After 201 people were killed in a bombing in Madrid, America's right-wing propaganda machine swung into action. Their message: the defeat three days later of incumbent Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, one of the few European leaders in lockstep with the Bush Administration's approach to terrorism, was a victory for al Qaeda. Fox News: "With the defeat of Spain's ruling party, the mutant strain of Al Qaeda has a significant victory in its efforts." The Wall Street Journal editorial page: "By murdering innocents [the terrorists] were able to topple one of the pillars of the Western anti-terror alliance." David Brooks in the NYT: "Some significant percentage of the Spanish electorate was mobilized after the massacre to...throw out the old government and replace it with one whose policies are more to Al Qaeda's liking." Conservatives repeated the argument again and again -- in the Washington Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Orlando Sentinel, the Kansas City Star, the National Review, the American Spectator, New York Newsday and on cable news and talk radio around the country. But despite the repetition, the assertion that the Spanish people voted to support or appease al-Qaeda has absolutely no grounding in fact. It is nothing more than an argument advanced by conservatives to discredit the democratic process for partisan political purposes.
The Washington Post reports that immediately after the attacks "outgoing Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar undertook an intense campaign to convince the Spanish public and world opinion-makers that the Basque separatist group ETA had carried out the attacks." The argument was made despite the fact that "Spanish intelligence services...had suspected al Qaeda from the beginning." Just hours before the election, with the announcement that five suspects linked to al Qaeda had been arrested, it become clear that Aznar and his surrogates had attempted to manipulate information for their political convenience. It was then that "political allegiance shifted sharply to the opposition, especially because many Spaniards felt the government had not been completely forthcoming about the news." Nicolas Checa, a Spanish political expert, said on PBS that the number one factor behind the outcome was "the handling or mishandling of public information in the 48 hours after the tragic events of last Thursday." The real lesson: if you mislead the people in a democratic society, they will hold you accountable.
While the right wing now claims that Zapatero was never in the race until the terrorist attacks occurred, in fact the conservative party's defeat was always a possibility. The last poll, conducted four days before the March 11 attacks, " showed that the gap had narrowed, giving the Popular Party 42 percent, compared with 38 percent for the Socialists." The four-point spread is well within the standard margin of error for opinion polls.
In his first public announcement after his victory, incoming Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said, "My most immediate priority is to fight all forms of terrorism. And my first initiative, tomorrow, will be to seek a union of political forces to join us together in fighting it." Fulfilling a promise he made from the beginning of his campaign, Zapatero does plan to withdraw 1300 Spanish troops from Iraq "on June 30 unless the force was sanctioned by the United Nations." But there is no evidence suggesting that placing more pressure on the Bush administration to secure international cooperation in Iraq is a victory for any terrorist.
The President and his allies have used the bombing in Madrid as another opportunity to conflate operations in Iraq and the threat of al Qaeda. Tuesday, the President said, "Al Qaeda has an interest in Iraq for a reason, and that interest is, they realize this is a front in the war on terror." The comments are part of a consistent pattern to confuse the separate issues of al Qaeda and Iraq. In September 2002, Bush said, "You can't distinguish between al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terrorism." Meanwhile, as for any Iraq/al Qaeda connection before the war, Vice President Cheney says the "best source of information" was a Weekly Standard article based on leaked intelligence that has discredited by the Department of Defense.