A rejection of the Bush Doctrine

March 17, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Did the brutal terrorist bombing in Madrid produce the ouster of one of President Bush's staunchest allies in the war in Iraq? Or was Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar headed for defeat anyway? That is an important open question following Sunday's election replacing Mr. Aznar with Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who had pledged if elected to pull Spain's token forces out of Iraq.

Pre-election polls indicated that as much as 90 percent of Spaniards surveyed opposed the Iraq invasion and the dispatch there of the 1,300-member Spanish contingent. The sentiment from the outset put Mr. Aznar on a collision course with his own people.

But it would be erroneous to conclude that the Spanish public was against, or indifferent toward, the war on terrorism. The distinction was the same as the one made by France, Germany and most other countries that opposed the Iraq invasion, and many American critics as well - that Iraq was not part of the war on terrorism until that invasion made it so.

At the heart of the undeniable political defeat the Bush administration has suffered was its failure to convince the Spanish people, along with most of the rest of the world, that invading Iraq was an essential ingredient in that broader war. Rather, what President Bush might call the coalition of the unwilling believed from the start, and continues to believe, that the invasion was an extremely costly diversion from the effort to eliminate the al-Qaida terrorist network as a legitimate target of the post-9/11 world. Mr. Zapatero embraced that view by saying after the election that "the war [in Iraq] has been a disaster, the occupation continues to be a disaster" that "the arguments for it lacked credibility."

He underscored his position that invading Iraq and the war on terrorism were separate matters by pledging to continue support for the latter, but through "a grand alliance" rather than "unilateral wars."

The strong pre-election opposition to the Iraq invasion and occupation does not mean that the Madrid train bombings, which killed at least 200 people, did not play a role in the outcome of the election. The obviously were an element in the high voter turnout, especially when the Aznar regime first suggested that the Basque separatist group ETA may have been responsible for the attack. The suggestion apparently was regarded by many Spanish voters as an attempt to deny al-Qaida links.

As for the Iraq invasion, criticism in Spain and elsewhere in what Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disdainfully called "old Europe" has been reinforced by the fiasco over those undiscovered weapons of mass destruction used as justification by President Bush.

Try as it may to dismiss that issue as irrelevant, the administration's rationale for military force rather then awaiting further U.N. inspections has been seriously undermined. When the president was pressed earlier this year by ABC News' Diane Sawyer about the failure to find WMD, his answer was, "What's the difference?" He's learning now, in the continued rejection by the Spanish people of his Iraq adventure.

Inconveniently for Mr. Bush, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, has just come out with a book, Disarming Iraq, in which he denigrates the president's painting the Iraq invasion as an essential part of the war on terrorism. On NBC's Today show as part of his book tour, Mr. Blix called the invasion "perhaps as much punitive as it was pre-emptive. It was a reaction to 9/11 that we have to strike some theoretical, hypothetical links between Saddam Hussein and the terrorists. That was wrong. There wasn't anything [to prove a link]."

Unquestionably, the Spanish election result will be seen as a successful terrorist intrusion into the democratic process. But it would be mistaken to conclude that the vote indicates a softening in Spain or anywhere else toward the war on terrorism.

It only confirms that the Spaniards, like many other Bush critics, see the difference between the war the American president created and the much larger one forced on the world by al-Qaida and associated terrorist networks.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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