Monday, January 31, 2005

On the Iraqi elections

I tip my hat -- with deep respect and humility -- to the Iraqi people. Previously in this space, much time was given to dispute the Brooks/ Cheney/ Abizaid/ Rumsfeld thesis that the Salvadoran elections of 1982 served as a model for Iraq. Whatever the merits of those debates, the 1982 elections in El Salvador were a cakewalk compared to what Iraqis faced yesterday. As Michael Ignatieff noted yesterday, the Iraqi elections held yesterday were "without precedent" in terms of the violence faced by voters.

I know plenty of people in the U.S. who refuse to send their kids to public schools (out of fear of violence), who get queasy about traveling to places like El Salvador and Guatemala (out of fear of violence), or who refuse to walk into certain neighborhoods of cities like Washington, DC or New York City or Dallas (out of fear of violence). I'll assume that all of these people are equally in awe as myself of the Iraqi turnout, which took place under the worst possible set of conditions of any election anywhere in recent memory. And whatever reasons one wants to give for the low voter turnout in the Sunni areas, I'm with publius when he wrote yesterday that "if you aren't moved by the courage of people to come out in the Sunni hotbeds to risk their lives by voting, I'm not sure you can claim to have progressive values."

And late last night publius also offered up these sage words of advice to anti-war Democrats (a category in which I include myself -- well, make that "democrat" with a small "d"):
To the anti-war Dems first (I’m considering abandoning the terms “left” and “right”), I would caution them to avoid knee-jerk rejection of all potentially good news just because of the justified animosity toward people like Bush or Glenn Reynolds. The elections yesterday were important and are worthy of praise – as is the courage of the Iraqis who faced death to vote. As much as I reject Bush, I’m not going to root for failure just to spite him, and neither should you. If we fail, and if this government fails, then the result will be an all-out slaughter, complete with genocide and ethnic cleansing right in the heart of an already unstable region. That is the reality of failure. And if you’re silently rooting for that reality, you need to take a step back and put things in perspective.
It seems to me that, if you're opposed to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, this was one necessary step toward a scenario in which the U.S. might (and should) withdraw its troops. But that's probably too self-centered an argument to even begin to make right now. After all, this wasn't primarily about us, or the U.S. As Nadezhda put it the other day, "a self-absorbed worldview is a dangerous one in an interdependent world such as our own."

This is obviously not the end of the story, and what remains to be done in 2005 is certainly even more challenging than one single day, January 30. But I think it's now hard to dispute that the vast majority of Iraqis (and let's not count out those who didn't vote simply because they perceived it as too dangerous) feel a greater sense of empowerment to be able to take on those challenges, but also, and perhaps more importantly, a greater sense of hope.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

The morality of military outsourcing

Much to say about today's events, and I would start by looking at the discussion over at Liberals Against Terrorism.

But before more time passes, I would be remiss if I didn't point to this very nice piece in the Miami Herald the other day by Geoff Thale, from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). He writes about a subject near and dear to my heart, the issue of outsourcing security forces from Latin America to Iraq, about which I first speculated back in April, and which was first written about in the media here in El Salvador last October. Geoff gives a moral and political argument against such practices:

... in the case of the U.S. war in Iraq, when those who do some of the fighting and dying are not U.S. soldiers, not members of allied military forces, not even U.S. private contractors working for the Pentagon, but private citizens of another country, whose injuries and deaths will have no impact on the political debate in the United States, then democracy is being undermined, and war is being fought without a public weighing of the costs.

Our leaders shouldn't be recruiting Latin Americans (or others) to stand in our place, or pay the ultimate price in U.S. military conflicts, to avoid political debates at home.

Of course, irregardless of the fact that there are already some 40,000 non-U.S. citizens fighting in the U.S. military, according to AFSC, and that "noncitizens in the military are more likely than citizens in the military to serve in active duty units," I'm not so sure that this kind of outsourcing automatically undermines democracy. Democracy is only undermined if we fail to consider these recruits as much as we consider U.S. casualties. Then again, sadly, it's a pretty safe assumption that we will not value the lives of non-U.S. citizens as much as we do our own.

FT advice on Latin America

In a story ostensibly about Venezuela, the Financial Time's Latin America editor, Richard Lapper, has some choice words about U.S. policy, namely:
the simplistic and ideological approach that America seems to be pursuing. It is an approach likely to increase instability and reduce yet further US influence in the region.
Found this thanks to Boz's Sunday musings from a café in Bogotá.

And FYI, I thought Juan Forero's piece in the New York Times today on the Venezuela land reform story was quite fair, more so than most reporting of late on the subject.

Ignatieff, for the record

Also, be sure not to miss Michael Ignatieff in today's NYT Magazine, on "The Uncommitted."
The election in Iraq is without precedent. Never, not even in the dying days of Weimar Germany when Nazis and Communists brawled in the streets, has there been such a concerted attempt to destroy an election through violence -- with candidates unable to appear in public, election workers driven into hiding, foreign monitors forced to ''observe'' the election from a nearby country, actual voting on election day a gamble with death in at least 4 of the 18 provinces and the only people voting safely the fortunate expatriates and exiles in foreign countries.

Just as depressing as the violence in Iraq is the indifference to it abroad. Americans and Europeans who have never lifted a finger to defend their own right to vote seem not to care that Iraqis are dying for the right to choose their own leaders. Why do so few people feel even a tremor of indignation when they see poll workers gunned down in a Baghdad street? Why isn't there a trickle of applause in the press for the more than 6,000 Iraqis actually standing for political office at the risk of their lives? Have we all become so disenchanted that we need Iraqis to remind us what a free election can actually be worth?

Explaining this morose silence requires understanding how support for Iraqi democracy has become the casualty of the corrosive bitterness that still surrounds the initial decision to go to war. Establishing free institutions in Iraq was the best reason to support the war -- now it is the only reason -- and for that very reason democracy there has ceased to be a respectable cause. The administration's ideologues -- the ones who wrote the presidential inaugural and its image of America in the service of ''the Author of Liberty'' -- have managed the nearly impossible: to turn democracy itself into a disreputable slogan. Liberals can't bring themselves to support freedom in Iraq lest they seem to collude with neoconservative bombast. Meanwhile, antiwar ideologues can't support the Iraqis because that would require admitting that positive outcomes can result from bad policies and worse intentions...

Iraq/Afghanistan compared

Laura Rozen points us to this very interesting piece by Anne Barnard, who's been covering Iraq for the past year for the Boston Globe. She discusses why the Iraq elections offer more hope than did those in Afghanistan.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Iraq elections

What to think about the elections in Iraq? Nadezhda says it all, and eloquently so.

Che chic

Marc Cooper pointed us recently to a new book, Nation of Rebels : Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture in a post on Sunday, saying that the authors "raise (and answer) the hard question: how much activism today is thought-out, strategic and effective? And how much of it is rather just a lifestyle option, a hobby that makes its participants feel better about themselves while accomplishing nothing?"

But also in my inbox a couple of weeks ago came a link to this article by Jay Nordlinger about the commodification of Che Guevara, and I couldn't resist sharing the above picture from there. Nordlinger also tells this revealing story:

A few weeks ago, the Hartford Courant ran a photo of a Trinity College freshman who was protesting the execution of a serial killer. He carried a sign that said, "Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?" — and he was wearing a Che Guevara hat!

NOTE: Thanks to Stacey Philbrick Yadav, a Cairo-based Ph.D. candidate in Political Science from Penn, blogging at al-Hiwar, for helping me figure out how to let text wrap around photos!

Tired of the big stick?

In tandem with the report I mentioned a few days ago, the Miami Herald also reported this week that an elite "action panel" of the UN's Commission on Human Rights has decided to include that beacon of human rights in the Caribbean, Cuba. This is the same panel that only narrowly approved a resolution last year condemning the arrest and sentencing (for up to 25 years) of some 75 Cuban dissidents back in 2003.
Cuba's inclusion to the newly created action panel was approved by the 11 Latin American nations that form part of the 53-member Commission on Human Rights. The designation means Cuban diplomats will not only have a say in alleged violations the commission will investigate, but also will be first to represent the region when the group has its initial gathering on Feb. 7.
Mexico, will be chairing this group, which conveniently does not include two key U.S. allies in Latin America, El Salvador and Colombia.

Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter addressed the OAS the other day, calling on that body to make the Inter-American Democratic Charter
more than empty pieces of paper, to make it a living document. Right now the charter is weak because it is vague in defining conditions that would constitute a violation of the charter - the 'unconstitutional alteration or interruption' of the democratic order noted in article 19. The charter also requires the consent of the affected government even to evaluate a threat to democracy. If the government itself is threatening the minimum conditions of democracy, the hemisphere is not prepared to act, since there would certainly not be an invitation.
He then goes on to suggest eight conditions that would constitute an interruption of democracy:









Great ideas, but it appears we're witnessing a bit of a backlashto U.S. dominance in the region by Latin American countries, who seemed to have retrenched back into their traditional resistence to outside interference under any circumstances.

UPDATE: As Boz points out, Andres Oppenheimer pretty much comes to the same conclusion in his piece today.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Juan Cole sounding cautiously optimistic

I'm not a devoted daily reader of Informed Comment, but it does seem to me that Mssr. Cole has changed his view of Sunday's elections, or at least their potential, when he wrote yesterday:

There are, of course, lots of elections in the Arab world. Some are more rigged than others. But there are almost no elections where the sitting prime minister and his party would be allowed to be turned out unexpectedly by an unpredictable and uncontrolled electorate. If Iraqi interim Prime Minister Allawi's list does poorly and his political star falls as a result of a popular vote, something democratic will have happened in Iraq, for all the serious problems with the elections.
That's a far cry from his radio interviews last week calling the elections (or aspects of them) a "joke" or "absurd." Although Allawi has spent far more money (or used state resources, who knows?) on these elections, most people think the list backed by the top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, will likely come out on top.

And now this morning he links to an article by veteran Middle East correspondent for Knight-Ridder, Trudy Rubin, who lays out five "hopeful signs" about how top Shiite leaders plan to exercise the power they're likely to be handed as a result of these elections. Well worth a look.

Mr. Halliburton's dress code

Couldn't the White House afford to spend just a few more dollars on protocol? Geez.

'Dissidents or trade'

I've discovered a third blogger out there who's seems as interested in Latin America as Randy Paul and myself, and he goes by Boz. Today he simply points us to four articles, including a piece in the Miami Herald by Vaclav Havel on EU-Cuba relations.

Havel recalls the state of relationships between dissidents and Western embassies during the Cold War, in which a subtle dance was done by the latter to give some manner of recognition to people like Havel. That has all changed now between the EU and Cuba:

...I cannot recall any occasion at that time when the West or any of its organizations (NATO, the European Community, etc.) issued some public appeal, recommendation or edict stating that some specific group of independently minded people -- however defined -- were not to be invited to diplomatic parties, celebrations or receptions.

But today this is happening. One of the strongest and most powerful democratic institutions in the world -- the European Union -- has no qualms in making a public promise to the Cuban dictatorship that it will re-institute diplomatic Apartheid. The EU's embassies in Havana will now craft their guest lists in accordance with the Cuban government's wishes. The shortsightedness of socialist Prime Minister José Zapatero of Spain has prevailed.

Try to imagine what will happen: At each European embassy, someone will be appointed to screen the list, name by name, and assess whether and to what extent the persons in question behave freely or speak out freely in public, to what extent they criticize the regime, or even whether they are former political prisoners. Lists will be shortened and deletions made, and this will frequently entail eliminating even good personal friends of the diplomats in charge of the screening, people whom they have given various forms of intellectual, political or material assistance. It will be even worse if the EU countries try to mask their screening activities by inviting only diplomats to embassy celebrations in Cuba.

I can hardly think of a better way for the EU to dishonor the noble ideals of freedom, equality and human rights that the Union espouses -- indeed, principles that it reiterates in its constitutional agreement. To protect European corporations' profits from their Havana hotels, the Union will cease inviting open-minded people to EU embassies, and we will deduce who they are from the expression on the face of the dictator and his associates. It is hard to imagine a more shameful deal.

Cuba's dissidents will, of course, happily do without Western cocktail parties and polite conversation at receptions. This persecution will admittedly aggravate their difficult struggle, but they will naturally survive it. The question is whether the EU will survive it.

Today, the EU is dancing to Fidel Castro's tune. That means that tomorrow it could bid for contracts to build missile bases on the coast of the People's Republic of China. The following day it could allow its decisions on Chechnya to be dictated by Russian President Vladimir Putin's advisors. Then, for some unknown reason, it could make its assistance to Africa conditional on fraternal ties with the worst African dictators.

Where will it end? The release of Milosevic? Denying a visa to Russian human-rights activist Sergey Kovalyov? An apology to Saddam Hussein? The opening of peace talks with al Qaeda?

Zapatero might have wisely pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq, but it's hard to argue with Havel on this one.

WSF coverage

As usual, Inter-Press Service has broad coverage of the World Social Forum. Check it out here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Staying current with history

The February 2005 issue of Current History is out, and it focuses on Latin America. Yours truly has an article on El Salvador. Here's the table of contents:
  • "Latin America's Populist Turn," Michael Shifter and Vinay Jawahar
"Latin America's political landscape, highly complex and variegated, defies easy categorization and raises fundamental questions-including whether it might be better to jettison the term 'left' altogether."
  • "Beyond Benign Neglect: Washington and Latin America," by Arturo Valenzuela
"Without clear and concerted engagement and a recognition that the consolidation of democracy in Latin America is far from a foregone conclusion, Washington will be unable to regain the momentum for progress lost over the past four years."
  • "Fox's Mexico: Democracy Paralyzed," Denise Dresser
"Mexico appears to be speaking the vocabulary of disenchantment. The words 'failure,' 'disillusion,' 'lack of leadership' have become a daily part of national conversation. The consensus seems to be that [Vicente] Fox's presidency is over, that he is no longer a lame duck but a dead duck."
  • "Cuba after Fidel," Javier Corrales
"Cuba's democratic transition will be choppy because it will be led by groups not necessarily known to prefer democracy: the armed forces and expatriate businesspeople."
  • "El Salvador's 'Model' Democracy," David Holiday
"In the immediate aftermath of the 1992 peace accords, El Salvador was cited frequently by the United Nations and even the World Bank as a country that, with the international community's help, effectively managed its transition from civil war to peace and reconciliation. Thirteen years later, only the US government views the Salvadoran model so favorably."
  • "Haiti after Aristide: Still on the Brink," Daniel P. Erikson
"In the 1990s, Haiti was on the front lines of us efforts to help bind Latin America and the Caribbean into a 'community of democracies.' Today, the country is the closest example of a failed state this side of the Atlantic."
It's obvious from this line-up that it's going to be worth a trip to your nearest Borders or B&N (or public library) to buy a copy, but here's a very sneak preview of my article on El Salvador.

Those grateful Iraqi Communists

Whatever you might think of the Iraqi elections, it might come as some surprise that the Iraqi Communist Party has taken kindly to U.S. political party training from the National Democratic Institute (NDI). This is what they have to say in today's Washington Post:

"They're very good," said Jassim Hilfi, a leader of the Iraqi Communist Party who said he had read every word of the institute's Political Campaign Planning Manual and every other publication handed out. "They benefited us a great deal."

The Communist Party, which predates the Baath Party that persecuted its members for decades, has mounted a vibrant campaign that political observers in Iraq say may outperform expectations in Sunday's balloting.

"They were quite fair," Hilfi said. "We did not feel there was any segregation or playing favorites. Frankly, I'm very grateful. This was the only support we got from outside the country."

For more on the Communist Party in Iraq, see this article from 2003 by Frank Smyth.

Guatemala's wounds

A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from a reporter at the Miami Herald, who wanted to talk to me about a story she was working on. Having come across a woman who'd spent her entire adult life involved with the URNG guerrilla movement, the reporter was rather surprised that this woman still didn't feel comfortable talking to her family about her role. The Herald story, by Cara Buckley, ran a few days ago, but I'm only just now taking a look at it.

To those who think that the Guatemalan peace process was in any way comparable to the Salvadoran one, this story should give pause. I can think of no one that I know in El Salvador who is reluctant to talk about the past, not even with former or current "enemies." They may not be willing to talk about any dirty business they might have been involved in (from the left or right), but still there is no perceived danger in identifying yourself one way or another. Guatemala has a long way to go before it gets to where El Salvador is today.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Who needs a new Latin American human rights group?

