Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Iraq? Don’t Think Salvador in the ‘80s, Think Nicaragua -- With the U.S. Role Reversed

TIA Guest Spot: Allow me to introduce Bill Barnes to the TIA audience. Like me, he is an attorney with a penchant for all things political. In this piece, Mr. Barnes draws an interesting historical comparison between current US foreign policy vis a vis Iraq, and that of various US administrations in relation to Central America in the 1980s. Rich in historical fact, and insightful of current trends, it is an all around solid piece. Enjoy.

With the caveat that it makes little or no sense to talk about the intersection of elections and insurgency in the abstract or across widely disparate cases, because of the complexity of the historical sociology and political science involved, let me suggest that if there is an instructive parallel between contemporary Iraq and the Central America of the 1980s, it's not El Salvador but Nicaragua.

There are some parallels between the Iraqi and Salvadoran cases. It is interesting to note that the constant refrain of the Salvadoran right during the 1980s was that the FMLN was nothing more than "5000 terrorists" with no popular base, depending entirely on outside support from Nicaragua and Cuba. During the first eight months or so of the Iraq insurgency, the official Bush administration line was that the insurgency consisted of only "5000 terrorists" without a popular base, sustained by outside support from international Jihadist networks. While such depictions were wildly wrong in both cases, equally or more important is the fact that the two insurgencies, and the historical and structural contexts, are completely incommensurate. The only thing that is similar between the two situations is the ideology and practice of the two U.S. administrations involved, the disagreement of most of the rest of the world with that ideology and practice, and the fact that in the El Salvador of the 1980s, as in Iraq today, the most powerful institution in the country was the U.S. embassy.

Comparing the current Bush administration policy in Iraq with the application of the Reagan Doctrine in Central America circa 1982-87 is an excellent topic, but nobody is getting it right. The Bush administration and its apologists are flat wrong, but left critics aren't really getting it right either (and many on the "hard" or sectarian left are getting it very wrong), and they are wrong to dismiss out of hand everything that the "liberal hawks" say. This debate is a good vehicle for trying to get critique of the Bush/Neocon Middle East policy right, why the liberal hawk alternative is still wrong, and what a real center-left alternative might look like.

The idea that the Salvadoran experience showed that "elections suck the oxygen out of insurgency," and that might be a model for Iraq, put forward by Pentagon officials and NYT columnist David Brooks last September (focusing on the Salvadoran elections of 1982 and 1984), was and is simply wrong. More recently the Pentagon and some military commentators have claimed that U.S.-trained, advised, and equipped Salvadoran counter-insurgency brigades and commando teams effectively defeated the FMLN and "neutralized" much of its underground infrastructure during the mid-to-late 1980s, and, again, this could be a model for Iraq. I haven't seen anybody put these two discussions together, but in fact, the idea of combining elections and such counter-insurgency tactics, as two sides of the same coin, has been a mainstay of strategies of Third World interventionism for 40 years. What tends to be ignored by those who have advocated such strategy is the strict limits to the "democracy" achieved by such elections, the human costs and limited strategic success of such counter-insurgency tactics, and the major role in any broader and lasting peace-making and democratic success of factors that go unmentioned.

Some details on Salvador. At least (or particularly) with regard to the 1982 constituent assembly election, it was considered to be dangerous to fail to vote. Soldiers and police would frequently ask to see the identity documents on which certification of having voted was to be stamped, in a context in which the FDR- FMLN had called for a boycott of the election, and death squads linked to the army and the police were killing on the order of 800 people every month for suspected links to the FDR-FMLN. Defense Minister Garcia advised the public that failure to vote would constitute treason, while electoral authorities advised that abstention equaled "support for subversion." (Cites available). More generally, the 1982 election was not part of anything positive, rather it was part of the 1974-83 retreat from meaningful elections in the major urban areas (and continuing disallowance of meaningful competitive political activity in the countryside) and part of the right's finishing off the driving out of open politics of the real champions of electoral democracy, the center-left, whose last gasp was the short-lived 1979 Junta. The 1984 election of Napoleon Duarte as president was much closer to a free election, and did feature what was, for El Salvador, massive turnout. And death squad activity and human rights violations in general were well down from their peaks of the early 80s, largely due to U.S. pressure. But the Duarte regime and the Christian Democratic Party became moribund after 1985, ARENA came to the fore, human rights violations increased, the civilian "pacification" arm of the U.S.-designed counter-insurgency, "United to Reconstruct," was a failure, the FMLN adapted to the new counter-insurgency tactics, and a costly military stalemate ensued.

