I was reading the Italian newspaper La Repubblica today when I stumbled across an article that chilled me to the bone. The headline, when translated into English, reads "'Al Qaeda: Truce with Madrid, We wait the withdrawal from Iraq". As I continued reading, I became even more upset. Apparently, Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the bombings in Madrid on March 11 and declared that it would refrain from further terrorist attacks against Spain on one condition: Spain must withdraw its troops in Iraq.
This plays to the instincts of José Louis Zapatero, the newly elected Prime Minister of Spain. He won the recent race with a platform whose key component involved withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. Mr. Zapatero is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's foreign policy and may fundamentally alter Spain's relationship with the United States. Under normal circumstances, this policy shift wouldn't be that big of a deal--elections regularly bring different ideologies to the fore. However, these are not normal circumstances by any means. News analysts predict that history will look back on the attacks of last week as the 9/11 of Europe: traditional notions of security and peace were shattered when those commuter trains were blown up. The previous decades of terrorist attacks were seen neither as overriding threats nor as Pan-European attacks. Modern continental Europe has now met the evil of Islamic terrorism face-to-face. Its response to these attacks will determine the future of the continent.
Most importantly, Mr. Zapatero must not capitulate to al Qaeda's demands. Yes he won his Prime Ministership with a pledge to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq; yes he considered the war in Iraq a mistake. However, the simple fact is, when a terrorist tells you to do something, you must do the exact opposite. (And I assume that a government would be able to tell if reverse psychology was being utilized and react accordingly.)
It's the same principle that governed the appeasement of Hitler just prior to World War II. The world kept giving in to Hitler's demands to the point where his appetite for conquest could never be whetted--he would only stop when he had control of the world. Today, the world is in the same position it was in the 1930's. We are faced with a group of people that wish to destroy Western civilization. As a member of Al Qaeda declared, the terrorists hate life, while our civilization loves it and works to preserve it. They will not rest until our vision of the world--with its stress on the worth of the individual, women's rights and free religion and speech--is irrevocably destroyed.
If Mr. Zapatero's government withdraws Spanish troops from Iraq, then it will be sending the wrong message to the terrorists and to the world as a whole. Instead of presenting a powerful front to an outside aggressor, such an action would only prove that the attacks achieved their desired results. In the aftermath of such a decision, terrorists would continue with an unending spate of attacks, rightly surmising that mass-murder would be an effective tool with which to achieve their ends. Take a look at Hezbollah's response to Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon--because the group saw that Israel had caved into its principle demand, it only stepped up its attacks against Israel. The terrorists didn't stop attacking; quite the contrary. If by some chance the terrorists did refrain from further attacks, the Spanish government would still be open to future blackmail; the overriding fear of further attacks would paralyze any further action unpopular with the fundamentalists. In either case, Spain's power would slowly be chipped away at until only an enervated husk remained, incapable of making any real decisions.
Some would argue that the United States itself has "capitulated" to terrorists in the past--with no apparent criticism--when it removed its troops from Saudi Arabia following the Iraq War. That may be true, but in the field of international relations appearances are sometimes as important as fact. The United States did not appear to be retreated from the country (which in fact it wasn't). Plus, the nation's security interests shifted in the aftermath of the Iraq War; the United States now has a new location from which to projecxt its military power.
If Mr. Zapatero orders the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq, on the other hand, Spain's security position would be weakened. The Spanish government would by sending a strong signal that it doesn't want Iraqi reconstruction to succeed. While Mr. Zapatero and a majoirty of Spaniards may have opposed the war, anyone can see that a stable Iraq is in the world's best interests. It will provide an example of freedom in an otherwise despotic region. Plus, if the country does collapse into anarchy, the only ones who would stand to gain are the terrorists, who would be able to gain control of a vast swathe of oil-rich territory and use it to turn out a steady stream of anti-Western militants hostile to democracy and to Spain (which they view as a mortal enemy because its southern provinces were once Muslim territory).
The correct message to send in this time of crisis is one of strength and continuity. The terrorists and the Spanish people must be shown that violence will not alter the government's policies. The troops in Iraq must stay, sending a message that Spain will not be cowed into submission. Doing so may bring further attacks in the short-term, but they will happen no matter what Mr. Zapatero attempts to do. This is truly a fight to the death, and only an unyielding response to the horrendous attacks of last week will provide lasting security for Spain and the rest of Europe.