THIS is a very strange news report:
Mexico on Monday proposed creating a regional organization to promote and evaluate human rights throughout Latin America, a mechanism meant partly to depoliticize conflicts with Cuba over the island's human rights record.

The gathering comes as the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva prepares to publish reports on the rights records of individual countries. That event usually prompts strained relations with Cuba, which contends the U.N. criticisms result from behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Washington to force other countries to support negative assessments.

Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez told representatives of 30 countries that the plan would help build a culture of human rights throughout the region. The Cuban ambassador to Mexico, Jorge Bolanos, also endorsed the idea.

The reason this sounds strange to me is that the Mexican official making this proposal is also one of three candidates in the running to become the new OAS chief. But the OAS already has a regional human rights organization, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

But let's read the rest of the article, and then the purpose may become more clear:

"We are here to participate, to make our contributions and we wish it success," Bolanos said.

In November, Mexico's Deputy Foreign Secretary Miguel Hakim said the idea to create a regional human rights organization was inspired partly by the system that nations in the Americas already use to evaluate progress in efforts to curb drug trafficking.

Each nation is asked to fill out a questionnaire about its anti-drug actions, and the results are studied by an international panel which issues reports. Governments then are asked to give a formal response.

Mexico's votes to criticize Cuba at recent U.N. Human Rights Commission meetings were among the factors that led to a deterioration in diplomatic relations between the two states last year.

Bolanos told The Associated Press that the U.N. commission should be restructured to prevent countries such as the United States from imposing their will on other nations. He said countries should "participate under equal conditions" and should avoid a division between the "the condemned of the Earth and the condemners."

Cuba has repeatedly accused the United States of surreptitiously sponsoring annual U.N. resolutions criticizing the communist-governed island. The 2004 resolution sponsored by Honduras was approved 22-21, with 10 abstentions.

Perhaps then, one could surmise, this is part of a Mexican strategy to demonstrate that its candidate for the OAS would not be subservient to U.S. interests, something that might appeal to many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

UPDATE: More on the Flores candidacy can be found in this week's El Faro (Salvadoran online weekly.)

Monday, January 24, 2005

Migrant farmworkers: setbacks and victories

Two articles in today's Wall Street Journal (subscription only) require no comment. Here are the first three paragraphs of each:

Labor Department Ends Survey Of Migrant Farm-Worker Status

January 24, 2005; Page A4

The U.S. Department of Labor has suspended the only national survey that collects detailed data on employment, health and living conditions of migrant and seasonal farm workers.

The move has caused concern among some policy makers and scholars, who say the survey has documented the rapid growth of immigrant labor in the agriculture industry. Based on interviews with thousands of laborers, the National Agricultural Workers Survey gathered data that helped the federal government allocate funds to health, education and social programs in rural areas for nearly two decades.

Among the survey's key findings is that the U.S. is increasingly dependent on illegal immigrants to harvest its crops. More than half of all crop workers in the country are illegal immigrants, up from just 12% in 1990, according to the latest farm workers' survey. The agricultural industry employs about 2.5 million people, whose average annual family income is $10,000 to $12,000.

and this one

Farmworker Gets Rare Win Against Grower

January 24, 2005; Page B1

In a case that spotlights problems faced by migrant women working on farms, a federal-court jury in Fresno on Friday found one of California's largest agricultural businesses liable for sexual harassment and awarded its employee nearly $1 million.

The unanimous verdict against Harris Farms Inc. marks the first time that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken a sexual-harassment case involving the agriculture industry to trial. Previous cases brought by the agency, which enforces antidiscrimination law in the workplace, have been settled out of court. Farm-worker advocates and labor lawyers applauded the verdict, saying it focuses attention on a widespread problem that is rarely reported.

"The jury's verdict sends a message to all agricultural employers that they must protect their workers against sexual harassment," said William Tamayo, regional attorney for the EEOC in San Francisco.

Bush inaugural speech -- Latin backlash?

Andres Oppenheimer has some interesting speculation from one Republican about the potential effects of Bush's inaugural speech, and the democratic crusade announced therein, on Latin America:

''It's going to produce a defensive reaction in the region,'' a well-placed Republican who describes himself as a ''pragmatic hawk'' told me after Bush's inaugural speech. "It will make any of our policy proposals suspect.''

As an example, my pragmatic Republican source said it will be more difficult for the Bush administration to get Latin American support for its candidate for secretary general of the 34-country Organization of American States, former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores.

Flores, a modern-minded reformer, is perceived by many Latin American countries as too close to the Bush administration. His adversaries will now argue that the new U.S. doctrine makes it imperative to have an OAS chief who can stand up to Washington.

Readers here will know that I'm no fan of Flores, and would not echo the characterization of him as "reform-minded." I'm not sure we needed the Bush speech, however, for Latin Americans to go for either the Mexican or Chilean candidates for OAS chief. With any luck, the State Department's January 5th endorsement of Flores ("a consensus candidate from Central America, preferably a former president") will be the kiss of death.

FYI, the swing voters in this horse race seem to be the Caribbean countries. The actual vote is not until May/June, but we might know more about who the front-runner is within a month or so.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Targeting sympathizers

Praktike has some good ramblings on the "Salvador option," appropriately entitled "Wading into the Conspiracy Swamps." He cites some new sources, but I want merely to address one particular point he raises, and which a lot of people have commented upon from the original Newsweek story. Namely, the alarming comment that the new special ops units would "target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers," something that feels reminiscent of the kind of indiscriminate death-squad activity we remember from El Salvador.

However, it's important to know what is meant precisely by this term. If it means persons who provide direct logistical support or, say, weekend warriors, then under many circumstances, in my understanding, they can become legitimate military targets.

Why might "sympathizers" refer to this kind of active participant, and not just your average Iraqi citizen who sympathizes in a more passive way? Well, the 200,000 figure being bandied about includes "40,000 hardcore fighters attacking US and Iraqi troops, with the bulk made up of part-time guerrillas and volunteers providing logistical support, information, shelter and money," according to the director of Iraqi intelligence. (Which is why that number can't really be compared to the number of US forces in Iraq, of course.)

HRW doesn't specifically address this issue in its FAQ on international humanitarian law and Iraq, but they do say the following:
Human Rights Watch believes that customary humanitarian law (as reflected by mny provisions of Protocol II) also requires that in a local uprising against an armed force, civilians not taking part in the hostilities must not be subject to direct or indiscriminate attack, acts intended to spread terror, or starvation as a method of combat, among other things.
So, by extension, civilians who do take part in hostilities may be subject to direct attack?

It's been years since I've been in the human rights business, so I'm not sure what to think, but I think these are pretty muddy legal waters. But this is also why I prefer to talk about the ethical issues of warfare, which should set a higher bar than international humanitarian law.

Juan Cole's problematic definition of "elections"

Over at Winds of Change, Armed Liberal (aka Marc Danziger) noted the other day that Juan Cole has a very peculiar and highly specific (perhaps even ethnocentric) definition of elections. He quotes him as follows from a PRI broadcast (but it's very similar to what he says at RadioNation interview with him I listened to yesterday):
"The Iraqi people are being asked to vote for party lists or coalition lists...but they most often don't know which politicians are running. I think it's a little bit absurd to call that an election."
I agree with Armed Liberal--Juan Cole is a professor of what? The otherwise urbane Cole needs to study up on his political science, and realize that this method (known as "closed lists") is prevalent in what is called List Proportional Representation systems. Closed lists mean that "the order of candidates elected by that list is fixed by the party itself, and voters are not able to express a preference for a particular candidate," according to the Administration and Cost of Elections Project (ACE). This system undoubtedly has its disadvantages, which is why most countries in continental Europe have open lists, but it should also be noted that the first democratic elections in 1994 in South Africa used closed lists. In addtion, list PR systems (the majority of which utilize closed lists) are used by a full 35% of the world's independent states and semi-autonomous territories.

There is much to criticize about this system (and I'm highly critical of a similar closed list system in place here in El Salvador), but I know of no political expert who would responsibly characterize such electoral systems as "absurd." Perhaps Professor Cole should request a briefing from his colleagues at the University of Michigan in the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) project before continuing to carry on like this.

