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World: Events In Spain Highlight Differing Trans-Atlantic Views Of War On Terror

  • Breffni O'Rourke

U.S. President George W. Bush has urged America's allies to stick together in the war against terrorism following the bloody terrorist attacks in Madrid. But the aftermath of the attacks, in which more than 200 people died, in fact illustrates key differences in the way Americans and Europeans view the war on terror.

Prague, 17 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Just like an earthquake spreads shock waves far beyond its epicenter, the political consequences of the terrorist attacks in Spain are still reverberating.

While government leaders the world over are united in condemning such acts of terror, the outrage lays bare differences of perception on how the war on terror should be conducted. Indeed, there are basic differences about what the "war" actually is.

U.S. President George W. Bush has placed a primary value on military persistence, urging America's allies to stick together. He was responding to a threat by Spain's incoming prime minister to withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq. Bush called on countries in the U.S.-led coalition to keep their forces there to help the country rebuild.

Referring to the main terrorist adversary, he said: "Al-Qaeda understands the stakes. Al-Qaeda wants us out of Iraq, because Al-Qaeda wants to use Iraq as an example of defeating freedom and democracy." In other words, what Bush is saying is that Iraq has become a central battleground of the war, that the opposing ideologies are confronting each other on the Euphrates.

Perceptions in Europe can differ markedly from that. A survey conducted by a prestigious Washington-based polling organization called the Pew Research Center found that a majority of people interviewed in France and Germany believe that the Iraq war has actually undermined the struggle against terrorists.

In other words, that Iraq is not -- or at least was not -- a central issue in the war on terror, and that by occupying Iraq, the United States has in effect given Islamic extremism a spotlight it previously was denied. As Spain's Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero put it, wars like the one in Iraq allow only hatred and violence to proliferate.

Another illustration of the difference in approach lies in comments by leading European opponents of the Iraq intervention, like German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He sees the need to fight the war on terror not primarily in military terms, but in societal and economic ones. "Terrorism can't be countered with military might alone," he said. "One must also fight against the roots of terrorism, and, doubtless, the problems of underdevelopment in the Third World are an important part of these roots."

Very similar views are held by the arch-opponent to the Iraq war, French President Jacques Chirac. "The international community must get together to fight relentlessly against terrorism with all its force,” Chirac said. “But let us be clear-headed. We must also get together to put an end to conflicts that feed the anger and frustration of the people, to fight against misery, humiliation and injustice, which are the breeding ground for violence."

That's not to say, of course, that the United States is viewing the struggle in only military terms. Washington recently drew up a comprehensive, long-term strategy of political and economic reform in the Arab world, designed to lift the region out of the perennial malaise that has helped breed extremism. Ironically, that plan has just been withdrawn for remodeling following heavy Arab criticism that it was an attempt to interfere.

For the United States, a key task in Iraq is now to withstand the daily attacks on its forces by hostile Iraqi and foreign elements, and help the Iraqi people build on the freedom they received when coalition troops overthrew the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Any withdrawal now would be abandoning the Iraqi people. As Bush put it, "It's essential that we remain side-by-side with the Iraqi people as they begin the process of self-government."

Since winning elections on 14 March, Spain's Zapatero has said several times he aims to bring Spain's troops home from Iraq by 30 June unless the United Nations takes charge of that country. Madrid's change of policy from the strongly supportive stance of ousted conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has altered the relative balance of the pro-war and anti-war factions in Europe.

But other allies of the United States, both inside and outside Europe, have said they will be staying in Iraq. Officials of Britain, Australia, Poland, Bulgaria, Italy, Ukraine, Denmark, Norway, the Czech Republic, and Japan say they have no plans to prematurely withdraw their forces from Iraq in the wake of the Spanish pronouncements.
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