In El Salvador, an electoral regime became meaningful and began to play a positive role only very gradually and against the grain of the policies of the first Reagan administration. Such evolved out of the combination of (1) the work of elements of the Church, and in particular UCA's (the Jesuit-run university) Social Projection, Ignacio Martin-Baro's development of IUDOP (public opinion institute), his and (UCA head) Ignacio Elllacuria's appearances on Canal 12 television, their insistence that there could be no military victory for either side; (2) the impact on U.S. policy of the partnership between Congressional Democrats and the anti-intervention movement in the U.S. and the leverage that gave to the moderate professionals in the State Dept and AID against the Reaganauts (the hardcore Reaganauts, after Duarte's election and Reagan's reelection, took Nicaragua policy entirely for themselves while leaving Salvador largely to the moderates at State); (3) the Reagan administration's need to compete with and try to outshine the 1984 Nicaraguan election; (4) the unraveling of Iran-Contra, leading to some defanging of the Reagan Doctrine vis-a-vis Salvador (the Reagan Doctrine, parallel to current Bush/neocons, stood for the pipedream that military defeat of Third World "Communists" would lead automatically to the emergence and success of "democracy"); (5) Oscar Arias' work; (6) the profound delegitimation of the Salvadoran military by its 1989 murder of the UCA's Jesuit leadership, and the Bush administration's bowing to that delegitimation; (7) the shocking of the right by the strength of the FMLN's 1989 offensive; (8) the gradual revival of the center-left in Salvador at the end of the 80s and the gradual recognition by both ARENA and the FMLN that they should accept a growing role for such, the latter made possible (for both ARENA and the FMLN) by the fall of the Soviet bloc (9) the UN's massive and sustained presence and commitment to peace negotiations and processes, and the courageous service of prominent people in various truth and reconciliation commissions, and the Bush administration's willingness to countenance all that and lend some support, including to the purging and reduction of the Salvadoran military and security apparatus. It is impossible to imagine either the first Reagan administration, or the similarly deluded current Bush administration, behaving in a parallel manner.

There are no functional equivalents to most of these things at the present moment re: Iraq. And of course it took a full ten years (1984 to 1994) in Salvador to get to elections that were beginning to be what passes for free and honest, and elections continued to have low participation (35-40% of the voting age population) for another 10 years. Something that is parallel between the two cases is that in both El Salvador and Iraq, a highly centralized and militarized government had profoundly suppressed civil society, except for religious leaders and groups, who were killed if they became too political, but otherwise allowed to survive and maintain their institutions. But in Salvador the Church/the religious were split only along left/center/right lines, and the most powerful institutional presence, UCA and the Archbishop, were superhumanly committed to what amounted to center-left, pro-democracy, anti-militaristic positions. In Iraq, religious leaders and groups are much more highly fragmented in much more sectarian ways (compounded by profound geographical and ethnic splits, non-existent in El Salvador), neither they nor their cadre having experience with elections or democracy; many are pro-insurgency; many are only conditionally anti-insurgency (in Salvador the cadre and leaders of Christian Democracy and Liberation Theology had a good deal of experience with elections from the 1960s and 70s). Is there any potential for Sistani to play a role parallel to Ellacuria and Martin-Baro in Salvador?

Now lets consider the parallels between Iraq and Nicaragua. In earlier times, the U.S. government had supported the regimes of authoritarian, quasi-fascist caudillos in both countries (the Somozas in Nicaragua and Saddam Hussein in Iraq). The manner in which those regimes were overthrown, and the character and initial strength of the new regimes, were of course very different. But after that, all we have to do is flip the U.S. role and we get some striking parallels. The FSLN regime in Nicaragua, and at least some elements among its foreign partners (the Soviet bloc and Cuba), thought the Sandinista revolution could be a model for the "democratic" overthrow of traditional authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America (the liberal middle class elements of the anti-Somoza coalition thought they were achieving something else --Costa Rica). The Bush administration, sponsor of the new Iraqi government, thinks the Iraqi "democratic revolution" can have a massive demonstration effect leading to the "democratization" of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East (Shi'a political parties and clerics think they are achieving something else -- a very different vision, with which liberals are quite uncomfortable, as liberals were uncomfortable with the Leninist version of Sandinismo). In the Nicaraguan case, Argentine, Guatemalan, and U.S. right-wing extremists were determined to prevent any such exemplary success of the Sandinista revolution and started organizing the remnants of the Somoza National Guard and security services, with some help from neighboring Honduras, to launch terrorist attacks in Nicaragua. Elements of the first Reagan administration, in the CIA and the National Security Counsel in particular, increasingly funded and helped organize those anti-Sandinista efforts. All of this bears some comparison to the outside help the Iraqi insurgency is getting from foreign Islamic jihadists and from some Baathist elements in Syria.

In Nicaragua, by 1983, the Contra insurgency was becoming much bigger and obtaining both some broader support among elements of the earlier anti-Somoza coalition, and concentrated bases of support among the traditionalistic middle peasantry of the northern mountains and the indigenous population of the isolated Atlantic coast (unlike El Salvador, Nicaragua has some important geographical and ethnic divisions, though not on the scale of Iraq). This happened, I would argue, largely because the top leadership of the FSLN regime, and of the security services and army in particular, and much of their leading cadre, were unfamiliar with the people of the mountains and the Atlantic Coast, and were ideological in a way that rendered them quite obtuse about distinguishing between opponents who deserved to be treated as "terrorists" and deadly enemies and those who didn't. In Iraq, U.S. commanders, troops, administrators and their Iraqi clients are guilty of exactly the same kind of obtuseness, with exactly the same kind of results (this also was the case in El Salvador - much of the FMLN base and armed fighters were people whose family members had been killed by Salvadoran army and security personnel - though in Salvador, as in Guatemala and Argentina, the security forces, beyond obtuse, added a particularly large dose of fascist blood-thirstiness).