On the Pentagon's new intelligence unit

I'm sure there's going to be lots of dissecting of Barton Gellman's piece in the Post this morning on the new secret unit at the Pentagon geared toward collecting "human intelligence" in ways that previously only the CIA was able to do. The article is a must-read, and I won't rehash it in detail, but I just want to comment on the last few paragraphs:
Four people with firsthand knowledge said defense personnel have already begun operating under "non-official cover" overseas, using false names and nationalities. Those missions, and others contemplated in the Pentagon, skirt the line between clandestine and covert operations. Under U.S. law, "clandestine" refers to actions that are meant to be undetected, and "covert" refers to those for which the U.S. government denies its responsibility. Covert action is subject to stricter legal requirements, including a written "finding" of necessity by the president and prompt notification of senior leaders of both parties in the House and Senate.

O'Connell, asked whether the Pentagon foresees greater involvement in covert action, said "that remains to be determined." He added: "A better answer yet might be, depends upon the situation. But no one I know of is raising their hand and saying at DOD, 'We want control of covert operations.' "

One scenario in which Pentagon operatives might play a role, O'Connell said, is this: "A hostile country close to our borders suddenly changes leadership. . . . We would want to make sure the successor is not hostile."
O'Connell here is Assistant Secretary of Defense Thomas O'Connell, who oversees special operations policy. And a country "close to our borders" must be a reference to the Western Hemisphere, and the only country that can reasonably be said to fit that category is Cuba.
Operating under false cover, in and of itself, doesn't sound so nefarious. But as the Post piece notes, the whole thing has raised red flags in Congress, even for Republicans.

The discussion of allowing Special Operations Forces to carry out covert operations in a broader sense is an extremely hot topic these days in Washington, as evidenced by this January 4, 2005 CRS brief, "Special Operations Forces (SOF) and CIA Paramilitary Operations: Issues for Congress." Among many other things, this issue brief notes the legal implications of the military undertaking these functions:
Some experts believe that there may be legal difficulties if SOF are required to conduct covert operations. One issue is the legality of ordering SOF personnel to conduct covert activities that would require them to forfeit their Geneva Convention status to retain deniability. In order to operate covertly and with deniability, SOF could be required to operate without the protection of a military uniform and identification card which affords them combatant status under the Geneva Convention if captured. Another issue is that covert operations can often be contrary to international laws or the laws of war and U.S. military personnel are generally expected to follow these laws.
And if we're oh-so-surprised about covert ops being "often" contrary to international law, you should take a look at another article that's embedded in the CRS brief (if you click on the footnote, it will open into the same Adobe document, or just click below.) That article, which is an academic research paper dated April 7, 2003, and written by Col. Kathryn Stone at the U.S. Army War College is called ALL NECESSARY MEANS” – EMPLOYING CIA OPERATIVES IN A WARFIGHTING ROLE ALONGSIDE SPECIAL OPERATIONS FORCES. While not official policy, the author speaks in plain-spoken English about these matters, and is worth a read if you have the time and interest.

UPDATE: Andrew Cochran at the Counterterrorism Blog notes that a DOD release "denies some of the basic points of the story." Actually, the Pentagon's press statement seems to deny only two points, one of which is factual (the unit does not report directly to the Secretary of Defense), and the other more subjective/interpretative ("the Department is not attempting to 'bend' statutes to fit desired activities, as is suggested in this article.")

The piece in today's Times about William Arkin's new book is also worth looking at on this topic.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Chris Dickey on the lessons of El Salvador

Given the amount of attention I've been paying to this topic in the past couple of weeks, I sent off a note to Newsweek's Chris Dickey, asking him to take a look at the discussion we've been having. His response is below, with a bit more detail than was in the original article. I have to admit that, with my obsession over trying to ascertain whether there was, in fact, some latent or unintentional U.S. admission about culpability vis-a-vis the Salvadoran death squads, that I failed to highlight Dickey's far more salient point--that the U.S. hasn't learned the right lessons from El Salvador.

He writes that he was "less concerned with clarifying an earlier Newsweek story than with trying to make a critical but somewhat unconventional point that the blog entries ignore:"
The activities of the death squads in El Salvador were so abhorrent that even the Reagan administration eventually wanted to be seen to be condemning them, but they were in fact critically useful to its overall policy. In the real world, this is not a contradiction, and it was the central fact of life -- and death -- that I observed when I was assigned to the region in the early 1980s. The death squads, as such, antedated American concerns or involvement in El Salvador. We didn't create them. But after the Nicaraguan revolution, the Carter administration looked for ways, directly or by proxy, to train more effective units of the Salvadoran military -- like the Atlacatl Batallion responsible for the Mozote massacre.

Many of the key commanders of these units were part of the same military academy class as D'Aubuisson and shared his attitudes. Still, during the Carter administration U.S. policy was clearly against the death squads as such, and you saw several incidents in which leftist leaders were picked up by government forces, then released. The critical period came after Carter was defeated and the Reagan administration elected, which the death squads took as license to do whatever they wanted. The visits of several "unofficial" Reagan emissaries to the region reinforced that view.

At the same time, the Sandinistas and Cubans were encouraging the Salvadoran rebels to make a bid for all-out insurrection. In January 1980, hundreds of thousands of people had poured into the streets to protest. Now a year later, if they would do that with guns in their hands, they could take over the country.

So, precisely at this point, from November 1980 through January 1981, the death squads went into high gear, and a lot of people got killed in what were often very poorly targeted operations, or purely stupid ones, like the murders of a couple of American labor leaders and a journalist at the Sheraton, and of course the nuns. But despite such inefficiencies, the slaughter was effective: the "final offensive" called for by the rebels in January 1981 fell flat. They no longer had an effective urban infrastructure, and had to fall back on a strategy of prolonged rural warfare. By 1982, the US felt the situation was secure enough to hold elections. This would not have been possible if the Left's power in the cities had remained intact.

After the elections the death squads became a liability, not least, because the United States stepped in to prevent D'Aubuisson from becoming president, and eventually engineered a victory, two years later, for Christian Democrat Napoleon Duarte. It is because the death squads opposed this US strategy, and endangered those who participated in it, that they were seen by the Reagan administration as problematic, not because they had murdered people who were seen as Communnists or Communist sympathizers. If there is any doubt about that just look at the sophistry with which the Reagan administration treated the Mozote massacre.

The lesson here for Iraq is not really about a "Salvador Option." It is about the difficulty the United States has controlling these kinds of forces once it creates them or gives them a tacit green light. The Phoenix Program was, of course, the relevant example from Vietnam. More recently, we see that we've had a tendency to embrace all kinds of thugs depending on who we define as the enemy du jour, only to discover ourselves fighting "our" thugs and embracing our enemies a few years down the road. The obvious example: the "Afghan Arabs" helping to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, who subsequently became the founders of Al Qaeda; and Saddam Hussein, whose atrocities and use of chemical weapons in his war against Iran and "Shiite fundamentalism" seemed perfectly justifiable examples of realpolitik in the 1980s. Now we support the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq, fighting a war for them against deposed and disenfranchised former clients and backers of Saddam, while hoping we can someday train them up to fight even more ruthlessly than we do. (See recent articles here and here)or

Las Colinas, Jan. 13, 2001
A thousand people were killed in minutes, when the earthquake caused a massive landslide in this residential neighborhood.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Balanced coverage of the Inauguration

From Media Matters:

Republicans or conservative commentators Democrats or progressive commentators
FOX News •Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA)
•Senator James Inhofe (R-OK)
•Brian Harlan, head of officially authorized Bush-Cheney inaugural memorabilia
•Ashley Faulkner, star of "Ashley's Ad," campaign spot by pro-Bush political action committee
•Bush-Cheney '04 chief campaign strategist Matthew Dowd
Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes
U.S. News & World Report senior writer Michael Barone
National Review editor Rich Lowry
Wall Street Journal contributing editor Peggy Noonan
Weekly Standard editor William Kristol
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer
•Radio host and FOX News contributor Mike Gallagher (with Beckel)
•Pro-Bush singer Tony Orlando
•FOX News political analyst and radio host Tony Snow
•Former Bush-Cheney '04 senior adviser Tucker Eskew
•Boxing promoter and outspoken Bush supporter Don King
•Advertising executive Jerry Della Femina (opposite Hindery, Koplovitz)
•Senator Harry Reid (D-NV)
•Democratic strategist Bob Beckel (with Gallagher)
•National Public Radio senior correspondent Juan Williams (opposite Barnes)
•Representative Harold Ford Jr. (D-TN)
•RTV Media chairman Kay Koplovitz (opposite Della Famina)
•InterMedia Partners chairman Leo J. Hindery Jr. (opposite Della Famina)
CNN •Senator Trent Lott (R-MS)
•Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE)
•Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA)
•Governor George Pataki (R-NY)
•Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani
•Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer
•Bush senior adviser Karen Hughes
•White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card
National Review contributing editor David Frum
•Republican author Doug Wead

Additional note: CNN political analyst Carlos Watson's Ohio citizens panel included four Republicans, one Democrat, and one swing voter.

