Monday, February 28, 2005

Betting on Negroponte

What kind of bets these days are being given on Negroponte's chances of success as Director of National Intelligence? There seem to be at least a couple of opinions. For one, Jason Vest reports that intelligence veterans see "disaster on the horizon," because the DNI is "charged with completing myriad missions in an incredibly short time with woefully inadequate staff."

But Dana Priest appears to be somewhat more sanguine, noting in Sunday's Washington Post that the new DNI's role entails a historic weakening of the CIA:

Now, Negroponte will oversee the CIA and 14 other agencies that spend an estimated $40 billion a year on intelligence -- a reorganization by Congress largely in response to recommendations by the 9/11 commission, which said lack of coordination among those offices played a role in the U.S. failure to thwart the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Not only will Negroponte replace the CIA director as the most important voice the president hears on intelligence matters each day, but other agencies, notably the Pentagon and the FBI, are seeking to take over some of the CIA's traditional case officer duties. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has tasked the military to send highly classified units into the field to collect human intelligence, using newly earned congressional authority to recruit foreign agents when it is helpful.

The FBI wants to replace the CIA's role in recruiting U.S.-based foreign officials to spy for the United States when they return to their homes. It is also trying to mimic the CIA's use of corporate contacts to gain information from overseas business travelers.

With the President's Daily Briefing soon to be in Negroponte's hands, intelligence officials said they expect dozens of CIA analysts who produce it to move over to his office. So will the National Intelligence Council, the nation's top intelligence advisory panel, which produces National Intelligence Estimates as well as analysis of long-term trends.

The CIA's science and technology branch may lose clout as well, intelligence experts said. Already the major technological capabilities -- namely satellite imagery and electronic espionage -- reside outside the CIA. Experts say Negroponte's deputy-to-be, Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, wants to keep a major hand in technological issues. Currently, Hayden heads the National Security Agency, which manages electronic espionage.

Critics of the CIA's inability to gather more intelligence on al Qaeda -- and of its high-profile, high-stakes failure to accurately assess Iraq's weapons programs before the war -- say these changes are long overdue.

On the other hand, Priest also notes that intelligence reform might actually end up being more efficacious for the CIA:
In a recent executive order, Bush told Goss to increase the number of U.S. spies by 50 percent over a period of years.... Advocates of the reorganization say the new version of the CIA will be able to focus on its core mission. Gathering human intelligence "is simply going to be front and center," said Jamie S. Gorelick, a member of the 9/11 commission, which recommended the legislation. "They were trying to do too many things and weren't doing them well."
This makes it sound like the overall reorganization of the intelligence apparatus, although in for a challenging period of implementation, may actually enable the CIA to be the CIA.

Vest also notes there's a legislatively-mandated limit of 500 staffers for the new Director, but Priest mentioned in an online discussion at the Post a week ago that the number could go as high as 1400. Given the potentially (and I stress that word) rational division of responsibilities between the DNI and the agencies it supervises, 500 or 1400 doesn't strike me as awfully insignificant.

Before the CIA's critics sing "glory, hallelujah," however, for the demise of that favorite punching bag of the left, Priest leaves us with an important caveat:
Some intelligence experts worry that the reorganization will leave the CIA dangerously isolated from the heartbeat of U.S. policymaking. "You won't get the cross-fertilization, the healthy interaction between the collectors and the analyzers that you need to do intelligence work well," said Fred Hitz, a former CIA inspector general. "When you isolate yourself, you become detached from the policy issues," a former head of the clandestine service said. "You don't let the air in. The smaller the group that approves a covert action, the greater the propensity for failure."

However this shakes out, and no matter how he got there, Negroponte may well not be the weak DNI that some have suggested. Meanwhile, the dangers associated with covert operations --run out of the military or the CIA -- may well have increased.

UPDATE: In the comments section here, Max asks: "what are the implications of putting such an obvious apparatchik in this position?"

I give a lot of weight to veteran DC reporter Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, who had this to say a few weeks ago:

WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (IPS) - In choosing Ambassador John Negroponte as the country's first National Director of Intelligence (NDI), U.S. President George W. Bush has opted for a hawkish, tough, ruthless realist who could very well clash with more ideological forces in the administration.