In Nicaragua in 1984, the Sandinistas held an election that they hoped would suck the oxygen out of the Contra insurgency. An important chunk of the anti-Sandinista opposition, at Reagan administration insistence, refused to participate, just like the Sunnis in 2005 Iraq (and like many Sunnis today, they came to regret that abstentionism). For the majority of Nicaraguans, the 1984 election was an inspiring and hopeful exercise in democracy, but for several important minorities, it was a sham. The FSLN leadership made some genuine efforts to draw segments of these minorities, along with the "participating opposition," into their new political system, the new parliamentary politics, and the writing of the new constitution (and the degree to which this was genuine vs. cynical cooptation varied greatly among different elements of the Sandinista leadership and regime). Again parallel to Iraq at the moment. But while part of the FSLN regime was genuinely devoted to developing democratic dialogue and competition with the "participating opposition," the top FSLN leadership and the security services and army remained obtuse in the sense referenced above. From 1985 to the 1988 Sapoa cease-fire, the FSLN increasingly defeated the Contra militarily, while increasingly losing the respect of larger and larger minorities of the population, in large part because of government administrative failures, inability to alleviate the increasing material hardships of on-going war (an impossible task given U.S. policy -- not nearly as destructive as the impact of Iraqi insurgents on Iraqi security and infrastructure, but still somewhat parallel) and the simultaneous corruption of many government ministries, turned into fiefdoms by particular leadership cliques (the same is reported to be happening now in Iraqi ministries). Many Sandinistas knew all this, and fragmented efforts at correction were made, but in their 1989-90 election campaign, they resumed being obtuse in spades.

The best example of a single election sucking the oxygen out of an insurgency would be Nicaragua 1990, sucking the oxygen out of the Contra insurgency - But only because that insurgency was so highly dependent on an outside sponsor, the U.S., and that sponsor had changed its policy during 1987-88 to favor elections and compromise over continuing insurgency, whereas the Reagan administration's policy had previously been the reverse (the 1984 election had no effect on the Contra insurgency because the Reagan Administration didn't want it to). Real elections, establishing real reformist government during the decade before 1979 might have sucked the oxygen out of the Sandinista insurgency, and real elections establishing real reformist government in El Salvador during the 1970s might have forestalled full insurgency there (as might the survival and reformist evolution of Luis Somoza in mid-60s Nicaragua, or the survival of Arbenz in Guatemala). But the U.S. government refused to support such developments in either country, because, in the Cold war context, the U.S. government (Republican Party and right in general) regarded suppressing the left as a higher priority, trumping any local reality. U.S. support for a form of electoral politics constituting a genuine recognition and acceptance of democracy and the center-left was not in the cards as long as the Cold War was in effect. And such is not in the cards now because of the hegemony of the Republican right and the Neocons.

One bottom line: Even when "well-intentioned," rightist U.S. policy-makers, civilian and uniformed Pentagon leadership and their allied think-tank intellectuals, and CIA/Special Forces cadre -- like Leninist leaders and cadre -- can never be trusted to distinguish on their own (i.e. without being embedded in and regulated by a system of broad "multi-partisan" professional deliberation and democratic accountability) between, on one hand, criminals and those who deserve the label "terrorist," who deserve whatever they get, and, on the other hand, other kinds of political opponents. Once you give CIA/Special Forces cadre and their indigenous protegees legitimacy, and relative freedom of action, they end up doing a lot that -- even by the policy-makers' own announced standards -- is both counter-productive and unconscionable, i.e. committing atrocities, killing the wrong people, producing substantial avoidable collateral damage, engaging in or countenancing torture and all kinds of human rights violations, getting diverted into private vendettas, power games, corruption and gangsterism -- alienating the hearts and minds they claim they're trying to win. Prone to obtuse homogenization of opponents, guilt by association, willingness to treat collateral damages cavalierly, obtuse about side-effects and unintended consequences (Vietnam Phoenix program). Counterinsurgency as a form of "seeing like a state" (Jim Scott). The Leninist elements of the FSLN of the 1980s were characterized by a degree of the same kind of thing, but more constrained by their need to maintain leadership over the rest of the Sandinista movement and sustain a good image with foreign allies and public opinion - as the Salvadoran military became constrained during 1983-85 and after its murder of the Jesuits in 1989.

It seems to me likely that at least over the next few years, the new Iraqi government will duplicate many of the faults of the Sandinista government of the years after the 1984 Nicaraguan election--and probably few of its virtues. This is probably the best we can hope for. Equally likely is either full civil war and the breakup of the country, or a quasi-Leninist Shi'a theocracy. The liberal middle class (and its U.S. sponsors), as in early '80s Nicaragua, will be left feeling that once again they've been robbed of their birthright and their country taken off on a pathological detour - except possibly for the Kurds if they are able to move toward viable autonomy.

(comments and feedback below or to BarnesWAB@aol.com)

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