•Senator Harry Reid (D-NV)
MSNBC •Vice President Dick Cheney
•Lynne Cheney
•Senator John McCain (R-AZ)
•Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL)
•Former Representative J.C. Watts (R-OK)
•MSNBC host and Former Representative Joe Scarborough (R-FL)
•Radio host and MSNBC contributor Monica Crowley
Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley
•Former Reagan Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein
•Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge
•Bush senior adviser Karen Hughes
•Retired baseball manager Tommy Lasorda
•Bush-Cheney '04 attorney Ben Ginsberg
•Progressive blogger Ana Marie Cox (Wonkette)
•MSNBC political analyst Ron Reagan Jr. (opposite Crowley, Watts, Scarborough)

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Farah on the "Salvador Option" in Iraq, and an Index to recent stories

Doug Farah, who lived in El Salvador for 10 years during the war, has a post over at a new blog, The Counterterrorism Blog, which bills itself as "the first multi-expert blog dedicated solely to counterterrorism issues, serving as a gateway to the community for policymakers and serious researchers. Designed to provide realtime information about cases and policy developments."

Actually, that blog only gives the first paragraphs of Doug's entry, but then connects to a longer posting at his own blogsite. It's worth reading the whole thing, which is a somewhat more developed argument than he supplied here a few days ago. Here's one key paragraph:
What is out of context in the story is that the United States, however belatedly, recognized this truth and sought to pressure the Salvadoran military and the far right to rein in the death squads. In 1983, then vice president George Bush and a young NSC aide named Oliver North visited El Salvador. They left a list of nine names with interim president Alvaro Magana, asking him to purge the 8 the military officers on the list from active duty and to arrest the one civilian. Little was done at that point, but from that time on the United States, while often unwilling to go after death squad activists and at times showing a distinct lack of interest in pursuing its leaders, did work to get the groups under control. By 1985 the U.S. ambassador was authorizing covert surveillance and actions against some of the more notorious death squad operatives. This does not mean U.S. policy was geared to stopping the death squads, but there was growing consensus, even in the Reagan administration, that death squad activities were undermining the entire concept of building a democracy in El Salvador that was attractive enough to undermine the appeal of the rebels. This was impossible when dozens of bodies a day were being dumped along the roadside or left at the notorious dumping grounds outside of the capital. Such would be the case in Iraq.
I still want to write more on this story, but meanwhile, here's a quick index to the blog entries thus far on this specific topic (from the first to the most recent):

Hail to the Chief, or not

I was pleased to see this letter to the editor today, published by my hometown newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (in the deeply red state of Texas), and written by my friend of almost 40 years, Paul Tullis. Needless to say, his comments on the Bush inauguration, and what it could have meant for the Tsunami victims, are both necessary, and sadly utopian.

Congratulations to Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for using his high profile to voice what many have been thinking and saying to one another -- that the parties and balls surrounding President Bush's inauguration aren't the best way to spend $40 million.

Coming as it does on the heels of one of the worst natural disasters ever, not to mention in the middle of a bloody war that Bush initiated, the president's bash makes our country appear callous toward the victims of the tsunami and the war.

Laura Bush said in a recent interview that the inauguration celebration should never be canceled, and she chatted about the dresses she would wear to the various events. Perhaps she has forgotten that, in 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt directed that his inauguration be a low-key affair without expensive festivities, out of respect for Americans giving their lives overseas.

What a generous gesture it would have been for the Bushes to do the same and take the money raised so far and give it to aid the tsunami survivors.

It wouldn't have raised our government's total giving to the level of some smaller countries, but it would have been a powerful symbol to the world that we have our priorities straight. The president could have offered to return the contributions to those who didn't want their money used for that purpose, but I'll bet most would have agreed to the move and donated even more.

Humanitarianism on the cheap

In case you missed that story filed under "Property Report" in the WSJ yesterday, this is the story of yet another "lesson" from El Salvador to the world. (WSJ is subscription only, but I've posted a copy.) In fairness, it's actually about USAID, which appears to have spent millions of taxpayers' dollars to rebuild homes in El Salvador after the 2001 earthquakes on on the construction of substandard houses -- ones that two American experts say might well not survive the next earthquake in "one of the most seismically active countries in the world." "El Salvador Is a Lesson in How Not to Rebuild," the title of the story, gets into this as a way of warning about future humanitarian reconstruction efforts post-Tsunami and elsewhere.

One of the reasons (excuses) given by US officials for this flaw is that, well, the houses do meet Salvadoran housing standards. No doubt, and no doubt the recipients of the house are quite happy to receive them. But 10 or 15 years from now when their house collapses in a new earthquake, they may not be quite so thrilled. This also reminds me of the CAFTA argument, in which we would simply accept the status quo in terms of labor rights in Central America, when every one knows the labor code is outdated and unevenly enforced. Tim's El Salvador blog notes the Europeans have adopted a different approach, refusing to award preferential trading privileges until El Salvador adopts two key ILO conventions on freedom of association.

But this story is also important because the earthquake damage (about $2 billion) has been used by the Bush administration to justify a new TPS program for Salvadorans back in 2001, and recently extended it through September 2006. And then here in San Salvador, the ARENA government has used the earthquake as a major excuse for explaining why El Salvador, which ten years ago rivaled Chile in terms of high economic growth, now rivals Haiti for the privilege of one of the lowest growth rates in Latin America. Carlos Acevedo, the deputy coordinator of UNDP El Salvador's Human Development Report, noted the other day in a television interview that this is hardly an excuse because 1) this earthquake didn't really affect the productive infrastructure and 2) the influx of post-earthquake aid or government spending should have stimulated the economy, as it has in other countries following natural disasters.

Here's a slightly condensed version:

Four years ago, a pair of powerful earthquakes crumbled whole villages of small brick homes in this lush river valley. Millions of dollars in U.S.-government aid poured in to handle the initial crisis, followed by many more millions to help rebuild.

The result is more than 25,000 homes, 53 schools and dozens of clinics and other facilities. But in some cases, the design and construction of the buildings are flawed, making them potentially dangerous in the event of another disaster in this earthquake-prone region.

In some homes, the ceilings are improperly attached to the walls. In others, concrete blocks are too small and the reinforcing metal rods used to add strength are too thin....

Mr. Rivard is part of a small group of volunteer building experts who traveled to El Salvador two weeks ago to inspect the construction paid for with U.S. aid money. The building experts, some of whom had already seen the substandard construction in the country, are part of an ad hoc group called Casa Corps, whose goal is to improve the quality of construction in developing countries.

"Our buildings reflect who we are as a society," says Stephen Forneris, an architect from New York who organized the trip. "What do these poorly constructed buildings say about us?" The experts want the U.S. to impose stronger building standards for the hundreds of millions of dollars it will spend on reconstruction around the world, including the parts of Asia ravaged by the tsunami. Their hope is that the U.S. can set an example for local builders to follow.

The rebuilding needs in Southeast Asia dwarf El Salvador's. The United Nations estimates that at least two million people were made homeless by the tsunami. While touring damage in Sri Lanka, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said 150,000 homes would need to be built there in the next year and a half.

But comparisons can't minimize the pervasive damage wrought by natural forces in El Salvador. On Jan. 13, 2001, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast. Exactly one month later, a second quake, magnitude 6.6, hit 20 miles east of the capital, San Salvador. In a country of 6.6 million people with an area smaller than Massachusetts, the quakes killed 1,159 people and caused $1.7 billion in damage. Around 167,000 houses were destroyed, along with 1,200 schools.

Tucked between a mountain range of towering volcanoes and the same giant fault system that runs north to California, El Salvador is one of the most seismically active countries in the world. Temblors have devastated the nation repeatedly, including ones in 1968, 1986 and the pair in 2001. Hurricanes and floods are common.

