Time to Save an Alliance

That’s the title of the latest column by Robert Kagan.

The terrorist attack in Madrid and its seismic impact on the Spanish elections this past week have brought the United States and Europe to the edge of the abyss. There’s no denying that al Qaeda has struck a strategic and not merely a tactical blow. To murder and terrorize people is one thing, but to unseat a pro-U.S. government in a nation that was a linchpin of America’s alliance with the so-called New Europe — that is al Qaeda’s most significant geopolitical success since Sept. 11, 2001.

The unhappy reality is that a significant number of Spanish voters seem to have responded to the attacks in Madrid exactly as al Qaeda hoped they would. They believed their government’s close cooperation with the United States, and specifically with the Bush administration in Iraq, had brought the wrath of the terrorist organization on them, and that the way to avoid future attacks was to choose a government that would withdraw from Iraq and distance itself from the United States. Other European peoples and governments have quietly flirted with this kind of thinking in the past, and not just recently but throughout the 1990s. But Spaniards have now made this calculus public. If other European publics decide that the Spaniards are right, and conclude that the safer course in world affairs is to dissociate themselves from the United States, then the transatlantic partnership is no more.

Certainly true.

Needless to say, that would be a disaster for the United States. The Bush administration needs to recognize it has a crisis on its hands and start making up for lost time in mending transatlantic ties, and not just with chosen favorites. The comforting idea of a “New Europe” always rested on the shifting sands of a public opinion, in Spain and elsewhere, that was never as favorable to American policy as to the governments. The American task now is to address both governments and publics, in Old and New Europe, to move past disagreements over the Iraq war, and to seek transatlantic solidarity against al Qaeda.

John Kerry has an important role to play now, too. The temptation for Kerry and his surrogates to use events in Spain to bolster their arguments against President Bush’s foreign policy may be irresistible. But Kerry should think hard before he pushes the point too far. After all, he could be president next January. If Europeans respond to the attack in Spain by distancing themselves from the United States, a divided and dysfunctional West will be his inheritance. Like Bush, Kerry should move the transatlantic conversation beyond the Iraq war to the common war against al Qaeda.

But the problem is not all on the American side, and neither is the solution. Responsible heads in Europe must understand that anything that smacks of retreat in the aftermath of this latest attack could raise the likelihood of further attacks. Al Qaeda’s list of demands doesn’t end with Iraq. The attack in Madrid was not just punishment for Spain’s involvement in Iraq but for involvement with the United States in the war on terrorism. Al Qaeda’s statement taking credit for the bombings in Madrid condemned Spain’s role in Afghanistan, too. Al Qaeda seeks to divide Europe and the United States not just in Iraq but in the overall struggle. It seeks to convince Europeans not only that the use of force in Iraq was mistaken but that the use of force against terrorism in general is mistaken and futile — just as Prodi is arguing. Are Europeans prepared to grant all of al Qaeda’s conditions in exchange for a promise of security? Thoughts of Munich and 1938 come to mind.


Interestingly, Sen. Joe Biden, with whom I seldom agree but usually find worth listening to, was talking about this piece on the Don Imus show as I was driving to the office this morning. Oddy, his take on the piece was that Kagan was saying this was all the fault of the Bush Administration, which is clearly not Kagan’s thesis. Partly, this is a function of Biden’s perspective going into the piece. But it’s also a case of a really bad title being applied.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Chris says:

    I agree with Kagan’s thoughts. On Biden, one should not necessarily ascribe certain motives to his comments. Especially when he’s being driven to the office in the morning. He is, after all, not a rocket scientist. He probably simply did not understand what Kagan said.