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The Pain In Spain  
ublished: Mar 22 2004

New York-based Russ Baker is an award-winning journalist who covers politics and media.

Do you doubt that George Bush's America is a unique and alien creature to the rest of the world? If so, then please consider the White House's trumped-up outrage over John Kerry's assertion that foreign leaders prefer him to Bush.

Anyone who has friends abroad knows that Bush is, at the very best, a barely-tolerated laughingstock, even among fellow conservatives across the pond. But that vintage Karl-Rove-manufactured indignation was not for foreigners—it was for the American electorate.

The very possibility that such a gambit might be helpful in gaining votes speaks volumes about American political illiteracy. And so do the wide-ranging denunciations from U.S. elites over the decision by Spain's voters to oust their rightist government for its backing of the Bush administration's Iraq war.

The new Spanish premier, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was elected just three days after the terrorist train bombings in Madrid that killed more than 200. His immediate promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq was seen in Washington as caving in to Al Qaeda. "..The Zapateros of Europe... seem bent on validating the crudest caricatures of 'old European' cowardly decadence," the hawk Edward Luttwak wrote in The New York Times. And a Washington Post editorial argued that "the rash response by... Zapatero... will probably convince the extremists that their attempt to sway Spanish policy with mass murder succeeded brilliantly."

"The implications of this are fairly staggering," political psychologist Stanley Renshon of City University of New York told the Associated Press. "This is the first time that a terrorist act has influenced a democratic election. This is a gigantic, loud wakeup call. There's no one they'd like to have out of office more than George W. Bush."

Such emotional rhetoric has always played well on the American campaign trail, no matter that they distort the cause and effect and ignore the thinking behind rational decisions. By all appearances, the terrorist attacks in Madrid were meant to punish Spain for participation in an already-unpopular military adventure in a Muslim country—in this case, at least, a military adventure widely reviled in much of the world.

Furthermore, the Spanish electorate had every reason to feel betrayed by the previous government, which apparently bought into the Bush administration's arguments for going to war with Iraq, despite the fact that the terrorist threat facing the world clearly did not emanate from Saddam Hussein's dictatorial regime. Yet more evidence of the scale of Bush's worldwide deception came during Sunday's "60 Minutes" interview, in which former White House anti-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke described the Bush administration's long-standing obsession with going after Iraq instead of Al Qaeda. "(Right after 9/11) Rumsfeld was saying we needed to bomb Iraq. ... We all said, 'but no, no. Al Qaeda is in Afghanistan," recounted Clarke, "and Rumsfeld said, 'There aren't any good targets in Afghanistan and there are lots of good targets in Iraq.'"

Surely, the Spaniards have every right to regret their leaders' decision to involve them in the Iraqi quagmire, not just because it is a quagmire, but because it is a quagmire they were drawn into under false premises. That is something that people in other countries have begun to grasp and to talk about in a frank public discussion that America as a society has yet to join.

While there's still considerable denial going on abroad, if for no other reason than to maintain a modicum of self-respect after having caved to considerable White House pressure, virtually every other member of the "coalition of the willing" is leaning toward the "coalition of the willing-to-say-no." In Italy, the UK, Australia and elsewhere, outrage over the subterfuge and deception employed in selling the war began earlier and has steadily grown more vocal than in the States. Now, some politicians are being punished, and some are starting to come clean—even in slightly coded language that puts the blame on unnamed others. Poland's president Aleksander Kwasniewski announced March18 that "they deceived us about the weapons of mass destruction... We were taken for a ride."

In the United States, however, doubts about the Bush Gang and the quality of its leadership have grown at an excruciatingly slow pace, suggesting that Americans are truly conflicted about surrendering their faith in their "war president." Proof came in an early February Washington Post-ABC News poll which found that 52 percent of Americans believed that Bush is fundamentally truthful, down from a high of 71 percent in the summer of 2002.

Look more closely at the numbers and a startling contradiction emerges. Although 70 percent said they think Bush "honestly believed" that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a majority also think that Bush exaggerated or lied about pre-war intelligence. In other words, fully a third of those surveyed believe that Bush was genuinely misled about the existence of WMDs at the same time that he hyped what evidence he had to make a convincing case to the world. But how secure could he have been in his decision to go to war if he felt it necessary to exaggerate and lie about the evidence? And why shouldn't others reconsider the decisions they made based on Bush's false representation?

Elsewhere, these kinds of questions are receiving front-page treatment. An early February poll conducted for the UK's Independent newspaper found that 54 percent of Britons believe Prime Minister Tony Blair lied to the country about the threat from Iraq—and 51 percent of those questioned said they agreed or strongly agreed "it is now time for Tony Blair to resign and hand over to someone else."

"Most British voters want PM to quit," ran a headline on an Associated Press dispatch about that poll.

Maybe I missed it, but I don't see the American media's polling firms asking questions in such direct, headline-generating terms. Obviously, absent a parliamentary system, Bush is not likely to quit. But in a country that was ready to impeach Bush's predecessor for lying about a consensual sexual affair, one might think that lying that leads to thousands of unnecessary deaths might warrant a more vigorous and acute public discussion.

The American public may not have a lot of patience for nuance or careful analysis. But why doesn't the U.S. media give full play to such unequivocal statements from abroad as the new Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero's assertion that "Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush must do some reflection and self-criticism... You can't organize a war with lies" ?


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