...Negroponte's controversial tenure in Honduras has to date failed to derail what is widely regarded as one of the most impressive careers in the foreign service of the last generation. After Honduras, Negroponte served as ambassador to Mexico, the Philippines, the United Nations, and, since coming out of retirement last July, in Iraq, winning praise in each locale for shrewdness, discretion, and effectiveness.

As important, perhaps, in the present context is his association with the "realist" faction within the administration. A long-time friend of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, for whom he served as deputy national security adviser under Ronald Reagan, Negroponte is generally considered to be a pragmatist -- albeit one with a hawkish reputation that dates to his work as a young diplomat in Vietnam in the 1960s and later as an aide to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

As ambassador in Baghdad, he oversaw the effective transfer of U.S. policy in Iraq from the Pentagon to the State Department.

With Powell's departure, an ongoing purge by CIA director Porter Goss of the top operational and analytical ranks of the agency, and the pro-democracy, missionary -- not to say messianic -- rhetoric of Bush's Inaugural and State of the Union addresses, many analysts have concluded that the more-ideological wing of the administration, concentrated in the civilian leadership at the Pentagon and in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, have a clear field in Bush's second term.

But that conclusion may yet prove premature. Despite her adoption of Bush's rhetorical style, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has made a series of appointments -- specifically Trade Representative Robert Zoellick to be her deputy and NATO Amb. Nicholas Burns to the number three post at State -- that suggest Foggy Bottom will remain a realist stronghold in the second term.

Moreover, the fact that Bush was inclined to choose a realist as his DNI -- before Negroponte, he had asked his father's first choice for CIA director, Robert Gates, to take the job -- adds to the notion that he remains open to advice from people who may not necessarily share the worldview of aggressive unilateralists like Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, neo-conservatives, and the Christian Right.

That assessment is further reinforced by Bush's choice to serve as deputy DNI, Lt. Gen. Michael Hayden, who currently heads the National Security Agency (NSA) and is also regarded as pragmatic and close to the leadership of the uniformed military, another realist, if hawkish, bastion.

...Negroponte, unlike some senior officials around Bush, is considered much less likely to shade the intelligence according to what he believes the president wants to hear.

Since he resigned his position under Kissinger to protest what he considered to be his boss's betrayal of South Vietnamese leaders during the Paris peace negotiations in the early 1970s, he has gained a reputation for supreme self-confidence and speaking his mind in private, even if he hews to the official line in public.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Who’s to blame for Mexico's failed genocide charge?

It seems that everyone's blogging about genocide these days, and I have many pent-up thoughts on the issue. However, here I want to address the failure of the Mexican Supreme Court to allow a genocide charge to go forward. Months ago, I blogged about this, noting only a couple of dissenting voices as to whether this was really the most sound approach to take, either legally or politically. (I'll leave aside for the time being the question of whether genocide is actually applicable in this case.)

Now we have an op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times by Denise Dresser, a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and a former member of Mexico's Citizens' Advisory Committee to the Special Prosecutor for Crimes of the Past, who is also one of the foremost interpreters of Mexican politics for English speakers. She writes eloquently, abundantly and frequently. But I sense that she’s let her anti-Fox bias (which I share) influence the way she’s interpreting Mexico’s attempt to deal with its past.

Expecting to be enlightened by this piece, instead it got me thinking, especially as Dresser seems to allege that Fox “may” be to blame:
Fox may not want crimes of the past to be punished or a former president to be imprisoned for them. Fox may say that he is committed to justice, but he would actually prefer that it not take place. That is because prosecuting the past would entail taking on the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, and Fox has shown that he doesn't have the political will to do so. Prosecuting Echeverria would mean dismantling the old regime, and Fox would rather appease it.
Even though I’m no expert on Mexico, this struck me as rather odd – blaming a President for the failures of a legal system, with no questioning at all of the risky strategy pursued by a prosecuting attorney, apparently with the encouragement of domestic and international human rights groups.