After the earthquakes, the U.S. led the way with immediate aid. But the bulk of the U.S.'s commitment, $109 million, went to long-term reconstruction. Now, four years later, almost all of the projects have been completed, but not without problems. Simply fashioned metal "seismic" hooks that would keep the rebar in place during a quake are missing. One of the visiting experts, David E. Saunders, manager of building and fire safety in Yakima County, Wash., says the U.S.-funded houses could collapse in an earthquake.

"The main problem is the ceiling won't be attached to the walls properly," he says. "We probably wouldn't pass [such a] house in the U.S."

Casa Corps is named after a little-known law passed by Congress in 2002 called the Code and Safety for the Americas Act, or Casa, which encourages the teaching of U.S. building codes in El Salvador and Ecuador. The impetus to pass the law came from people like Messrs. Rivard and Forneris, who were in El Salvador during one of the 2001 quakes, and from groups that benefit from building-code improvements including the International Code Council and the National Fire Protection Association. Congress never authorized any funding for it, so the legislation turned out to be largely symbolic.

The recent trip was inspired by earlier visits to El Salvador by the two Americans, who had seen the shoddy construction, including at the International Airport, which was rebuilt with U.S. funds. While many work in the building industry, they could not directly benefit from any improvements in building codes overseas. The group made a similar trip to Ecuador in 2003.

The U.S.-funded buildings inspected by the American experts were designed by Salvadoran builders and approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, while charities or state-owned development foundations hired local contractors to do the work.

U.S. government officials say the new buildings meet Salvadoran codes for earthquake resistance and are far better than what was there before. Speaking of the approximate cost to build one house, Mark Silverman, mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development in El Salvador, says, "At $3,500 a pop, there's only so much you can do." But he says USAID, which is leading the U.S. rebuilding effort in Asia, did enough to ensure the buildings were safe. It hired the U.S. Geological Survey to create risk maps that identify safe areas to build. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reviewed plans for every project. A team of 13 Salvadoran engineers and architects supervised the projects and in some instances shut them down for improper construction practices.

Despite USAID's best efforts, however, Mr. Forneris says there were systemic problems. He cites USAID's own guidelines to contractors, which specify concrete blocks and metal rebar that the inspectors deem too weak for an earthquake-prone region. Regarding the Salvadoran codes, which USAID adheres to, he says they're out of date and inconsistently applied....

Casa Corps will submit its El Salvador findings in a report to USAID and Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos of California, ranking member of the House International Affairs Committee. Mr. Lantos, who sent a staffer on the trip with the building experts, intends to introduce legislation on the subject, possibly requiring USAID to create a set of sample building plans that adhere to stringent building codes....

P.S. USAID has adopted a new logo that stresses the beneficence of the U.S. people, but should also raise awareness that U.S. citizens need to hold their government accountable for how taxpayers' dollars are spent. Here it is:

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Giving special ops the green light

Kevin Drum over at the Washington Monthly follows up on another key point in the Sy Hersh article I mentioned the other day, notably Hersh's

...description of how covert ops are being moved from the CIA to the Pentagon in order to avoid traditional congressional oversight. Jennifer Kibbe wrote about this issue last year in Foreign Affairs, explaining that, although the 1991 Intelligence Authorization Act requires both a presidential finding and congressional notification prior to covert operations by either the CIA or the Pentagon, there's an exception for "traditional military activities."

... The unconventional nature of the war on terrorism already makes "traditional military activities" harder than usual to define, and Donald Rumsfeld apparently wants to take full advantage of that ambiguity by changing both the size and reporting structure of Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

In the end, the realist in Drum emerges:
I don't think there's any question that special ops teams have — and should have — an increased role to play in today's world of asymmetrical warfare. At the same time, though, it's simple reality that their very nature makes covert operations prone to abuse.
This is a supremely important issue that should not have been obscured by my obsessive discussion with the ins-and-outs of the "Salvador option." Drum ends up saying that this kind of thing is dirty, but necessary, so we should make darn sure there's proper oversight. I think we see the emergence here (or perhaps it's not so new) of a 21st century version of Cold War Liberalism, one that could be termed "Terror War Liberalism."

Iraqi elections' unintended consequences

Following up on my last post, it appears that US military intelligence reports would not concur with Che's assessment of how elections might weaken insurgencies, at least in the Iraqi case.

The New York Times today notes that such reports say "the elections will be followed by more violence, including an increased likelihood of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, possibly even leading to civil war, the officials said." Of course, this is what many people have been predicting might result from elections that effectively shut the Sunnis out of the political process.

But the leading news of that story was actually that a new Iraqi government (once legitimated by elections) will likely ask the U.S. to leave:
The Iraqi government that emerges from elections on Jan. 30 will almost certainly ask the United States to set a specific timetable for withdrawing its troops, according to new American intelligence estimates described by senior administration officials....

The assessments are based on the expectation that a Shiite Arab coalition will win the elections, in which Shiites are expected to make up a vast majority of voters, the officials said. Leaders of the coalition have promised voters they will press Washington for a timetable for withdrawal, and the assessments say the new Iraqi government will feel bound, at least publicly, to meet that commitment.
So perhaps the 21st century formulation of Che's concerns about elections and insurgencies should be: elections are bad for occupying forces.

Meanwhile, a trio from CSIS argue in a NYT op-ed that the Iraqi people could hold a referendum to decide upon the U.S. troop presence. Fat chance.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The silver lining of elections in Iraq

Much has been written here and elsewhere as to the vast differences between Iraq and El Salvador, and in particular what difference elections might have on the war in Iraq. Buried in today's Los Angeles Times piece today, about how the U.S. has decided to reduce its offensive operations and focus more on training, is a key point:
U.S. commanders also are concerned that when the Iraqi election is over and new leaders are in place, U.S. forces will have less authority to launch offensives that might anger Sunni Arabs — a group the new government is likely to try to win over.
The U.S. never "occupied" El Salvador as they are doing in Iraq, so they never had to face this dilemma.

The counter-insurgency argument for elections in the middle of war is the need to create greater legitimacy for those fighting the insurgency. Even Che Guevara recognized this, when he wrote in Guerrilla Warfare (Chapter 1, page 2):
When a government has come into power through some sort of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.
What an irony it will be if these elections, flawed as they might be, actually turn out to make it harder for U.S. forces to destroy more cities, like Falluja, in order to save them.

Monday, January 17, 2005

More on state terror and counterinsurgency

Dean Brackley, S.J., from the UCA here in El Salvador wrote in with some comments and reflections on recent posts here, emphasizing --irrespective of what we can prove or not about US involvement with the death squads-- the moral bankruptcy of the counterinsurgency strategy (including state terror) employed in El Salvador.

He also notes "that a strategy of killing or 'snatching' key insurgents would not be something new (although a major effort to train Iraquis to do that might be, and if that's a Salvadoran parallel, it would be an interesting revelation.)" Read on:
A couple of brief thoughts, in two parts: an Iraq part and a Salvador part. First the Iraq part. According to the the first Newsweek article the kill and snatch strategy pushes the human-rights envelope: Some cautious "military officials [who resist involving the Pentagon in this strategy] are ultra-wary of any operations that could run afoul of the ethics codified in the Uniform Code of Military Justice." Sounds to me like Abu Ghraib and Alberto Gonzalez stuff. The remarks attributed to the Iraqi Intelligence Minister and a U.S. military officer are also chilling and sound to me like the thinking of the death-squad right (hardline military + civilians) of El Salvador. Newsweek:
“Maj. Gen.Muhammad Abdallah al-Shahwani, director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service . . . [recently] said that the U.S. occupation has failed to crack the problem of broad support for the insurgency. The insurgents, he said, ‘are mostly in the Sunni areas where the population there, almost 200,000, is sympathetic to them.’ . . . One military source involved in the Pentagon debate agrees that this is the crux of the problem, and he suggests that new offensive operations are needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. 'The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists,' he said. 'From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation.'"
You have to create fear in this population. How do you do that? You threaten them with no less than torture and death. That is, of course, terrorism, and it was practiced in the bombing of Falluja twice.

