Monday, January 10, 2005

Finally, a good comparison piece

The Wall Street Journal has a very good piece analyzing the Iraq/El Salvador comparison, really the only one of its kind I've seen in the mainstream media. I'll put the whole thing here (minus a chronology box), since it's subscription only.

As usual, you should ignore the title. There's very little here that bodes well for the Iraq elections.

Iraq Seen Via Salvadoran Prism

U.S. Officials Say
Latin Nation's Past
Bodes Well for Elections

January 10, 2005; Page A10

What can the U.S. and Iraq learn from El Salvador?

Senior U.S. officials point to the small Central American nation's 1982 election, in which voters had to take cover from gunfire as they waited in line to cast their ballots, as a reason to believe even imperfect elections can help propel a war-torn nation toward democracy. In El Salvador, the vote helped reduce support for an insurgency and, they argue, the election slated for Jan. 30 in Iraq can do the same there.

"I mean, my goodness, El Salvador had elections when people were being shot at and there was a civil war going on, and it worked fine," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in an interview last month.

Other U.S. officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney and the former Pentagon aide Richard Perle, also have been eager to revive memories of El Salvador to make the point that it is possible to hold an election in a war zone that ultimately is accepted as legitimate -- as El Salvador did several times during its civil war.

Latin America holds other examples, too: Colombia, the region's oldest democracy, is also home to its oldest and strongest insurgency and regularly holds elections. Afghanistan, meanwhile, in October held its first elections after 20 years of war amid death threats and intimidation by members of the former Taliban regime.

"The comparison is made to cite a political point: that the election can be legitimate even if there is fighting and portions of the country can't vote," as was the case in El Salvador, said Bernard Aronson, the U.S. undersecretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989 to 1993. However, he adds, "if you're using El Salvador to predict what will happen in Iraq, the differences are striking."

Many historians and participants in the Central American conflict agree with that point. For one thing, El Salvador is an ethnically and religiously homogeneous country, while Iraq is split among Shiite Muslim Arabs, Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Muslim Kurds whose power struggles could shatter the country, especially if Sunni Arabs follow through on threats to boycott the vote. For another, El Salvador's rebels actively courted U.S. public opinion, giving Americans great clout in bringing about an eventual end to the conflict.

There are other differences as well. El Salvador's civil war was largely a battle over wealth distribution and power in a country where elites dominated -- and often brutalized -- the poor. Cold War politics overlaid the fight, with the U.S. seeking to block the advance of socialism after the victory by leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1979.

And while U.S. financial aid was significant, it hardly compares with Washington's role in Iraq, where the U.S. maintains an invasion force whose very presence inflames nationalistic opposition. In El Salvador, the U.S. claims its American military presence was limited to 55 advisers, which allowed it to serve as arbiter between the combatants. What's more, in Iraq the U.S. is attempting to build a state almost from scratch amid its battles with the insurgency.

"One difference is that there is no Iraqi state to deal with, or we destroyed it. We are an occupation army in Iraq," said Center for Strategic and Budget Assessment director Michael Vickers, who was a Central Intelligence Agency operations officer in El Salvador during the early 1980s.

El Salvador's insurgents eventually organized themselves into a single army, called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, with a clear chain of command. That poses another crucial distinction from Iraq, where the insurgency seems to be a melange of former Saddam Hussein loyalists, nationalists, criminal elements and foreign-born jihadists.

Perhaps more importantly, Salvadoran guerrillas -- unlike Iraqi militants -- actively sought negotiation and international legitimacy, even maintaining political offices in Washington during the conflict.

"There wasn't a single moment where we did not keep up some kind of dialogue, either directly or through intermediaries," says Joaquín Villalobos, who commanded Salvador's FMLN rebels in the 1980s and today advises countries such as Colombia on pacification. By contrast, the U.S. routinely refers to Iraqi insurgents as terrorists who must be wiped out rather than negotiated with. In fact, some aren't even Iraqis with a stake in the political process.

On the matter of violence, the parallel is more apt. On Thursday, the commander of American ground forces in Iraq said four of the country's 18 provinces -- home to more than half the population -- still aren't secure enough for voting. In the early 1980s, El Salvador too was a place of open combat, retribution killings and sniper fire by the time people went to the polls in March 1982 to elect a constituent assembly.

But again, there is a critical difference in the situations. While Salvadoran rebels disrupted early elections, they didn't oppose the broader concept of a secular state based on free and open voting, Mr. Villalobos said. Indeed, the 1980s guerrilla movement had its roots in widespread fraud during the 1972 election, which had convinced some that peaceful change no longer was possible. In Iraq, by contrast, insurgents oppose elections for a variety reasons, and even many voters and candidates prefer a theocracy run by Muslim clerics.

Nor did El Salvador's vote end its fighting; the war dragged on for nearly a decade. A peace deal was reached in late 1991 as the Cold War drew to a close, the U.S. became more interested in resolution than in wiping out insurgents, and the broader region embraced democracy. Even then, intense diplomacy by El Salvador's neighbors, including Costa Rica and Mexico, was necessary for a resolution. The international context is less auspicious for Iraq.

For U.S. officials, perhaps the most encouraging lesson from El Salvador is the public-relations effect a successful election can have. The dramatic scenes of voters braving bullets to cast ballots helped replace El Salvador's image in the U.S., as a place where a right-wing government brutalized the populace and guerrillas launched bloody provocations. Similarly, recent elections in Afghanistan, including the images of women lining up to vote for the first time, went far to bolster resolve in the U.S. and Europe to keep aid flowing.

"In El Salvador you had the image of old farmers lined up to vote, crouching to get out of the line of fire, and then getting back into line. It was about as graphic a demonstration of the desire for democracy as you can have," says Mr. Aronson, who recently served as an election observer in Afghanistan. "Hopefully, the same thing will happen in Iraq. But if the process turns into a debacle, it might send the opposite message: that things are out of control."

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