US Allies Closely Watch Events in Spain

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

( - The defeat of Spain's conservative government days after the country's worst ever terror attack has deprived the Bush administration of an important European ally, while ringing alarm bells around the democratic world about the potential of terrorism to determine election results.

Several other countries in Europe and Asia that supported U.S. foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan face election campaigns this year, and recent events in Spain are being closely watched.

The Socialists' unexpected victory in Sunday's election was widely attributed to voter reaction to Thursday's train bombings in Madrid, which killed 200 people.

Analysts said many voters believed the government's support for an unpopular war had made Spain more of a target, and they were angered by the Spanish government's insistence that Basque separatists rather than Islamists were behind the bombings.

The ousting of a close U.S. ally three days after a major attack raised concerns that terrorists were now seeking to alter the outcome of elections.

That perception gained ground when Socialist prime minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero confirmed Washington's fears by indicating he would steer Spain away from its close alliance with the U.S.

Zapatero called last year's war against Saddam Hussein an "error" and a campaign organized "on the basis of lies," suggested that President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair should engage in some "reflection and self-criticism," and confirmed his intention to pull out the 1,300 Spanish troops deployed in Iraq, unless the U.N. takes control by June.

In Italy, another U.S. ally in Iraq, Welfare Minister Roberto Maroni expressed concern about the possibility that terrorists could "affect electoral outcomes" and said he hoped other countries would learn a lesson from what happened in Spain.

Maroni criticized Zapatero's comments Monday, saying they constituted "the worst thing he could have said in terms of an opening statement."

"All Europeans should make a united stand, yet the comments made by the future prime minister look the other way. If troops are retrieved [from Iraq] that would be a sure sign of bowing to terrorism."

Like outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's conservatives in Spain, the governments of Britain, Italy, Poland, Australia, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea all supported the war, often despite strong anti-war domestic opposition. All face elections of some type this year.

The three European countries will participate in European Parliament elections in June that could signal voter intentions for future national elections.

Japan holds elections for the upper house of parliament, while Australia, South Korea and the Philippines all hold general elections during 2004.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard looks most vulnerable, facing an election challenge from an opposition party whose poll figures have risen significantly under a new leader.

Like Spain's Socialists, the Australian Labor Party strongly opposed the war in Iraq.

Howard not only backed the war, but became the only leader apart from Blair to send troops to fight alongside Americans in the campaign (Poland sent several hundred, but asked for its contribution not to be made public at the time.)

Sensitive to the comparison, Australian government figures have differed with the weekend assessment by the country's top police officer that Spain may have been targeted for attack as a result of its support for the war.

Much attention has been paid to al-Qaeda's threats five months ago to attack countries allied to the U.S. in Iraq. Australia was singled out in that warning, along with Britain, Spain, Italy and Japan.

In a radio interview Tuesday, however, Howard pointed out that the first time Osama bin Laden specifically threatened Australia, the al-Qaeda leader's complaint dealt not with Iraq but with Australia's key role in the campaign that resulted in East Timor's independence from Muslim Indonesia.

Howard noted that terrorists had struck during the past year in countries not supportive of the war in Iraq, including Morocco and Indonesia.

A similar theme was picked up by media commentators in Germany and France, both of which opposed the war.

"The Islamic terrorism targeting Spain is not a Spanish problem, and other European countries should not assume that it will only affect Aznar, Blair and Bush," said Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, while in France, Liberation said the French would be "very wrong" to assume they are safe.

'Frightened voters'

While some commentators have accused Spanish voters of giving in to terrorism, others have argued that the reasons for the election upset were more complex, including the feeling that the government was playing down likely Islamist involvement in the bombings.

Writing in The Australian, veteran political commentator Greg Sheridan said that, whatever the precise causes of the election result, the impression was nonetheless given that "al-Qaeda has frightened a Western electorate into ditching its government, into running away from the Americans."

The Jerusalem Post said in an editorial that it would be unfair to accuse Spaniards of accommodating al-Qaeda's threats, "but there is no doubt this is the way the perpetrators of the attacks will interpret the result."

If al-Qaeda or other Islamists do plan pre-election terrorist attacks in other countries - possibly including the U.S. itself - the plans could backfire and have precisely the opposite effect to that intended.

Terrorists have affected election results before, notably in Israel, where a suicide bombing spree in Jerusalem in February 1996 brought down a government. In that case, however, it was the dovish Shimon Peres who fell to Binyamin Netanyahu, who took a tougher line against Palestinian terror.

In Australia, Howard confounded critics when he was re-elected just two months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks on the U.S., after a campaign dominated by the security situation.

And when Australia was itself directly affected by terrorism, with the deaths of 88 citizens in the Oct. 2002 bombings in Bali, Howard's poll ratings jumped. They surged again during the Iraq war.

Howard acknowledged Tuesday that his government's support for the war would be one of many things voters take into account at the polls, and repeated his view that it was the right thing to do.

He said Australia was a terrorist target before the war and remains one now.

"I don't believe the majority of Australians would want any government to be intimidated and cowered and bullied into changing its position on foreign policy issues because of terrorist threats."

In a commentary, the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs said that if Spain's incoming prime minister believed terrorists would now leave his country alone, satisfied with the pullout of its troops from Iraq, "he is a fool and the Spanish voters who put him there are as well."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow