Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Tragic Influence
Accepting a Terrorist-Installed Government

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 16, 2004 --  

The toppling of the Spanish government by Islamic terrorists has given al-Qaeda its greatest victory since the Bush administration declared its war on terrorism. Since winning Sunday's elections, Spain's incoming Socialist prime minister has reiterated his promise to withdraw Spain's 1300 troops from Iraq,1 a numerical loss that will matter little to the American-dominated occupation forces, but will prove a major blow to the legitimacy offered by America's few coalition partners.

The 201 train passengers killed by terrorist bombs made the attacks Europe's worst since the Libyan government's bombing of a Pan American airliner killed 270 people in 1988. As the Spanish death toll continues to climb, it is likely that the train bombings will soon surpass the Bali nightclub bombing as the worst terrorist attack since the fall of the World Trade Center.

Spain's electorate, always vehemently against the war in Iraq, was quickly propelled by the bombings from tepid support for the Bush-allied incumbent to fierce opposition. Even if electoral influence was not the motivation of the bombers, the lesson is painfully clear -- a major terrorist attack can succeed in changing the government of a country.

American politicians and pundits were quick to dismiss any possibility that al-Qaeda could similarly influence the upcoming election in the United States. Across the political spectrum, people from rightist George Will to left-wing Joe Biden opined that it couldn't happen in America, that a pre-election attack would be more likely to rally Americans around the ruling party. This is utter nonsense. People's disingenuousness on this matter is likely meant to dissuade terrorists from attacking. But history has proven that terrorism can influence American elections. Consider, for example, Ronald Reagan's 1980 landslide victory where Iran punished Carter by holding American hostages until after Reagan's inauguration.

A tragic pre-election bombing in America could drive home the point that America is not safer as a result of Bush's policies. The Bush administration knows this. Al-Qaeda knows this. The only hope of stopping an attack is the vigilance of intelligence and security agencies around the world.

Clearly, no one in a free society wishes to reward terrorists for their actions. In Spain, pulling troops out of Iraq may seem to play into terrorist hands. But is it proper for leaders to renounce wise policy changes simply because it might reward terrorism? Of course not. Such hand-tying would only subvert the political process. Given his pre-bombing convictions, Spain's new leader should feel free to pull troops out of Iraq with a clear conscience.

Political leaders who engage in risky endeavors such as the Iraq war must consider that they may inspire retributive attacks. The need to identify, weigh, and/or prevent such risks is the legitimate responsibility of any government. Likewise, it is not only the legitimate option, but the responsibility of voters to throw out politicians for putting them at increased risk of terrorist attacks. If removing a leader coincidentally serves the short-term interests of al-Qaeda, then so be it. Leaders must be held accountable for the security of their citizens.

It is a tragedy that over 200 people died before Spanish voters realized their government had put them at increased risk. More tragic still, may be the costs Americans have to pay before they realize the same.

1. The Washington Post, New Leader In Spain Calls Iraq ?Disaster,' March 16, 2004