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January 11, 2006

The Latin Americanist's lament
Posted by Adam Isacson

Many thanks to Democracy Arsenal for inviting me to be a guest blogger for the next week and a half. I’m Adam Isacson, and I work on security issues in Latin America, particularly Colombia, at the Center for International Policy. In my next few posts, I hope to turn your gaze southward to an important but usually forgotten region.

Because the rest of the Western Hemisphere gets so little attention here in Washington, being a Latin Americanist means putting up with a lot of small frustrations and indignities. If you want to read English-language news about what’s going on in the region, you’ve usually got to turn to the “World Roundup” of wire-story excerpts on page A27 of your paper. When you tell someone you’ve just been to Colombia, there’s a fair chance they’ll say, “Columbia South Carolina or Columbia Maryland?” People like Jesse Helms, Dan Burton, Oliver North and Pat Robertson tend to take a special interest in the region. But everyone else – from newspaper correspondents to academic departments to the Southern Command – complains of neglect and resource scarcity.

The biggest frustration by far, though, is watching the United States today repeating mistakes worldwide that it used to make only in Latin America.

Latin Americanists know all about unilateral interventions, pre-emption, “regime change,” botched counter-insurgency efforts, torture allegations, nation-building schemes, proxy wars, empty rhetoric about democracy and charges of imperial behavior. It’s been going on for a century or more. “From the early 19th century, the United States defined Latin America as within its sphere of influence,” notes an excellent but often overlooked 2002 report from the Latin America Working Group, which details lessons from our past in Latin America relevant to today’s “Global War on Terror” [PDF format].

“The promotion of democracy was an important justification for intervention, but as one commentator has noted, ‘From the 1830s to the 1930s, despite high-minded rhetoric and ostensible nobility of purpose, not a single U.S. intervention led to installation of democracy in Latin America.’ More important were stable governments that protected U.S. economic interests; the interventions also demonstrated clearly to outside forces which power was dominant in the hemisphere.”

Sounds familiar? No wonder that, by 2003, Gallup International’s “Voice of the People” survey [MS Word format] found respondents in South America and the Middle East sharing the most critical view of U.S. foreign policy.

Perhaps it’s best if I explain what I’m talking about in a form everyone loves: a multiple-choice quiz. Here goes:

Try and match each quote with who said or wrote it. Here’s a hint: in each case, the correct answer is the source from many decades ago in Latin America. (Oh yeah, and it’s always “d.”)

1. “[The United States] should pursue one of two courses: either withdraw the Marines entirely, or send enough there to do the job.”

a. Sen. John McCain, speaking about a costly intervention beset by insurgency in Iraq, 2005
b. Sen. Sam Nunn, speaking about a costly intervention beset by warlords in Somalia, 1993
c. Sen. Claiborne Pell, following the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, 1983
d. Sen. Hiram Johnson, speaking about a costly intervention beset by Sandino’s insurgency in Nicaragua, 1931

2. “We wish the new government well. We wish it will succeed. We will do what we can to help it succeed. We are aware you are in a difficult period. It is a curious time, when political, criminal, and terrorist activities tend to merge without any clear separation. We understand you must establish authority.”

a. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a 2005 conversation with newly crowned King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
b. President Bush, congratulating Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak on his overwhelming 2005 reelection
c. Secretary of State Rice in a 2005 conversation with Nepalese King Gyanendra, after he dismissed the prime minister and dissolved parliament to confront Maoist guerrillas
d. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, in a 1976 conversation with Admiral Cesar Augusto Guzzetti, the foreign minister of the Argentine junta that took power three months earlier – and went on to kill tens of thousands

3. “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

a. Attributed to George W. Bush, referring to Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf, 2004
b. Attributed to Dick Cheney, referring to Uzbekistani dictator Islam Karimov, 2003
c. Attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, referring to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, 1984
d. Attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, referring to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, early 1940s