Back to El Salvador. Whatever the active role played by the U.S. in developing and aiding El Salvador's death squads, it seems to me without question that state terror, greatly reduced after 1983, was not only integral to counter-insurgency strategy, and without it the FMLN would have won the war (or forced a direct U.S. intervention). That said, the U.S. knew this very well and at the very least turned a blind eye to the more discreet operations of the death squads during the entire war.

There are more than 25,000 names on the monument in Parque Cuscatlán to civilian victims of the war here (many of those victims actively supported the FMLN, but did not take up arms) and 8,000 to 10,000 more names are being readied for the monument. Most are victims of state terrorism, aided and abetted by U.S. collaboration. I believe you are right that Pentagon officers, generally, and conservatives in the U.S. consider El Salvador a "success." State terror, torture and 30,000 innocent lives was an acceptable price to pay to maintain the basic social and economic structure of the country. That was the key goal, as you have said. I would say that what Geo. Bush, Sr. did in 1983 was oblige the Salvadoran government and military to reduce state terror to a level that would be tolerable for the U.S. Congress, that would allow the Congress to continue funding the war without great embarrassment.
Meanwhile, young whipper snapper Matthew Yglesias, who's far too smart for his age (24 or 25), approvingly references two posts from the Belgravia Dispatch blog, and offers up a more pragmatic (perhaps mainstream liberal?) perspective on counterinsurgency. Note his reminder to us about Kerry's position on the matter:
We're looking at missions that involve few forces and combine efforts at humanitarian work, building the capacities of local states, perhaps hunting down some bad actors, and generally trying to make American power be seen as a force for good rather than foreign domination. I don't agree with everything said in either piece, but the general spirit I'll happily endorse. Not to refight the election, but I note that John Kerry's campaign proposed an expansion in the quantity of special operations forces and Army civil affairs units. This is a decent, basically non-ideological proposal, that I think members of either political party would do well to embrace. Transforming the military into something better-suited to 21st century needs is going to take some time under the best of circumstances, but there's no time like the present.
P.S. Since I've been warned recently that I should be more clear about where I stand on different issues, let me say that, with respect to Yglesias, I don't believe in signing off on policies I would not personally be willing to implement. Needless to say, as a firm believer in nonviolence, I don't believe that increased funding for special forces is any kind of real solution to the world's problems. Stay tuned.

Sy Hersh on Pentagon covert ops

Sy Hersh has a new story posted at the New Yorker website today, in which he says that the Pentagon has taken over all covert operations from the CIA in the war on terror:

The President has signed a series of findings and executive orders authorizing secret commando groups and other Special Forces units to conduct covert operations against suspected terrorist targets in as many as ten nations in the Middle East and South Asia. The President’s decision enables Rumsfeld to run the operations off the books—free from legal restrictions imposed on the C.I.A.
Hersh focuses on the fact that the U.S. is planning operations again Iran, but what most interests me here is that his story gives further creedence to the Dickey correction to the Newsweek story last week. Hersh doesn't call these commando groups "death squads," but he does erroneously (I think) make a reference to the early 1980s. In fact, the kinds of operations he describes are more clearly the kinds of things the U.S. special forces trained units of the Salvadoran military to do starting in the mid-1980s. Read this excerpt and judge for yourself:

Under Rumsfeld’s new approach, I was told, U.S. military operatives would be permitted to pose abroad as corrupt foreign businessmen seeking to buy contraband items that could be used in nuclear-weapons systems. In some cases, according to the Pentagon advisers, local citizens could be recruited and asked to join up with guerrillas or terrorists. This could potentially involve organizing and carrying out combat operations, or even terrorist activities. Some operations will likely take place in nations in which there is an American diplomatic mission, with an Ambassador and a C.I.A. station chief, the Pentagon consultant said. The Ambassador and the station chief would not necessarily have a need to know, under the Pentagon’s current interpretation of its reporting requirement.

The new rules will enable the Special Forces community to set up what it calls “action teams” in the target countries overseas which can be used to find and eliminate terrorist organizations. “Do you remember the right-wing execution squads in El Salvador?” the former high-level intelligence official asked me, referring to the military-led gangs that committed atrocities in the early nineteen-eighties. “We founded them and we financed them,” he said. “The objective now is to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren’t going to tell Congress about it.” A former military officer, who has knowledge of the Pentagon’s commando capabilities, said, “We’re going to be riding with the bad boys.”

One of the rationales for such tactics was spelled out in a series of articles by John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, in Monterey, California, and a consultant on terrorism for the rand corporation. “It takes a network to fight a network,” Arquilla wrote in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

When conventional military operations and bombing failed to defeat the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya in the 1950s, the British formed teams of friendly Kikuyu tribesmen who went about pretending to be terrorists. These “pseudo gangs,” as they were called, swiftly threw the Mau Mau on the defensive, either by befriending and then ambushing bands of fighters or by guiding bombers to the terrorists’ camps. What worked in Kenya a half-century ago has a wonderful chance of undermining trust and recruitment among today’s terror networks. Forming new pseudo gangs should not be difficult.

“If a confused young man from Marin County can join up with Al Qaeda,” Arquilla wrote, referring to John Walker Lindh, the twenty-year-old Californian who was seized in Afghanistan, “think what professional operatives might do.”

"Action teams" and the creation of "pseudo-gangs" sound like the kind of military reconnaissance efforts we know something about in El Salvador. Admittedly, "right-wing execution squads" sounds like the "death squads" as we commonly think of them in the Salvadoran context, but much else in the article points more to the kind of "training of elite units to snatch or kill very specific insurgent leaders" that Dickey referred to in his article.

This does sound very much like what U.S. counterinsurgency training was engaged in by the mid-1980s in El Salvador, training more aggressive mobile units that, together with air support, forced the FMLN into a true "guerrilla" war as opposed to the conventional army they'd built up in the early 1980s. (Go back to Bob Ostertag and Sara Miles' very good piece on the "FMLN's New Thinking" in the September 1989 issue of NACLA, which is not online, unfortunately.)

What's new in this New Yorker article is that it describes a bit more of the methodology to be used, at one point citing former CIA clandestine officer Philip Giraldi's skepticism that the U.S. military may not be up to some of the infiltration tasks involved in these missions:

“I don’t think they can handle the cover,” he told me. “They’ve got to have a different mind-set. They’ve got to handle new roles and get into foreign cultures and learn how other people think. If you’re going into a village and shooting people, it doesn’t matter,” Giraldi added. “But if you’re running operations that involve finesse and sensitivity, the military can’t do it. Which is why these kind of operations were always run out of the agency.”
I emphasize the latter, because that raises the question of just what the CIA was doing during the war, and of that, we know far, far less.

Irregardless, the mention of the creation of the use of "pseudo gangs" rings true. I recall sitting in the living room of the home of a former Salvadoran military intelligence officer for an interview on the peace process in 1994. He ended up pulling out his photo album from his military days, and sure enough, there he was leading a patrol of scruffy looking guerrillas! Or rather, a Salvadoran unit dressed up like guerrillas, out on patrol getting intelligence--i.e., trying to determine where the guerrillas had been, who was supporting them, etc.--probably with the consequences you might imagine.

As far as I know, very little if anything has been written about this aspect of the war. Which is why it is still comes across as "secret" every time we hear talk about the U.S. role in the Salvadoran conflict.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Debating U.S. military perspectives on El Salvador

I've just sent the following off to Direland, which features a response from Jason Vest to my Thursday post. Here it is:

I appreciate Doug Ireland’s interest in fact-checking my blog post on the Newsweek story, and applaud his effort to probe more deeply on these issues. I’m happy to participate.

However, first I think it is important to clarify just what we’re debating here, since my intention was not to debate whether the counterinsurgency model in El Salvador “worked.” I also certainly didn’t mean to denigrate Vest’s work as a journalist (or that of the sources he cites), as I too have regularly read his pieces and found them to be very insightful. (Plus he’s an excellent writer.)

The thrust of my post was merely to deconstruct the Newsweek story’s implication that the “Salvador option” actually referred to support for death squads. Like many others (including Jason), I initially read the piece that way – while also noting at the time that the story did not source any explicit reference to death squads, but rather that those words seemed to be part of the description added by the journalists.

I soon began to think differently, however, in part because of what we know about death squads and U.S. involvement (and I admit there’s probably much that we still don’t know), but also because it seemed quite possible that what the US military sources meant by the “Salvador option” was being widely misinterpreted.

