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The Spanish election following the Madrid train bombing, which replaced the government allied with the United States in the Iraq war with one committed to withdrawal from the alliance, fomented a great argument about appeasement. Unfortunately this argument was almost devoid of intelligence: positions on whether the Spanish decision to withdraw its troops was or was not appeasement aligned almost perfectly with prior positions on the war itself; and there was almost no discussion at all about what appeasement is and how to identify it. This letter, addressing that question, was submitted to The Boston Globe but not published.

21 March 2004

The question of the day seems to be whether Spain’s election results and subsequent announcement that they would withdraw their troops from Iraq amounted to an exercise in democracy or an act of appeasement. Notwithstanding the vehemence and sanctimony accompanying pronouncements either way, the answer may simply be “Yes. Both.”

Certainly the two are not mutually exclusive. The democratically determined choice of the electorate may be to appease their antagonists. If so, the choice may be politically and morally legitimate and, yet, still be strategically disastrous. Democracy lends government legitimacy but not necessarily wisdom.

But even if the outcome of the election had nothing to do with the act of terrorism that preceded it — even if it was the legitimate expression of prior frustration with a previous government which had ignored popular sentiment in its pursuit of war — that does not necessarily mean it is not also appeasement. For appeasement is in the inference, not in the implication.

If the terrorists and their sponsoring organizations believe that their act changed Spanish government policy, then the reality of Spanish politics is irrelevant; “appeasement” is a pejorative not merely because the motive is impure but, more, because the act is counter-productive: it encourages further bad behavior. Terrorists, as anyone else, learn from both their failures and their successes, and ‘failure’ and ‘success’ is a matter of perception. I would venture to suggest that most terrorists in the trenches, and even the high-level strategists of Al Quaeda itself, are not keen analysts of Spanish politics and society. Rather, they tend to follow a more basic human rule of thumb: we acted, and this happened; if we liked what happened, we will assume it was caused by what we did and we will do it again.

The common wisdom is that terrorists succeed to the extent that we allow them to change us and our behavior. In a sense, the ideal response to terrorism would be to continue as if nothing had happened, to make the acts of terrorists irrelevant by ignoring them. In practice, however, that not only violates our sense of justice — “they must be held accountable” — it also merely invites more, and more extreme, acts in the future. Ironically, the best strategic response to such an act of terror as occurred in Spain may also be the worst tactical response: precisely to allow it to change us, and to respond by suppressing the urge toward disengagement.

This is really the criticism of the Spanish electorate and the new socialist government: that they took the easy tactical course at huge strategic cost both for them and for the democracies of the world.

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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