4. “I. Control - The capacity to cause or change certain types of human behavior by implying or using physical or psychological means to induce compliance. Compliance may be voluntary or involuntary. Control can rarely be established without control of the environment. By controlling the subject's physical environment, we will be able to control his psychological state of mind.”

a. Recently leaked guidelines for treatment of detainees in secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe
b. 2002 Defense Department guidance for interrogations at Guantánamo
c. Orders issued to interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison, 2003
d. CIA "Human Resource Exploitation Manual -1983" used in at least seven U.S. training courses conducted in Latin American countries between 1982 and 1987

5. “First, there is a time of softening up the prisoner. The object is to humiliate him, to make him understand that he is completely helpless and to isolate him from the reality outside this cell. No questions, just blows and insults. Then blows in total silence. After all that, the interrogation begins. Now the only pain should come from the instrument you've chosen to use. … ‘The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount to achieve the effect.’”

a. A “bad apple” at the Abu Ghraib facility, 2003
b. Dick Cheney, explaining how to deal with a detainee in a “ticking time bomb” scenario, 2005
c. The subject of an “extraordinary rendition” describing what happened to him after being dropped off in Syria, 2003
d. USAID police trainer Dan Mitrione, Uruguay, 1970, according to New York Times reporter A.J. Langguth

6. “That these nations face a regional, coordinated terrorist threat is fact, not fiction. … The U.S. has long urged these countries to increase their cooperation for security. Now that they are doing so, our reaction should not be one of opprobrium. We must condemn abhorrent methods, but we cannot condemn their coordinated approach to common perceived threats or we could well be effectively alienated from this part of the world.”

a. U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan Tracey Ann Jacobson, in a 2004 cable urging less emphasis on human rights when dealing with the dictatorships of Central Asia
b. U.S. Ambassador to Yemen James Hull, in a 2003 cable urging less emphasis on human rights when dealing with Egypt and the Arabian peninsula
c. U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Tibor Nagy, in a 2002 cable urging less emphasis on human rights when dealing with the Horn of Africa
d. U.S. Ambassador to Uruguay Ernest Siracusa, in a 1976 cable urging less emphasis on human rights when dealing with the military dictatorships of southern South America

7. “Whatever we may choose to call it, this is what the world at large calls an empire, or at least an empire in the making. Admitting that the word has an unpleasant connotation, nevertheless it does seem as if the time had come for us to look the whole thing squarely in the face and stop trying to deceive ourselves.”

a. Niall Ferguson, writing in support of a Pax Americana, 2004
b. Pat Buchanan, writing in opposition to neoconservatives, 1999
c. Max Boot, writing about U.S. policy in the Middle East, 2003
d. Walter Lippman, writing about U.S. policy in the Caribbean, 1927

Answers (and sources, if available online): 1 (d); 2 (d); 3 (d); 4 (d); 5 (d); 6 (d); 7 (d).


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I have some firsthand knowledge of Columbia. Should we have abandoned the Columbian government and people to the likes of the FARC, AUC and ELN?

Admittedly, Progressives from Teddy Roosevelt to FDR were American imperialists. But are modern conservatives?

I answer 'no' to both questions.

No wonder that, by 2003, Gallup International’s “Voice of the People” found respondents in South America and the Middle East sharing the most critical view of U.S. foreign policy.
And what about the foreign policy of Cuba and Venezuela? Both countries support Maoist-style insurgencies in Columbia with the clear intent to overthrow the government. Do the "respondents" support that?

Suppose the US adopted the anti-interventionist, isolationist foreign policy that liberals want. How would Latin America feel about that? No US to come to their rescue. No US to help support the impoverished populations created by corrupt Latin American governments.

I suspect the mood would change. "Respondents" would then be "critical" because the US fails to intervene enough. In other words, Latin American governments and peoples want the US's money and influence, but they want to offer nothing in return. I think we Norte Americanos call that 'hypocrisy.'