In fact, last Tuesday, Christopher Dickey tried to counter these interpretations, when he wrote: “what’s been written about the NEWSWEEK report by Michael Hirsh and John Barry goes far beyond what the story says. It doesn’t suggest for a minute, as the BBC reported, that the Pentagon is looking to create “paramilitary” death squads. It’s about the possible training of elite units to snatch or kill very specific insurgent leaders.”

Dickey also noted that this kind of training of elite units was what the U.S. was already doing. So, one can make the argument that this is same thing as training death squads and rightfully be upset about it, but that still doesn’t prove that U.S. military took credit for training death squads in El Salvador, as was originally interpreted. As I stated in my first post last Sunday, in which I discussed at length a case I had personally investigated of someone who had participated in a “death squad”-like unit, this kind of strategy is a “morally abhorrent one.” So I didn’t feel the need to keep making the point.

Also for the record, Jason does read me incorrectly when he suggests that, to my way of thinking, Salvadoran armed forces’ tactical improvements “somehow equates with ESAF having made great strategic strides, if not the achievement of strategic victory.”

Rather, my point in taking on Vest’s assertion – that the “U.S. military's own scholarship over the past 20 years holds that that the military and political counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador are at best a case study in how to prolong an insurgency, not end it” – was really a prolonged way of making my argument that Newsweek, and/or its interpreters, got it wrong with the implication that death squads equal “the Salvador option.” Why? Because, rightly or wrongly, the U.S. military now sees their participation in the Salvadoran conflict as, by and large, a success.

It’s one thing to argue that the U.S. shouldn’t consider the Salvadoran experience to be a model, but it’s quite another to say forthrightly that the U.S. military doesn’t consider it a model. Jason mostly argues the former, which is fine. But I was arguing against his assessment of U.S. military scholarship.

I go to great lengths in the post to show why US military personnel might talk about the “secret” strategy they employed in El Salvador, as well as why it’s a fairly common strain of thinking that El Salvador was successful. One can find people in and out of the military who disagree, but from my reading of the available record, the idea that it was successful is a fairly predominant one.

Jason relies mostly on assessments from the late 1980s, when numerous US military personnel were frustrated with the Salvadoran military’s prosecution of the war, but mostly with the pace of the “political” part of counterinsurgency, which –as counterinsurgency analysts like Bruce Hoffman like to quote former Salvadoran Defense Minister Emilio Ponce as saying –is 90 percent of the war. Ironically, all of those political improvements need to insure “success,” according to these critics, never materialized.

Yet for the many in the U.S. military, they still see that they managed to “win” in the sense that the FMLN demobilized, is no longer a military threat, and ended up taking part in an electoral process that was essentially the same as the one that had been utilized during the war. (There’s a much longer discussion needed here, but it would be a digression.)

I would be interested to hear about statements coming out of the U.S. military in the past dozen years or so which are similar to the dire prognostications of those cited by Vest. Vest does quote Stephen Metz, a civilian at the U.S. Army War College, writing in 1995 that El Salvador should only be considered a “qualified success,” (this in the context of also arguing that El Salvador’s experience is not likely to be a model for post-Cold War insurgencies.) Metz seems to be a thoughtful critic of the limitations of the “Salvador model,” which is hard to argue with. Yet even this critic’s determination of El Salvador as a “qualified success” is still far more positive than what Vest originally posits in his article (“Success, What Success?” goes one subtitle).

In addition to the authors I cited originally, I could also mention an anecdote from Dana Priest, from her excellent book, The Mission, about the modern U.S. military. On page 199, she cites a Green Beret from the 7th Special Forces Group, a staff sergeant named Joe, as saying: “What people don’t realize is we actually helped El Salvador…. It was a secret war and, in reality, it was a great success.”

As I will admit, there’s probably still much we don’t know, but I think the “secret” part may have something to do with the role of U.S. Special Forces who actually led patrols in the mid-1980s, because the Salvadoran army was so lacking in qualified NCOs. I remember that fact first coming to light, ironically, in Oliver North’s testimony during the Iran-Contra hearings. (One of these days I’ll have to go back and find the story, which was only picked up by Doyle McManus in the L.A. Times.)

While we might find it puzzling that certain US military officers’ have a more positive view of their role in El Salvador, it’s a pretty safe assumption that U.S. civilian and military leaders would be singing a different tune had ARENA –which is, after all, the U.S.’s closest ally in the hemisphere –not won the past four presidential elections. ARENA’s rule, beginning in 1989 and running until 2009, makes it the most successful conservative political party in contemporary Latin America. If the FMLN had won even one of those elections, official discourse on the history of El Salvador might be quite different.

If anyone still has doubts about whether I somehow harbor good feelings toward the “Salvador model,” I urge them to read my forthcoming article in the February issue of Current History.

Comments on death squads

Before weighing in at greater length with further thoughts on death squads and the U.S. role, I thought I'd post a couple of comments from a couple of very esteemed readers. First, from Doug Farah, a comment he gave to my early Thursday morning post:
I agree with David that there was little or no direct U.S. involvement in establishing the death squads in El Salvador. The initial training, via cadres sent to Guatemala, was paid for by the World Anti-Communist League and involved first and briefly Israelis, then Argentines. D'Aubuisson's groups, along with other disperate groups at the time, were the beneficiaries, along with the Guatemalans. In fact, the U.S. shut its CIA station in El Salvador in 1977, assuming that nothing was going to happen there. (Note how astute the Agency was even then), and hence was not positioned to get things set up, even if they wanted to, until much later. And by that time, the death squads, with Hector Antonio Regalado, d'Aubuisson and others, were well under way. I think it was sloppy reporting, where the historic context and reality of El Salvador were ignored either by the source of the comments, the reporter, or both.
Second, from Bill Barnes, another Salvadorphile who's been researching and writing on Central America for a couple of decades:
I think you're too exculpatory of U.S. actors.... I have no idea what the people at the Pentagon that were the sources for the Newsweek piece mean to be referring to, but the historical record is complicated. That U.S. government agencies may not themselves literally have set up or run Salvadoran death squads doesn't mean much. As early as 1957, John Foster Dulles instructed the U.S. embassy in San Salvador to press the Salvadoran government to suppress "communists" and to encourage private citizens to organize anti-communist groups. This in a country with over 50 years of organized violent supression of suspected "communists." In 1962, USAID Office of Public Safety began police training and the Special Intelligence Agency was formed with U.S. assistance. In 1963 a Green Beret contingent assisted Medrano in organizing and training ORDEN and in developing the Special Intelligence Agency into ANSEAL (which trained D'Aubuisson). The World Anti-Communist League and the Political Warfare Cadres Academy in Taiwan, which D'Aubuisson and others became active in in the mid to late 1970s were supported by former U.S. military and intelligence officers, right wing Republicans, people from Jesse Helms' office (John Carbaugh), etc, and along with the Guatemalans, brought French OAS and Argentine dirty war experts into contact with D'Aubuisson et al. Such U.S. actors continued their active collaboration with and support for D'Aubuisson and colleagues long after everyone, including the CIA and Whitehouse, knew perfectly well that they were running death squads. CIA and military officers on the ground in El Salvador sometimes did some of the same -- they didn't just look the other way. And sophisticated surveillance technology provided or operated by U.S. agents was of key importance. [Circa 1987-88, IUDOP field directors were sometimes taken into military headquarters and shown files kept on them and their field supervisors and interviewers, and told "we're watching you," and shown pictures taken of them at "subversive" events; they were told that the pictures were supplied by U.S. intelligence.]

Of course it's also true that much of the State Department and some of the CIA and other U.S. actors (not to mention Congressional Democrats and elements of U.S. civil society) were, at least a lot of the time, strongly opposed to this kind of stuff and worked to limit and discourage it -- and at important points they were successful and that was very important.

You can't treat "the U.S." or even "the U.S. government" as a unitary actor, particularly not across time. The same is true re Iraq. And of course, neither can the "other side" be treated that way. There ain't no "us" and there ain't no "them". "Why do they hate us?" couldn't be more misleading, no matter who is saying it, where or when.
As I mentioned in my last post, I think the issue of whether U.S. military officers think of the Salvador option as one that involved supporting "death squads" is moot at this point (although I'm awaiting glitch in the system to be able to read a response from Jason Vest at Direland), but these comments get to the issue of U.S. culpability in the death squads, which deserves a longer response.