Careful to avoid equivocation, Andrew Sullivan terms the Spanish election result ‘Bin Laden’s Victory in Spain’:
It’s a spectacular result for Islamist terrorism, and a chilling portent of Europe's future.
His judgement is wrong, but it’s certainly not silly. The reason it’s wrong is that the worldview of an apocalyptic nihilist pursuing the destruction of western civilisation shows no evidence of being swayed by calculations of electoral outcomes. It would be surprising if it did. Al-Qaeda and its offshoots do not urge a different set of policies on western leaders and do not issue a set of negotiable demands. Their message is directed not to us (“adopt different policies!”) but to their followers (“kill the infidels!”). There is nothing opaque in this. Osama bin Laden’s 1998 declaration of Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders enjoins:
We -- with God's help -- call on every Muslim who believes in God and wishes to be rewarded to comply with God's order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it. We also call on Muslim ulema, leaders, youths, and soldiers to launch the raid on Satan's U.S. troops and the devil's supporters allying with them, and to displace those who are behind them so that they may learn a lesson.
The declaration also makes it clear that the believer is to make no distinction between killing soldiers and killing civilians.
In the circumstances, it is a bizarre misalignment – more like a category mistake - to suppose that Islamist terror is designed to influence the policy complexion of western states. The restoration of the Caliphate and the destruction of the Jews are not aims of the same type as that of getting 1300 Spanish peacekeepers withdrawn from Iraq. Bin Laden – supposing he is alive, as I doubt – doesn’t care whether those troops are in Iraq or elsewhere: he just wants them, and us, dead.
I labour this because some of the commentary today from those like Andrew who supported war in Iraq elides the distinction between these incommensurable goals. That’s a significant error on two grounds. The lesser ground is that those who wish for the defeat of world leaders favourable to President Bush’s strategy thereby have a perfect opportunity to affect umbrage at the notion that to be anti-terror requires one to vote in a particular way, and I’d like to deny them the pleasure of righteous indignation. The more substantial reason is that it implicitly concedes a case to the anti-war campaigners that ought to be withheld. If policies carried out by western governments can be predicted to provoke the murder of our citizens, then there is a seductive and utterly wrongheaded argument that those policies ought to be calibrated so as to minimise such provocation.
There is, of course, a strong moral case against accepting such a calculus, which in an earlier age was called appeasement. (This is now for obvious historical reasons a discredited term, but for decades it was deployed as a term of approbation in British foreign policy, and the elements of the philosophy behind can easily be discerned in much of today’s political debate about Islamist terror. See the second letter in today’s Glasgow Herald, from a clergyman, for a surpassingly witless example, incorporating ‘root causes’, ‘spiral of violence’, ‘so-called developed world’, and the rest of the catechism of such people. For inanity it stands with another comment I read today – from a Liberal Democrat – who earnestly advised that “if you really want to do what 'Islamofascists' oppose” you should go out and drink and party. This was a course that a large number of young people took just the other day, or so it seems, in Bali, and much good it did them. I don’t myself wish to frequent nightclubs and discotheques, even for the wider good of annoying Islamist theocrats: I just want my government to hunt down and kill – with only the briefest opportunity for them first to surrender - the people who refused to let 190 others do so and remain alive.)
But there is also the weighty consequentialist case. It’s demeaning and immoral to allow our pursuit of worthwhile goals – say, the freedom and security of Israel, or the independence of East Timor – to be compromised by respecting the sensibilities of those for whom we should entertain only scorn and contempt. It’s also utterly futile: we won’t thereby avoid a fight; all we’ll do is abandon our friends, our principles, and our military preparedness, and still get a fight. As Thomas Friedman observed in the New York Times in October 2001 (and reprinted in his book Longitudes and Attitudes):
One can only be amazed at the ease with which some people abroad and at campus teach-ins now tell us what motivated the terrorists. Guess what? The terrorists didn’t leave an explanatory note. Because their deed was their note: We want to destroy America, starting with its military and financial centers. Which part of that sentence don’t people understand?