This brings me to a critique of liberal policy analysis. If it is incumbent upon us Norte Americanos to heed the voice of the people in Latin America, then isn’t it incumbent upon Latin Americans to heed the voice of the people in the US? It seems that the liberals just assume, without any reason whatsoever, that US interests are illegitimate.

For each example of Progressive US imperialism, I can give you a hundred by Latin American countries themselves. The record of Latin American governments is several orders of magnitude worse that the US's by almost any measure, in almost any time (including pre-conquest America). Liberals intentionally overlook the practices of Latin American governments, while criticizing US practices. How is this double standard justified?

The double-standard is logically untenable, but worse the liberal approach prevents a comprehensive approach to foreign policy. Diplomacy requires a subtle understanding of the political relations between nation-states. Placing the locus of analysis on just one country is entirely ineffective, and perhaps dangerous.

It's almost too predictable. How Latin America is seen through the eyes of the U.S. and other "first world" countries places them only in a position of subservience. All Bolivia and other countries in Latin America want to is to be treated fairly. Bolivia is not asking for a seat on the UN security council or to be some sort of world power, but just the simple favor of maintaining its sovereignty. But it seems like this is unacceptable to some. As Otto Reich said, "The world can live without Bolivia, but Bolivia cannot live without the world." It seems like the arrogance continues on...

How Latin America is seen through the eyes of the U.S. and other "first world" countries places them only in a position of subservience.
I know that liberals have difficulty keeping track of arguments, but I'm always surprised by it.

I am clearly asking liberals to justify why they look at US foreign policy only through the eyes of the Other (to use the hackneyed sociological term). Eduardo, why do you think the US must be viewed only through Bolivian eyes? What privileges the Bolivian point of view? The Bolivian government has made commitments to the OAS to fight narcotics trafficking. Will Evo Morales honor those commitments? From the "eyes of the US," it seems entirely legitimate to have some concern.

Let me give you an example of Latin American hypocrisy. Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador issued a joint statement that illegal migrants in the US should not be treated as criminals, no matter what their legal status. Yet, these very countries criminalize illegal immigration in very harsh ways. We untutored Norte Americanos call that hypocrisy.

If seeking to uphold interests in the region (like the joint statement above) is an invasion of national sovereignty, then why do Latin American peoples feel quite comfortable denying the US "the simple favor of maintaining its sovereignty," even while complaining about the US doing the same thing.

Again, the liberal double-standard is both logically untenable and practically useless.

Should we have abandoned the Columbian government and people to the likes of the FARC, AUC and ELN?

Of course not. And I have no quarrel with spending $750 million per year on aid to Colombia. But I’d prefer that we had spent it in a way that actually protected the Colombian people from violent groups. 2005 saw a sharp increase in guerrilla and paramilitary attacks, plus government killings of civilians. There’s as much coca in Colombia now as there was the year that Plan Colombia began. A strategy of 80 percent military aid is not working!

Admittedly, Progressives from Teddy Roosevelt to FDR were American imperialists. But are modern conservatives?

Modern neoconservatives absolutely are. Some of them actually embrace the label.

Suppose the US adopted the anti-interventionist, isolationist foreign policy that liberals want.

So the only two choices are unilateralism/militarism or isolationism, with liberals favoring the latter? No, sorry. In fact, I can’t name many liberal isolationists – William Borah has been dead for a long time.

If it is incumbent upon us Norte Americanos to heed the voice of the people in Latin America, then isn’t it incumbent upon Latin Americans to heed the voice of the people in the US?

That’s their trouble, they’re just not obedient enough. Maybe it would be easier for them to heed us, though, if the “voice of the people” in the US spoke clearly and coherently. But for that, you'd need to have an actual policy toward the Western Hemisphere.

The record of Latin American governments is several orders of magnitude worse that the US's by almost any measure, in almost any time…

If that is true, then it makes no sense for the United States to keep sending them weapons, training their security forces and soft-pedaling human-rights abuse and corruption.

