Jewish World Review March 17, 2004 / 24 Adar 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Spain goes wobbly | The headline on the front page of The New York Times the day after Spain's election summed up the bad news:

"Blow to Bush: Ally Rejected/Voters Clearly Reiterate Opposition to Iraq War."

You could almost see terrorists around the world smiling.

The story underneath concluded: "The Bush administration must now fight the perception, accurate or not, that acts of terror against America's allies can sway nations into rethinking the wisdom of standing too closely with Mr. Bush." And too close to America.

The volatility of mass opinion has seldom been illustrated so quickly. One day the streets of Spain are filled with millions of angry, grief-stricken protesters chanting "Cowards!" and "Assassins!" The next, millions of voters turn out to give the Socialist Party, which has opposed Spanish support for the war in Iraq, a dramatic victory.

Why the change? Speculation abounds, for election results can be just as hard to interpret as predict.

One young Spanish voter quoted in The Times story explained why he switched from the right-center Popular Party to the winning Socialists: "Maybe the Socialists will get our troops out of Iraq, and al-Qaida will forget about Spain, so we will be less frightened. A bit of us died . . . ." The heart, one suspects.

So long as the terrorist attacks that shocked Spain were thought to be the work of homegrown Basque extremists - the notorious ETA - terrorism was to be given no quarter. Spaniards understand there can be no compromise with those killers.

But when the clues pointed to al-Qaida, Spain's reaction was different. It was the government, not the terrorists, that was blamed for the horror. The Mideast is so far away. Why get involved?

"Our prime minister has gotten us into a terrible, completely wrong war," said one young teacher. "And because of it, I spent yesterday and today going to funerals."

Whatever the reasons for the election results, the comments from Spaniards on the street will have a familiar flavor to students of European history. "How horrible, how fantastic, how incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing!" - British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on the eve of the Munich conference in September of 1938.

It is hard now to recapture the euphoria, the nationwide celebration, the outburst of joy that swept England when Mr. Chamberlain returned from Munich with Peace in Our Time. There was to be no war. The crisis had been averted. Appeasement had worked!

But in the midst of all the cheers, another English statesman understood all too well what had really happened: "I do not grudge our loyal, brave people . . . the natural, spontaneous outburst of joy and relief when they learned that the hard ordeal would no longer be required of them at the moment; but they should know the truth. They should know that . . . we have sustained a defeat without war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road . . . ." - Winston Churchill in the House of Commons, Oct. 5, 1938.

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Not that Churchill was listened to, not just then. Once again he would be dismissed as a right-wing crank who saw dangers where none existed. It would take another year till it became evident just how clearly he had foreseen what was to come.

The millions who turned out to vote the anti-war Socialists into power in Spain may think they, too, have avoided further sacrifice - only to invite it later.

And now that the terrorists seem to have succeeded in Spain, who'll be next to falter - Italy, Poland, Britain, Australia? Whose spirit can be sapped by a few strategically placed explosives? It is not just skyscrapers or train stations that terrorists seek to destroy, but a nation's will.

We tend to forget now, viewing long-ago events through the narrow prism that is history as it played out, what a good man Neville Chamberlain was. He did not seek war. On the contrary, he thought he could avoid it by reaching a reasonable compromise with Herr Hitler, that much misunderstood figure. Besides, a peaceful settlement could be reached at some other country's expense. Who cared about what would happen to Czechoslovakia?

Mr. Chamberlain was far from alone. American isolationists, too, thought we could avoid being dragged into another faraway war. Their political descendants say much the same thing now. Who cares about the Middle East and the dangers Saddam Hussein would have posed further down the road?

Today, too, we are urged to understand the terrorists and their grievances, and told we can avoid further violence by a judicious mix of compromise and understanding. We forget that terrorism is caused not by reasonable men but by terrorists. And that they thrive on appeasement.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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