As Dresser explains it, the special attorney didn’t necessarily want to go for genocide charges, but the Mexican court’s rulings about murders having a 30-year statute of limitations forced him to try this in hope that international laws might take precedence over domestic ones:
A recent ruling of Mexico's Supreme Court — that it was too late to bring a former president to trial — is just another example of a legal labyrinth with few exits. In Mexico, domestic laws still trump international treaties. Although many nations have surrendered their sovereignty to international norms on human rights, Mexico has not. So, because he had no other choice, the special prosecutor resorted to the charge of "genocide" against former President Luis Echeverria in the 1971 killings of student protesters. The prosecutor believed that perhaps crimes against humanity might be punished even if murder committed long ago could not. But the court ruled the Mexican Constitution establishes a 30-year statute of limitations that not even international treaties on genocide can void.
The problem with all of this is that it’s unclear what Dresser thinks Fox should have done, although, as I quoted above, she recognizes that whatever it is would require dismantling “the old regime.” That’s a fine goal, but in the process, she gives me the impression that she thinks judges who abide by the “strict letter of the law” or the statute of limitations upheld by that law are in error.
Miles of documents unearthed by the special prosecutor's office mean nothing to judges who abide by the strict letter of the law and the statute of limitations it upholds.
She doesn’t argue anywhere that the Supreme Court could have interpreted its laws any differently – which very well might be the case – but rather seems to be making the argument for punishment at any cost. Even if that is not the case, it’s pretty clear where she’s coming from, i.e., the fairly standard position of human rights groups that only truth-and-justice will prevent a resurgence of state-led abuses.

Without being fully informed of all the jockeying around the past in Mexico, however, it seems to me that 1) this is a situation that might have been foreseen by more savvy – and less rigid – human rights activists (i.e., that perhaps the political/legal situation might not yield a successful strategy of judicial punishment), and 2) Fox, while he might be guilty of other forms of appeasement, shouldn’t be blamed for appeasing elites of the old regime because of what the Supreme Court happened to rule upon.

In this month’s edition of Current History, Dresser defines more directly what really has her dander up, namely, that Fox – who she now describes as “no longer a lame duck but a dead duck” – has made a series of politically strategic mistakes, in large part deriving from his decision to make alliances with the PRI and go after the leftist PRD.
Four years ago millions of Mexicans voted for change. They heard Fox’s promises and believed them. They elected a candidate who would kill the dinosaurs and tame the dragons. But he could not, or did not want to. Instead of wielding his sword, he tripped and fell on it. Rather than confront those who had despoiled Mexico, he ended curled up next to them. Instead of weakening the PRI when he could, he tried to collaborate with it in Congress and refused to take on the vested interests in the unions that the former ruling party had created. By attempting to cogovern with the PRI, Fox has breathed new life into it. Unwittingly, the president has become the PRI’s secret weapon. The results of this mistaken accommodation are there for all to see: an emboldened PRI and a weakened government, a cornered president and more of the same old politics.
As you can see from my highlights, Dresser is far more generous, or agnostic, about just how much Fox should be blamed for this strategy. Her far more strident assessment in today’s op-ed about a lack of “political will” should be also be viewed alongside this paragraph in the Current History piece:
The reasons behind Fox’s failures are complex and varied: the appointment of a cabinet of strangers, the misuse of his political capital during his first year in office, the lack of clear priorities and concrete strategies, the decision to negotiate with the PRI instead of dividing it after the 2000 election, the use of the bully pulpit in a country with no congressional or presidential reelection, the persistence of institutions created for dominant party rule, the intermittent sabotage of Fox by members of his own party, the uncontrollable activism and presidential ambitions of his wife, Marta Sahagun. Fox painted himself into a corner but also allowed others to help.
Dresser fears that Fox will have “squandered” the potential of the democratic transition, if the PRI comes back to power:
Ultimately, what is at stake for Mexico with the PRI’s return is the viability, the longevity, the survival of Mexican democracy beyond 2006. Because, if the PRI returns to the presidency, Mexico will slide back from an imperfect democracy to the government it lived with for 71 years—only worse. And the one barrier against this outcome is a proto-populist politician who wants to govern Mexico by polarizing it.
So, I suppose the point of all this is to say that evidence of Fox’s failed attempt (if there was one) to reform the Mexican political system does not mean that he holds all the cards when it comes to reversing Supreme Court verdicts.

Dresser seems to get confused about what she's talking about here, as in the end of her op-ed when she reverts back to a focus on truth – “any democratic government that arrives in office after a democratic transition has an ethical obligation to explain what happened in the past. Truth is a right.”