Judging by the inquiries of BBC journalists such as James Naughtie, who on Saturday asked the Spanish Foreign Minister what the causes of the Madrid terror were, a great deal of understanding has yet to be imbibed in public policy discussions.
For all these reasons I demur at Andrew Sullivan’s judgement, even while I agree with his views on the prosecution of the war on Islamist terror. But, as I say, his judgement about the character of the Spanish election result is not a silly one. While the policies adopted by western governments make no difference to our declared enemies, they do make a difference to us. The victory of the Socialists is not a victory for bin Laden: it is a victory for isolationism. This is evident immediately from the new prime minister’s determination to withdraw Spanish troops from what he terms the “disaster” of Iraq.
The Spanish people’s ability to choose a government is a precious and recent right, and I see no reason to belittle it by refraining from engaging in vigorous criticism of their choice: the new prime minister has on initial evidence no conception of internationalist principle or humanitarian duty. The “disaster” of Iraq was that country’s ordeal under Baathist despotism; it is not possible to hold to a progressive view of politics and wish either that that country’s liberation by British and American forces had never taken place, or that western nations should now abandon a country assailed by their own mortal enemies.
The Spanish Socialists governed well in economic and foreign policy in the 1980s (to the best of my recollection, they were the only west European Socialist party in that decade to gravitate from antediluvian Marxism to common sense, rather than do the opposite journey) and the 1990s, and I recall I was sorry when they lost office. I ought not to have been, for I now have, to a much more intense degree, that feeling in reverse. The Partido Popular Government showed courage, resolution and principle in a noble cause, with no hope of securing electoral rewards for doing so. Aznar did it because it was right, and I salute him. The Spanish result will not aid that cause, for it compounds what is, with the remarkable exception of Tony Blair, the weakest European leadership of my lifetime. There has never before been a post-war German Chancellor as shallow and incompetent as Gerhard Schroeder; there has never in the history of the French Fifth Republic been a President as venal, corrupt and unprincipled as Jacques Chirac. In smaller European nations there is commendable leadership (I would particularly alight upon Denmark and the nations that till recently were behind the Iron Curtain), and it is from those nations that the United States will find the greatest support in discharging her duty of – literally – saving western civilisation from barbarism.
As the Prime Minister rightly argued a couple of weeks before the war crime committed against the Spanish people, this is the defining issue of politics in this generation, as important as the defeat of other variants of totalitarianism was in our fathers’ generation. As then, there is no shortage of jeremiads from the reactionary Left and the isolationist Right who would hinder us in that duty. (For a particularly egregious example of the latter see an article in today’s Australian by a fellow of the absurd libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, arguing with an obtuse realpolitik leavened by sheer indecency that, “it was not in Spain's or Australia's interest to back war against Iraq. Alas, they are likely to pay the price for Washington's misguided policies that have made brutal, murderous terrorism more, rather than less, likely.”)
I can anticipate the swell of similar sentiments in Britain from a coalition whose heterogeneity is matched by its intellectual chaos: the Stop the War totalitarians, anti-American Labour backbenchers, Clare Short, the formidable Robin Cook, the lightweight Charles Kennedy, and the lamentably opportunistic strain in the Conservative Party that cannot see that the issue is far wider than that merely of the Prime Minister’s personal approval rating. In response, those who recognise the issue for what it is must form their own coalition. It’s one for which, as a liberal, I have no hesitation in claiming a monopoly of liberal principle. Its premise is eloquently advocated by Christopher Hitchens. Co-existence with totalitarian, misogynist, antisemitic, genocidal, theocratic fanaticism is not only undesirable but impossible.
They are at war with us, and, wherever we live and in whatever forum we vote, we must in response form across parties, and within them, and among those of no formal political affiliation, our own coalition. We are the Party of War.