant opposition to terrorism need to reject the demagogary coming from some sections of the American (or in the case of Sullivan and Mark Steyn the Almost American) right.

I depart with Freedland partially though when he goes on to discuss the need to seperate the Iraq issue from the wider struggle against terrorism.

I don’t agree that disarming Saddam’s regime and eliminating the threat of him providing terrorists with WMD was not part of the struggle against terrorism. It is not the reason why I backed the war but surely the removal of a dictatorship well capable of allying with terrorists helped?

But of course I do accept that many people who were against the war in Iraq and didn’t accept the above view, were also firmly opposed to terrorism. Not everyone who warned that invading Iraq would act as a recruiting tool for Bin Laden, was using the argument as cover for the other reasons for being against the war, although some surely were.

But that discussion belongs to the pre-Iraq war period – it is now impossible not to see the fight against the Iraqi resistance, which clearly contains many Islamic terrorists, as a key battle in the overall war against the terrorists.

In that sense Spain’s threat to withdraw its troops if a June deadline for handover to the UN is not met, is certainly unfortunate. The anti-war sentiment of Spanish voters is disappointing in that respect but it is also entirely understandable given that Aznar took his country into the war against the wishes of the vast majority of his people. After all in democracies, blatant defiance of the public’s will, (even if some of us happen to think the public is wrong), does not tend to produce positive electoral results.

But lets not pretend that the vote marks some huge victory for the resistance either. There is not a large Spanish presence in Iraq and to put it bluntly I am sure the Americans and British will be able to cope without their compagnos. After all as Donald Rumsfeld so charmingly told us before the war, they could “do this” without the Brits.

Militarily America probably doesn’t need any allies in Iraq but politically it does and this is where the American right-wingers have got it so wrong. The constant Rumsfeldian attacks on Europeans do nothing to help win over sceptics or to help build an alliance of democracies united in their action against terrorism. They are not even useful in challenging the mistaken views of people like Roman Prodi – in fact they have the opposite effect.

What this rhetoric does instead is lessen the chances of creating “coalitions of the willing” in the future. Reasonable people will listen to reasoned argument but will walk away when insults start being shouted. The insults and the arrogant hectoring stop people listening to America when it speaks about the threat. In the end they widen the divide between Europe and America.

Maybe that is what some on the American right actually want?

But if that is so maybe the advocates of such an approach should ask themselves something:

Exactly who stands to benefit from division among democracies? Who would celebrate such an outcome?

You got it.