Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The lessons of El Salvador

It hasn't been 12 hours yet since I first laid eyes on David Brooks' New York Times piece, and I'm already tired of thinking about it. When someone finally decides to write about El Salvador on the op-ed pages of the New York Times (when was the last time that happened, anyway?), we're sure to see old (and new) Salvador hands crawl out of the woodwork to nitpick it to death, and I've had more than a few email exchanges on the subject.

A couple of noteworthy blogging entries are one by Marc Cooper that just posted, and another by David Adesnik (of Oxblog), posted in the wee hours of the morning. Marc, of course, covered El Salvador from time to time during the war, and was here during the 1982 elections. David was probably about 4 years old at the time of the '82 elections, but his knowledge is nothing to sneer at, since he's working on a Ph.D. dissertation for Oxford on Carter/Reagan-era policies toward El Salvador and Nicaragua. (So when he says that Democrats argued this or that, you can rest assured that he probably just read it yesterday.)

In addition to recounting his own harrowing experiences, Marc makes the argument that Iraq isn't El Salvador:

The real lesson of Salvador, of course, is quite the opposite of Brook’s thesis. What Salvador teaches us that belligerent U.S. unilateralism failed miserably in trying to stabilize that tiny and suffering nation. In the end, it was a UN-negotiated multi-lateral solution that secured the peace and stopped the bloodshed.
Adesnik's take is similar to that of Brooks, and says that El Salvador is a useful analogy for Iraq:

The lesson of El Salvador is that the central government's best strategy for winning the allegiance of "lost" provinces is to demonstrate its commitment to democratic norms in the terrority that it does control.
To some extent, I'm cherry picking here from their positions (and you should read both lengthy posts in their entirety, if you're interested), but these are pretty much they way they summarize their own arguments.

A third comment comes from Sam Rosenfeld who says, in an entry for Tapped (the blog for the American Prospect), that Brooks is trying to cleverly reframe the issue:
Brooks seems to think that the problematical nature of elections in destabilized states is some new, preposterous idea cooked up by those down-on-democracy, Kerry-realist types.... Democracy’s not just a light switch you can flip on when you finally get around to seeing its benefits. And democracy-building isn’t primarily about having the right attitude.
My own position? I agree with Adesnik "that the democratization of El Salvador facilitated the end of its horrific civil war," but wind up siding with Marc with respect to the lessons for Iraq. The absence of the kind of structural factors in Iraq that so greatly facilitated the end of the war in El Salvador (see my earlier entry) are sufficient cause for skepticism.

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