With what may have been the single most effective act of terrorism in history, the forces of Al Qaeda have managed to knock out of the American-led coalition of their enemies one of its major (indeed, one of its few) European allies and shatter the delusions of victories the Bush administration loves to flaunt. What happened in Madrid in the past week may turn out to be a major turning point in Mr. Bush’s “war on terror”—and not a turn toward victory.
The first lesson of the Madrid bombing is that the war on terror is a colossal flop. In the last two years the United States has launched two full-scale wars, invaded and conquered two countries and constructed a vast new internal security apparatus at home that many see as a threat to civil liberties. Despite all of that, the terrorists remain capable of carrying out well-coordinated acts of mass terrorism in a country thousands of miles away from their home bases, murdering 200 people and injuring more than a thousand, and toppling a government to boot. You tell me: Who is winning the “war on terror,” and who is losing?
Secondly, the Madrid bombing, perhaps for the first time, shows the link between Al Qaeda and the Iraqi resistance to the American invasion. Under Saddam Hussein there was little if any substantive link, if only because the Islamic fundamentalism of Osama bin Laden and the secular authoritarianism of Saddam are as alien to each other as each is to the West. One of the great accomplishments of Mr. Bush’s war has been to drive these two antagonistic forces together, to the point that Al Qaeda now carries out a major terrorist attack against a country with which it has no natural quarrel except that it is allied with the United States in the Iraq war.
Thirdly, the bombing and its aftermath show just how shallow and ill-conceived the whole war on Iraq itself was. Spanish voters dumped the incumbent government in elections following the bombing because they want no part of that war, into which the government had dragged their country.
Having grotesquely over-estimated the easiness of victory in Iraq, both the United States and its allies now face the inevitable erosion of support that the continuing war there—and wherever else Islamic terrorists choose to take it—will bring. The result may well be the eventual total isolation of the United States as remaining allies decide that the kind of carnage and conflict a protracted occupation of Iraq and the “war against terrorism” brings is not worth the price.
Fourthly, the Madrid bombing not only shows that Al Qaeda remains capable of carrying out massive acts of terror but that it understands the political strategy that always controls any kind of deliberate violence, conventional or terrorist. The purpose of the bombing was not simply to blow up lots of people but to topple a government, weaken the enemy’s alliance, and demonstrate which side has more power.
And because we now know that Al Qaeda understands the political uses of terror and is not simply acting out of “madness” or “evil” as the president and his propagandists keep repeating, we have every reason to expect similar acts of terrorism in this country in the near future—before the election, and intended to topple the Bush administration just as they toppled the Spanish government.
Finally, what we ought to learn from the Madrid bombing is that the war on terrorism as Mr. Bush and his advisers have designed it not only has not been won but is not winnable at all. It is not possible for the government or any government to capture or kill every person willing and able to make and plant bombs capable of inflicting enormous damage and loss of life. Nor is it possible for the government to protect every conceivable target the terrorists may choose to strike. If you protect planes ands airports, they will attack trains and train stations. If you protect trains, they will attack shopping malls. If you protect shopping malls, they will attack bridges, office buildings, public parks, theaters. Protecting against that kind of terrorism is possible, if at all, only in a state like Orwell’s 1984.
The armchair warriors in the Bush administration and its friendly press are now muttering about Spain’s “appeasement” of terrorism for choosing to get out of an ill-conceived, unwanted and unnecessary war before any more horrors happen. But it’s not appeasement; it’s simply the belated realization that what has already happened in Madrid didn’t have to happen at all and would not have happened had the country and its government minded their own business. At least the Spaniards have learned something, at a bloody price. Americans should too.