So after bemoaning the failure of the legal system (and asserting various levels of executive branch complicity), Dresser changes the debate and argues that the truth is not coming out, which is not the same thing. Maybe this was in fact Fox’s strategy, to set the prosecuting attorney off on a wild goose chase. But Fox has also gone on the record in support of a truth commission – and (unlike changes in the law or in court rulings) that’s something he could have the power to make sure is implemented.

We can blame Fox all we want for potentially squandering the potential for a genuine democratic transition, but there’s still time to get to the truth of Mexico’s dark past.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

"State-sponsored gang migration"

Andrew V. Papachristos, a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Chicago who has worked with gangs for more than 12 years, has an article on the phenomenon of transnational gangs in the March/April 2005 edition of Foreign Policy (not yet online). While mostly focusing on gangs in the U.S., he does have a good take on the nexus between U.S. immigration policy and gang expansion:
Since the mid 1990s, US immigration policy has dramatically boosted the proliferation of gangs throughout Latin America and Asia by deporting tens of thousands of immigrants with criminal records back to their home countries each year, including a growing number of gang members. In 1996, around 38,000 immigrants were deported after committing a crime; by 2003, the number had jumped to almost 80,000. Often, gang members have spent nearly their entire lives in the United States. But once they run afoul of the law, their immigrant status leaves them vulnerable to deportation.

The countries that receive the flood of deportees are usually ill-equipped to deal with so many returning gang members. Although estimates vary, experts believe that there are now nearly 100,000 gang members spread across Central America and Mexico. In 2003, the United States deported more than 2,100 immigrants with criminal records to the Dominican Republic. The same year, nearly 2,000 were deported to El Salvador. The US government does not keep track of how many of these criminal deportees are gang members, but many Latin American states see a connection and say gangs are now one of their biggest threats to national security. In 2003, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Mexico agreed to work together to find new ways to beat the challenges gangs pose.

It's not as though many gang members wish to remain tin the countries of their birth. With little or no connection to their new homes, deported gang members typically face a simple choice: either find a way to return to the United States or seek protection from local gang members. In the case of MS-13, the US government has deported hundreds of members, many of whom continue to illegally migrate back and forth, often carrying goods or people with them. Those that remain in their home countries are almost sure to connect with other deported gang members, and authorities in those countries say they are responsible for a large upswing in crime and violence. In a sense, US immigration policy has amounted to unintentional state-sponsored gang migration. Rather than solving the gang problem, the United States may have only spread it.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Texas wants "pop-up" militias, too

Scott Henson -- who works on police accountability at the ACLU of Texas and whose blog, Grits for Breakfast -- picks up this fascinating story from the Texas Observer. FYI: Grits just won a 2004 Koufax Weblog Award (run by Wampum, out of my future home state of Maine) for Best Single Issue Blog, along with Talk Left):
Imagine a Texas where the affluent are so fearful that they retreat from the public commons to gated communities protected by exclusive police forces, who, weapons at the ready, are only accountable to the neighborhood association. It appears Rep. Tony Goolsby already has. His HB 246 will allow neighborhoods and apartment complexes to privately hire their own special police force, to be awarded all the same powers as the gun-slinging, handcuff-toting city and state police. If enacted, this latest special police force designation will be the 34th special police category in Texas and would boldly ignore a Senate admonition to quit creating them.

T.J. D’Aquino, CEO of Crime Strike, a private security company operating in Goolsby’s district, asked the representative to file the legislation in order to elevate for-profit residential security company personnel to the level of full-fledged police officers. The newly appointed officers would have the authority to make arrests for anything from misdemeanors to felonies. (They will not be allowed to write traffic citations.)

The burgeoning industry of special police in Texas includes a force for the Board of Medical Examiners and one to enforce water code. Last session, the Lege authorized a special peace force for the State Board of Dental Examiners. (You can just imagine the television series potential with that one.) The dental cops conduct investigations and then, as certified peace officers, write search warrants and make arrests, for example, of a renegade dentist operating without a license in a garage. These certified peace officers are also required to use their powers to prevent offenses from being committed at any time, in any place, whether by a dentist or some other menace to society, like say, an optometrist. Fortunately, they can be armed 24 hours a day. Special police officers not busy rounding up crooked dentists or any of the other “special” targets often seek outside employment. As certified peace officers they enjoy full-blown police power—all the time. One popular side gig is as a bouncer at a club.

