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March 21, 2004
David Warsh, Proprietor


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The Spanish Mechanism

BERLIN — George W. Bush may have done more than anything since the advent of a single currency to unify Europe. On the first anniversary of his brief war against Saddam Hussein, nearly every political conversation here threatens to get out of hand. ‘Old Monkey Face’ is what one of my German acquaintances calls the American president, and that only when she is warming up.

Even more uncomfortable defending the administration’s decision to depose Saddam, however, is listening to various American commentators pronounce on the meaning of last week Spanish election.

‘It’s what happens when the Axis of Evil intersects with the Axis of Appeasement and the Axis of Incompetence,’ wrote the normally sensible Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, of the decision to pull Spanish troops out of Iraq

What happened in Spain was much simpler than that. For several days after the rush-hour train bombings that killed 201 persons and injured 1400 more, the government blatantly and repeatedly lied, seeking to blame its favorite enemy, Basque separatists, for a crime almost certainly committed by affiliates of al-Qaeda.

Polls showed as many as 90 percent of Spanish citizens already opposed Spanish participation in the war in Iraq. The week’s tumultuous events brought a huge turnout to the polls, including as nearly 2 million first-time voters. For a particularly persuasive account of what happened, see the analysis by Julian Sanchez, deputy editor of Reason, a magazine that is better than you probably think.

The fact is that Europe has so many problems of its own that Iraq seems extremely far away. Mostly these have their origins in a vast and unwarranted complacency.

Germany, suffering from a huge fiscal overhang, has grown at an average annual rate of 1.4 percent for a decade, half the average rate of the rest of the European Union and barely faster than Japan.

The French government is trying to persuade the cream of its science establishment not to walk off the job in a nationwide strike threatened next week. French science is n the cutting edge in many fields, but the government has frozen budgets in an effort to stay within its deficit targets.

In Italy, the city of Naples has spurned the construction of new trash incinerators for years for fear of air pollution. Now landfills are full, environmentalists can’t agree where to site new facilities, and residents are torching the mountains of garbage that are piling up uncollected on street corners.

Europe’s longing to maintain the status quo is a topic for another day. In the circumstances, however, it is not surprising that the American determination to stir the pot in the Mideast attracts special condemnation.

On the anniversary of the war in Iraq, it still seems to me that the Bush administration had a pretty good idea – to clean out what amounted to a hornet’s nest in a very sensitive place. They were naive in their planning and clumsy in their execution of both the war and the reconstruction.

The failure to obtain Turkey’s position to simultaneously attack from the north was key, since it insured the survival of most units of the Republican Guards, the elements of the Iraqi Army most loyal to Saddam Hussein. Particularly open to question, however, is the decision to dismantle the rest of the Iraqi Army.

The ‘de-Bathification’ of the Iraqi government was explicitly modeled on procedures devised in the years immediately after World War II to dismantle the Nazi Party. What if the template of the task had been the procedures by which most of the government of East Germany was left in place during its remarkably smooth reunification with the West?

The Bush Administration’s decision to ignore the lessons of the peaceful collapse of European communism was by far its biggest mistake in Iraq. And this really requires more explanation. Presumably it reflects the fact that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was out of power in the early 1990s, for having flirted with challenging George H.W. Bush for the nomination in 1988.

When Rumsfeld took to the newspapers last week to rally support for a long-term commitment to Iraq, it was the Korean War of his youth that he invoked. If the Republicans are re-elected in November, look for him to ‘retire.’

But like Samuel Johnson’s talking dog, the remarkable thing is not that the Bush administration carried their campaign out so badly, but that they carried it out at all. A year after it began, it is still possible to believe that the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq are working pretty much as intended.

The life prospects of millions of Iraqis and Afghans are improved, even if the transition to genuine peace is turning out to be longer and more dangerous than had been hoped. Their prospects will continue to improve, as long as the Americans do not cut and run.

In a few months, the Bush administrations will put its policies to the voters. It is always possible that something like the mechanism of the Spanish election will come into play. Enough Americans are enraged by Bush that, if something happened in the autumn that galvanized a million or two more voters and sent them to the polls, the election could suddenly tip in favor of the Democrats.

This is presumably what The Economist magazine had in mind when it put the legend on its cover this week, ‘One Down, Three to Go?’- George Bush, Australian PM John Howard, Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar as the aces in a deck of cards.

The Spanish mechanism could come into play in November in the United States. No one who remembers the self-sabotage of the last days of the administration of George H.W. Bush will say that it cannot happen. It is more likely, however, that it will not.

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