The “A” Word

Behind the talk of Spanish “appeasement” lies a misunderstanding of democracy.

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The Wall Street Journal editorialized the other day that the lesson the world’s terrorists would take away from the Spanish election was the following: “That by murdering innocents they were able to topple one of the pillars of the Western anti-terror alliance.”

The editorial continued: “The illusion that it is possible to purchase peace with appeasement or neutrality is always powerful in any war. The burden of self-defense is expensive and painful. The British preferred Chamberlain to Churchill in the late 1930s, while millions marched in Europe in 1982 against Ronald Reagan’s deployment of nuclear missiles to deter the Soviet Union. Mr. Aznar has good historical company.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks opined that “some significant percentage of the Spanish electorate was mobilized after the massacre to shift the course of the campaign, throw out the old government and replace it with one whose policies are more to Al Qaeda’s liking,” and followed up, “What is the Spanish word for appeasement?”

Tom Friedman, in a column titled, “Axis of Appeasement,” observed that “a Spanish pullout from Iraq would only
bring to mind Churchill’s remark after Chamberlain returned
from signing the Munich pact with Hitler: ‘You were given
the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and
you will have war.'”

And Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House, offered that the Spanish people “chose to change their government and to, in a sense, appease
terrorists.”

Yes, the “A” word — Appeasement — has made a comeback. The reference is to a meeting, in September, 1938, in Munich between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler. Hitler demanded that Sudetenland, then Czechoslovak land, be ceded to Germany because it was settled by Germans. Chamberlain, to his eternal shame, agreed — and that agreement became know as Appeasement.

The word is meant to sting, and it’s especially insulting and undiplomatic directed towards a continent where tens of millions of lives were lost as
a result of Nazi aggression and in a country that is in
national mourning over the loss of 201 lives as a result of
an Al-Qaeda related bombing. As the French daily Le Monde rightly pointed out, the appeasement argument shows “a lot of contempt for the Spanish people who live daily with the threat of terrorism.” And Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian, observes that “the menace of al-Qaida is real and serious enough without making hyperbolic comparisons to the Third Reich.”

And anyway, the analogy doesn’t work. Freedland says there are “two grave errors that underlie this latest argument from the right. One is a misunderstanding of democracy, the other is a failure to make crucial distinctions.”

The first mistake is the more surprising, for no word is invoked more often in support of the “war on terror” than democracy. Yet these insults hurled at the Spanish show a sneaking contempt for the idea. For surely the Spanish did nothing more on Sunday than exercise their democratic right to change governments. They elected the Socialist party; to suggest they voted for al-Qaida is a slur not only on the Spanish nation but on the democratic process itself, implying that when terrorists strike political choice must end.

Consider, too, that the Spanish people, as they headed to the polls, had reason to think their government wasn’t being entirely straight with them about the bombings. The widespread impression
that the government withheld evidence and misled the public
to influence the outcome of the election certainly had an
impact on the result.

The government’s handling of the bombing was also
reminiscent of its exaggeration of intelligence evidence and
“going over the heads of the voters” in the run-up to the
Iraqi War. The cynical attempt to manipulate the nation’s
tragedy for political benefit only gave credence to
criticisms of the Popular Party’s lack of transparency and
honesty with the voters. As Le Monde points out:

The handling of the information, backed by pressure on the
big media, revived the memory of other deceptions, such as
the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which
Mr. Aznar refused to explain … The Spanish right was beaten by
itself, by turning to methods that it unfortunately does not
have a monopoly on…That is why Spaniards’ fresh start, far
from amounting to resignation in the face of terrorism, is a
lesson in democracy.

Another error of those who criticize the Spanish vote, says Freedland, is a “failure to distinguish between the war against al-Qaida and the war on Iraq.”

About 90% of the Spanish electorate were against the latter; there is no evidence that they were, or are, soft on the former. On the contrary, there have been two mass demonstrations of Spanish opinion in the past few days: let no one forget that 36 hours before the election, about 11 million Spaniards took to the streets to swear their revulsion at terrorism. It takes some cheek to accuse a nation like that of weakness and appeasement.

As a Guardian editorial further points out:

“The Spanish electorate were not voting for a cave-in to
al-Qaida. On the contrary, many of those who opposed the war
in Iraq did so precisely because they feared it would
distract from the more urgent war against Islamist
fanaticism. (Witness the US military resources pulled off
the hunt for Bin Laden in Afghanistan and diverted to
Baghdad.) Nor was it appeasement to suggest that the US-led
invasion of an oil-rich, Muslim country would make
al-Qaida’s recruitment mission that much easier.”

Instead of taking cheap shots at the Spanish voters, who
did nothing more — or less — than exercise their right to vote, U.S.
commentators and politicians should take a sober look at the
reasons behind the Popular Party’s downfall. Many of the
criticisms leveled at Aznar are echoed in the United Kingdom
and the United States. If they are serious about about
effectively pursuing the “war on terrorism,” not to mention
re-election, Bush and Blair should take heed.

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This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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