Of course not. And I have no quarrel with spending $750 million per year on aid to Colombia. But I’d prefer that we had spent it in a way that actually protected the Colombian people from violent groups. 2005 saw a sharp increase in guerrilla and paramilitary attacks, plus government killings of civilians. There’s as much coca in Colombia now as there was the year that Plan Colombia began. A strategy of 80 percent military aid is not working!
We substantially agree on this point.
So the only two choices are unilateralism/militarism or isolationism, with liberals favoring the latter? No, sorry. In fact, I can’t name many liberal isolationists – William Borah has been dead for a long time.
I take my understanding of the liberal plight from Peter Beinart, editor of The New Republic who wrote an article for the DLC entitled "Tough Liberalism" which reads in part
There are important forces on the left today in the Democratic Party. They are probably stronger than they were in the immediate wake of 9/11, because they have capitalized on the justifiable, deep anger that exists amongst Democrats over the war in Iraq and the way its been prosecuted. They do not fundamentally see the post-9/11 world through the prism of anti-totalitarianism. They see it largely the way that Henry Wallace saw it in the years after the beginning of the Cold War. They see it through the prism of anti-imperialism. They believe that the fundamentally right way of understanding what has happened in the world since 9/11 is that America has an empire, and that empire is blowing back upon us, because we are producing the hatred that is now spilling back into our shores. The fundamental divide is whether you believe that jihadist totalitarianism is produced by a lack of freedom and opportunity, or whether you believe that jihadist totalitarianism is created by American and Western imperialism. [Note that Beinart thinks there are only two choices, as a practical political matter.] The Democratic Party has not fundamentally, internally decided about which of those it believes. Much of the Kerry campaign's inability to be totally coherent on these issues was, I believe, an attempt to straddle rifts in the party that had not yet come to an honest debate on this basic question. What would liberal anti-totalitarianism mean today?
I believe Oliver Kamm gives the best answer ever penned by a non-realist, and Mr. Kamm, a British liberal, didn’t write "Anti-totalitarianism" for a conservative audience.

As a matter of fact, there is a real rift amongst liberals about US international military, political, cultural and economic policies. Often the question at issue is not how the US engages internationally, but whether the US engages internationally, since many leftists view every US action as hegemonic.

That’s their trouble, they’re just not obedient enough. Maybe it would be easier for them to heed us, though, if the “voice of the people” in the US spoke clearly and coherently. But for that, you'd need to have an actual policy toward the Western Hemisphere.
Oh no, the problem is they are too obedient, mainly to the neo-Marxist rants of their leaders. Why do you resist the idea that the US may have an errant view of Latin America and Latin America may have an errant view of the US? Why does the responsibility to understand only run one way?

I'm under the impression that there is a coherent, cooperative, multilateral strategy for the Western hemisphere as articulated here at the Department of State. Is the real issue that you disagree with the strategy?

If that is true, then it makes no sense for the United States to keep sending them weapons, training their security forces and soft-pedaling human-rights abuse and corruption.
This is wrong. Just because something is bad, doesn’t mean it couldn't be worse. Two Venezuelas would be much worse than one, for example.

Surely you understand that the exigencies of international diplomacy require a careful application of hard and soft pedaling. That is just a practical fact of politics. Arguing against it is rather naïve.

You may have seen this already - I'd e-mail it to you individually rather than post it, but I don't see an address for Adam Isacson. Feel free to delete this if it takes up too much space.

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

Bill Barnes
May 2005

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

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

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

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

Some details on Salvador. At least (or particularly) with regard to the 1982 constituent assembly election, it was considered to be dangerous to fail to vote. Soldiers and police would frequently ask to see the identity documents on which certification of having voted was to be stamped, in a context in which the FDR- FMLN had called for a boycott of the election, and death squads linked to the army and the police were killing on the order of 800 people every month for suspected links to the FDR-FMLN. Defense Minister Garcia advised the public that failure to vote would constitute treason, while electoral authorities advised that abstention equaled "support for subversion." (Cites available)

