Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Smyth on the Iraqi elections

Just after the 1989 offensive in El Salvador, journalist Frank Smyth came up to the U.S. and gave some talks about what was going on. If memory serves, he was rather dismayed by some of the simplistic thinking he found among solidarity activists, which I could sympathize with since I always found much of the U.S. solidarity left to be más papista que el Papa (more like the pope than the Pope himself). I believe it was his suggestion that a piece was needed that could more thoroughly explain how the FMLN had evolved, how it had abandoned hopes for military victor and social/economic changes in society, and why it might be truly interested in a negotiated settlement (always the accepted rhetoric, but never the true desire of all solidarity activists at the time). And to do that, he also had to provide a sense of how the military and ARENA party had evolved, and why it might be willing to accept a peace deal. Two very bitter pills for the U.S. left to swallow at the time, because it meant accepting that the FMLN was about to "sell out" its long-held ideals, and that perhaps the fascist Right might yet have a sense of pragmatism after all.

So we at WOLA commissioned him and Tom Gibb (BBC) to come up with a long essay, which was eventually published as "Is Peace Possible?" My old boss commented to Frank at the 30th anniversary reunion of WOLA last year that he wishes we'd entitled it "Peace is Possible," but I think that would have seen far too abrupt a title for many people to accept at the time. (You can still purchase this at WOLA, and I hope they put it online this year, as it's really a classic for those interested in the Salvadoran war and peace process.)

In the end, the piece was so solid that its appeal reached beyond people on the left. One day I received a call from someone at the Defense Intelligence Agency (someone I'd met briefly at a conference, and with whom I'd shared a copy), who said that he'd been burning up the photocopy machine at the Pentagon since the piece I'd given him was the "best declassified assessment anywhere" of the Salvadoran situation. And David Escobar Galindo, the most thoughtful of the Salvadoran government's negotiators, also told me it helped him get some perspective on the FMLN's thinking.

All of which is a long way of saying that it's always worthwhile reading Frank's work. And now he's published a useful perspective on the Iraqi elections, After Iraq's Wartime Elections, one directed explicitly at a progressive audience. It comes from the folks at Foreign Policy in Focus, which often publish some very useful analyses (but also -- for my tastes -- far too often see a right-wing conspiracy behind every democracy program the U.S. has ever implemented.)

Frank has been following Iraq ever since he covered the Kurdish and Shiite uprising during and after the first Gulf War. He and another journalist were held for two weeks in Abu Ghraib. And they were the lucky ones. Two of his traveling partners -- his Kurdish guide and a young Harvard grad and fellow journalist, Gad Gross -- were executed by Saddam's forces.

In this piece, Smyth -- who most be the only person alive to have published both in Foreign Affairs and Z magazine -- takes to task progressives who have the attitude that every single utterance of a Bush administration official must, by definition, either be wrong or a lie. (That's my characterization, not his.) Just because the Bush administration doesn't like the Sunni insurgents doesn't mean they're good. And just because the Bush administration says the Shiite-led Assembly really will not resemble Iran doesn't mean they're wrong about that. And so on.

It's a short essay, and, as always, worthy of your time.

Note: When you finish that, take a look at Larry Diamond's talk on the prospects for stability in Iraq, which he gave last week at UCLA. (Hat tip: Swopa)

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