The numerous special police forces scattered around the state have less accountability than state and city police departments. No single state agency oversees the special police forces nor does there exist a standard set of guidelines for them. And while Goolsby’s bill does establish limited oversight and some standards of training for his new force, public interest groups like the ACLU are not pleased. “It’s not the same as a department with a chain of command and policies,” said Scott Henson of the Texas ACLU. “Some of these smaller agencies are very underdeveloped in infrastructure and supervisory techniques.” He said the officers receive less rigorous training than state and city police departments. Henson also warned that some neighborhoods may be surprised by the potential cost of having their own police force, especially if the neighborhood association finds itself on the defendant side of a lawsuit.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee, in its interim report last December, recommended that the Legislature “cease and resist” creating special police forces and consider creating one category to include all specialized police forces in order to clarify their functions.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

The new Bush cabinet

An ingenious solution to U.S. military manpower woes

Max Boot has a brilliant idea for solving the increasing shortage of Americans willing to risk life and limb for the Bush administration, especially given the unlikelihood of a draft:
...I note that there is a pretty big pool of manpower that's not being tapped: everyone on the planet who is not a U.S. citizen or permanent resident.

Since 9/11, Bush has expedited the naturalization process for soldiers. But to enlist, the Pentagon requires either proof of citizenship or a green card. Out of an active-duty force of about 1.4 million, only 108,803 are foreign-born (7%) and 30,541 are noncitizens (2%).
According to Max, this idea isn't so original:
This is an anomaly by historical standards: In the 19th century, when the foreign-born population of the United States was much higher, so was the percentage of foreigners serving in the military. During the Civil War, at least 20% of Union soldiers were immigrants, and many of them had just stepped off the boat before donning a blue uniform. There were even entire units, like the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry (the Scandinavian Regiment) and Gen. Louis Blenker's German Division, where English was hardly spoken.
Of course, there's also a pay-off for countries currently suffering high unemployment, although I dare think he's going to find a bit of resistance from the nativist wing of the Republican party:
The military would do well today to open its ranks not only to legal immigrants but also to illegal ones and, as important, to untold numbers of young men and women who are not here now but would like to come. No doubt many would be willing to serve for some set period in return for one of the world's most precious commodities — U.S. citizenship. Open up recruiting stations from Budapest to Bangkok, Cape Town to Cairo, Montreal to Mexico City. Some might deride those who sign up as mercenaries, but these troops would have significantly different motives than the usual soldier of fortune.
Boot also has come up with the perfect name for this new mercenary effort: the Freedom Legion. I don't know... sounds like another slight to the French to me:
French freedom fries. French Foreign Freedom Legion.
Yesterday I heard from an acquaintance here in El Salvador who had recently tried to make his way north, illegally. Traveling in his group (which only made it as far as Mexico, this time) was a former member of the Cuscatlán Battalion, someone who had been in the first contingent of Salvadoran troops to Iraq.

You see, having discovered in Iraq that every other military force in the world made many times more than his measily $200 a month, he seems to have dumped his multi-year career as an elite soldier in the Salvadoran armed forces and decided to risk a trip north. I'm sure he'd be willing to sign up.

UPDATE: Some churches have their own solution -- bringing military recruiters into the house of worship. (HT: kos)

The gang's all here

A bunch of law enforcement professionals, including 20 U.S. officials, got together in El Salvador this week to share information about Central American gangs. Explained Harvey Smith, El Salvador's honorary consul in California, who set up the conference: "It's all about networking. The gang members are communicating nicely. Now we have to as well."

And he wasn't kidding -- apparently these guys are pretty nice. For example, after the Salvadoran cops knocked down some doors and dragged a few mareros out from their homes, to demonstrate to conference participants just how these things should be done, an
AP report published in the Miami Herald reported:

Blinking in the beams of flashlights and stripped of their shirts so the visitors could get a better look at their tattoos, the gang members were trucked to a gas station after being pulled from a house.

They smiled and chatted amicably with U.S. officials who quizzed them on their gang affiliations. None readily admitted having been in the United States, but a few had tattoos indicating links to factions known mostly in California. Some also appeared to speak at least some English, and one even gave a federal official the telephone number of a fellow gang member.

For most, it wasn't their first arrest. While some were specifically targeted on homicide charges, others were rounded up on "association" charges, which can yield several years in jail.