More generally, the 1982 election was not part of anything positive, rather it was part of the 1974-83 retreat from meaningful elections in the major urban areas (and continuing disallowance of meaningful competitive political activity in the countryside) and part of the right's finishing off the driving out of open politics of the real champions of electoral democracy, the center-left, whose last gasp was the short-lived 1979 Junta. The 1984 election of Napoleon Duarte as president was much closer to a free election, and did feature what was, for El Salvador, massive turnout. And death squad activity and human rights violations in general were well down from their peaks of the early 80s, largely due to U.S. pressure. But the Duarte regime and the Christian Democratic Party became moribund after 1985, ARENA came to the fore, human rights violations increased, the civilian "pacification" arm of the U.S.-designed counter-insurgency, "United to Reconstruct," was a failure, the FMLN adapted to the new counter-insurgency tactics, and a costly military stalemate ensued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One bottom line: Even when "well-intentioned," rightist U.S. policy-makers, civilian and uniformed Pentagon leadership and their allied think-tank intellectuals, and CIA/Special Forces cadre -- like Leninist leaders and cadre -- can never be trusted to distinguish on their own (i.e. without being embedded in and regulated by a system of broad "multi-partisan" professional deliberation and democratic accountability) between, on one hand, criminals and those who deserve the label "terrorist," who deserve whatever they get, and, on the other hand, other kinds of political opponents. Once you give CIA/Special Forces cadre and their indigenous protegees legitimacy, and relative freedom of action, they end up doing a lot that -- even by the policy- makers' own announced standards -- is both counter-productive and unconscionable, i.e. committing atrocities, killing the wrong people, producing substantial avoidable collateral damage, engaging in or countenancing torture and all kinds of human rights violations, getting diverted into private vendettas, power games, corruption and gangsterism -- alienating the hearts and minds they claim they're trying to win. Prone to obtuse homogenization of opponents, guilt by association, willingness to treat collateral damages cavalierly, obtuse about side-effects and unintended consequences (Vietnam Phoenix program).

Counterinsurgency as a form of "seeing like a state" (Jim Scott). The Leninist elements of the FSLN of the 1980s were characterized by a degree of the same kind of thing, but more constrained by their need to maintain leadership over the rest of the Sandinista movement and sustain a good image with foreign allies and public opinion - as the Salvadoran military became constrained during 1983-85 and after its murder of the Jesuits in 1989 (though parts of the Salvadoran military and security apparatus were far more bloodthirsty than anyone among the Sandinistas).

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

But the single most impressive datum about Iraq is how little anybody, including the Iraqis, knows for sure about the situation as a whole and its dynamics. The fumbling in the dark goes way beyond two blind men feeling different ends of one elephant, and these blind men are wielding deadly weapons and calling in air strikes. It amazes me that anyone would be making any confident predictions about the future at any point over the last three years, or now. I think it might have made a difference if the U.S. had done things very differently from the very beginning, but we're way past that now.

Iraq is a complex country, weakly institutionalized above the level of local tribe and mosque, highly fractious and volatile once the lid was blasted off, with strong situational incentives to self-help, anti-social survival strategies, and criminality. There is some strong, generalized ethnic and religious cultural coherence (but with some internal divisions), but no thick, crystallized national political culture; what political culture there is is full of various forms of ambivalence, uncertainty, mixed feelings. There is no hegemony - never has been at the national level, though such may have "momentarily" seemed emergent at a few points in prior history.

At no point in history has it ever been valid to treat the population residing in the geographical area now called Iraq as characterized by a public opinion or a political culture that is "squarely" anything (beyond influenced by Islam) -- there is not now and never has been any such thing as a crystallized, coherent, thick national political culture covering that population -- nor is the emergence of anything like that on the horizon - though a facsimile will undoubtedly be made up via spin-machines (mis)using polling results. And that in itself is by no means insignificant - carried on long enough, it begins to become real. But still society is riven with "hidden transcripts" (and half-hidden and subordinated and marginalized and ...) in Jim Scott's sense.

