a two-edged sword

Bill and Dan have both made a case that Al-Qaeda desired the Socialists to win in Spain over the Aznar government. There is even evidence that suggests that ALQ actively planned the timing of their Madrid bombing with this outcome in mind:

A December posting on an Internet message board used by al Qaeda and its sympathizers and obtained by CNN, spells out a plan to topple the pro-U.S. government.

"We think the Spanish government will not stand more than two blows, or three at the most, before it will be forced to withdraw because of the public pressure on it," the al Qaeda document says.

"If its forces remain after these blows, the victory of the Socialist Party will be almost guaranteed -- and the withdrawal of Spanish forces will be on its campaign manifesto."

That prediction came to fruition in elections Sunday, with the Socialists unseating the Popular Party three days after near-simultaneous bombings of four trains killed 200 and shocked the nation.

Emphasis mine - messages left on Internet message boards can be notoriously unreliable. But let's take it as true - that suggests that ALQ wants to influence the Spanish election because they think (according to whatever internal calculus they are employing) that one outcome is preferable from the standpoint of their self-interest.

The outcry over the Spanish vote seems centered on the fact that the Spanish - in acting according to their own internal calculus - provided the outcome that happenned to coincide with ALQ's desired one. This is therefore taken as sending a positive message to ALQ which will presumably result in increased bomings immediately preceding elections.

First, I should note that neither Bill nor Dan have embraced the "Spanish appeased Al Qaeda" nonsense. Those who take this view perhaps unknowingly reveal their own bias and deep cynicism about the virtue of democracy, and betray a deep condescension towards the "masses". Brian earlier rightly decried this attitude by leftists, but falls victim to it as many others I respect seem to have.

But there is one idea that unites those on that spectrum - that doing what ALQ claims to want is a bad thing by definition. This is a false assumption. In fact it leaves you open to blinding misdirection - a domestic example is the "GOP wants Howard Dean to win" meme that was initiated by Karl Rove last summer - but which more thoughtful conservatives realized was a disaster in the making. That meme did contribute however to Dean's perception of unelectability, which initialized the negative context for his Dean scream.

The bottom line is that if you allow outcomes to be decided by Al Qaeda - good or bad - then they have already achieved their goal of influence. In reality, terror will continue and likely will accelerate during the campaign season worldwide.

The final nail in the coffin of the "influence elections" meme should be the story today that Al Qaeda prefers Bush:

In a statement sent to the Arabic language daily al-Hayat, the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades, which claimed responsibility for the Madrid bombings that killed 201 people, also urged its European units to stop all operations.

"Because of this decision, the leadership has decided to stop all operations within the Spanish territories... until we know the intentions of the new government that has promised to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq," the statement said.

"And we repeat this to all the brigades present in European lands: Stop all operations."
The statement said it supported President Bush (news - web sites) in his reelection campaign, and would prefer him to win in November rather than the Democratic candidate John Kerry (news - web sites), as it was not possible to find a leader "more foolish than you (Bush), who deals with matters by force rather than with wisdom."

In comments addressed to Bush, the group said:

"Kerry will kill our nation while it sleeps because he and the Democrats have the cunning to embellish blasphemy and present it to the Arab and Muslim nation as civilization."

"Because of this we desire you (Bush) to be elected."

What is really going on here? Looking at it superficially, you could argue that this is a real letter, not an Internet posting, so that gives it marginally more credibility. That's a dumb argument, though. You could argue that this is a fake letter (the stand that LGF takes, which would actually be commendable if they didn't accept the internet posting above as gospel truth, but they have zero concern with their own credibility anyway). It's still not sufficient.

A better analysis however is the fact that these sources of information have the same effect - to sow seeds of a disinformation campaign on a far wider scale than Rove's successful broadside on Dean. The idea is to portray ALQ as an omnipotent entity that pulls the strings of our Western democracies in the minds of the Western electorate. This will have a single effect - not to make people vote for or against Bush/Aznar/etc but rather to make "What Would ALQ Do?" the dominant influence on the decisions we make in our free societies - a question which, since it is essentially unknowable, will detract from our ability to evaluate the facts on the merits.

Ultimately, the strength of a democracy is the ability to hold its leaders accountable for failure, and reward them for success. The ideal way to interfere with that process is to make the decision subject to irrational fear rather than clear assessment. That was true for Spain and it will be especially true for us.

UPDATE: Dan responds - much to chew on...

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