All of this makes it very difficult for any outsider (or anyone "standing" at the "center" - at any putative "center" - in Edward Shils' sense) to "read" the overall situation, and impossible to predict the future. The U.S. military leadership cadre on the ground in Iraq have a strong vested interest in accurately reading the local reality in their immediate vicinity. But they do not have the kind of political/cultural education necessary to success. They're learning on the job (and then they're rotated out), and the strategic and policy decisions made in the Green Zone and in Washington are constantly making their job more difficult. The Bush administration and its foreign policy/national security intellectuals are particularly unable to provide the necessary political leadership/education, particularly disinterested in and/or incapable of close attention to complex, ambiguous realities, unable to learn from their history of failure. Their "seeing like a state" (Jim Scott) is informed (and deformed) by a "moral clarity" that comes out of a particularly simple-minded reading of modernization theory and American exceptionalism (shaped in part by the political requirements of a Republican party come to be dependent on anti-intellectual Christian fundamentalism — a combination of corrupted Leo Strauss and corrupted Lewis Hartz, about which they would both be embarrassed).

Bill Barnes, that was fantastic! It was a little bit dense; it used some codewords and code phrases that require specialised background.

I don't think those codes are necessary fo general readers, I think somewhat-similar concepts are accessible from the general culture.

It looks to me like you did a lot of forecasting along with explanations why important forecasting is not possible now. I didn't notice any particular advice for anyone.

That is, you describe each institution as an institution, that isn't really capable of changing its behavior much within a few years, and so we can expect each of them to continue doing whatever they wind up doing despite any analysis by anybody.

This doesn't fit the usual blogging perspective. Usually we either propose plans that we want somebody else to carry out and argue whether they would be useful if they happened to get tried, and we argue whether the US government generally is doing a perfect job on the premise on the one side that everything is going better than we have any right to expect so we should give our fill support to whatever the Chief Executive chooses to do, and the premise on the other side that the whole operation is basicly being done in an incompetent, mercenary, and corrupt manner and the proper response is to arrange impeachment for those at the top.

I see your work as implying particular bits of advice. Like, the US government might reasonably encourage other nations to have *meaningful* elections that would weaken insurgencies. And we should minimise attacks on suspected insurgents because the military gains aren't worth the cost in legitimacy. But you don't suggest that the US government or any government could take advice, and you don't give any overt advice except that we should not believe we can predict results given our limited understanding. This is strangely refreshing, and yet somehow it leaves a nagging lack....

Mr. Younger said above:

"Two Venezuelas would be much worse than one, for example."

While I do respect that the modern northamerican often holds his stated "truths" to be self-evident, and I am no expert, I would ask Mr. Younger this:

Why would two Venezuelas be worse? And why is even one "bad"?

At the core of the problem, which is a human problem, it seems these humans, under the rubric of a nationality, get dehumanized in blizzards of philosophical policy directives, and then they die in the proud legalese of the war party.

In general, it seems today’s left is more pro-human than the right, more willing to respect humanity as an inherent good. In matters of diplomacy, one characteristic of the right today is their dehumanization of our brothers and sisters in the south, or the east.

The "why should we listen to them?" argument forwarded by Mr. Younger, is, I might respectfully say, heartless: it is all armor and paranoia. And it has the aroma of a race issue.

But without a heart, not even one single human being can live. Then how much chance of a good multilateral outcome, for millions of human beings, does a heartless and violent international policy have? I would venture that such policy will not benefit any party, much less the hegemon in question.

Observe the "de-humanization quotient" that any given policy proposes, and there you will see the barometer of it's goal. War and misery, or peace and prosperity.

If the core value of "respect for humanity" is missing, no amount of political adjustment, or war, will help anyone. It is in the name of just this respect that our brothers in the South are beginning to stand up. The State Department's de-humanizing term for this human need for respect is "destabilization." But regional history teaches us that northamerica once considered foundational the phrase that began “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…”

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