"We aren't animals," said Osmedo Artiaga, a 27-year-old member of the MS-18 gang, as officers studied his tattoos, including the likeness of Jennifer Lopez on his right leg.

On a more serious note, and unlike a slew of other press reports in recent months, the AP also gets it right on the origins of Salvadoran gangs:

Salvadoran gangs began in Los Angeles among young migrants who moved to California to escape the country's 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992. They spread to Central America in the 1990s as their members were deported, mostly for committing crimes, and many have begun sneaking back into the United States as El Salvador and Honduras launch crackdowns aimed at exterminating the gangs.

Also in a more serious vein, the AP story importantly reports U.S. officials are finally setting the record straight, saying there's "no evidence" linking these gangs to terrorism, again despite numerous press reports to the contrary. This very worthy point is the central focus of the Christian Science Monitor story, which has a definitive quote from the FBI:
"The FBI, in concert with the US intelligence community and government of several Central American republics, has determined that there is no basis in fact to support this allegation of Al Qaeda or even radical Islamic ties to MS13 [a.ka. Mara Salvatrucha]," says Robert Clifford, director of the new force, who is in El Salvador this week to discuss cooperation with his Central American counterparts.
Let's see whether that gets reported anywhere in El Salvador. Salvadoran President Tony Saca actually alleged as much on the opening day of the conference, when he said that this was a national security issue and that one can't discard the possibility of gang ties to terrorists.

UPDATE: But wait, there's one more reason that gangs aren't likely to have ties to terrorists. According to another AP story in the Miami Herald, the conference participants were treated to a talk by Mike Figueroa, a 33-year-0ld ex-gang member:

Figueroa, who was deported from California in 1997 for a slew of criminal offenses, has little in common with an al-Qaida operative. Like many gang members, he's deeply Christian.

"Why would they mess up their gang like that?" asked Figueroa, who has "In God I trust" tattooed across his forehead.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Iraq's "Pop-up" militias

Spencer Ackerman picked up on a Wall Street Journal article yesterday that describes how the U.S. has recently discovered a whole set of government-supported (that would be the Allawi executive apparatus, principally, not the U.S.) militias have been formed. He misses one point, however, which is just how difficult it was for the U.S. to track some of these guys down in the first place:
Then on Jan. 30, the day before the Iraqi elections, Maj. Wales got a tip via his boss, Gen. Petraeus, that a new 2,000-man force calling itself the Second Defenders of Baghdad Brigade had formed somewhere in the city under the command of an Iraqi general named "Faris."

But Maj. Wales's usual American and Iraqi sources had never heard of the unit -- or the general. "There are no generals named Faris in the Iraqi Army," one senior Iraqi general in the Ministry of Defense told him.

Maj. Wales began to think Gen. Petraeus had been passed a bad tip. "There is no way in the world there could be a Second Defenders of Baghdad Brigade," Maj. Wales said. "It is just impossible. There is no place in Baghdad left to put them."

Maj. Wales made a few more calls to U.S. liaison officers working with the Iraqis and turned up nothing. Finally, he got in touch with Gen. Babakir Zebari, Iraq's top general, who said the brigade had recently moved into tents and a hangar bay at Baghdad's long-abandoned Muthana Airport.
Boy, that was brilliant, finally figuring out that Iraq's top general might actually know something about these things -- I mean, how could that be?

Ackerman's update to his original post, which notes Swopa's point that these militias might in fact be the death squads of the infamous "Salvador option," is puzzling, since the point of this article is that the U.S. is fairly clueless and behind the curve. I suspect that the U.S. military calls these off-the-book militias "pop-ups" because they have only recently popped up on their own very tiny radar.

New readers may want to look at my January postings debunking much of the debate around the "Salvador option" issue here, here and here. Full access to the WSJ piece is found, in two parts, in the comments section of a posting at LAT.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Newsweek's Nordland sounds off

This may come as old news to others, but I haven't seen anyone cite this amazing Live Talk online Q&A with Rod Nordland, which he did from Baghdad on Feb. 2. The full online chat goes six pages, but I've done some editing to try to bring you the highlights. I've also tried to organize these bits according to their level of seriousness, but I admit the line can often be quite fuzzy.

At the end of the exchange, Nordland thanks readers for their questions, saying "I have tried to answer them in the spirit they seem to have been offered." You be the judge.

A few of the more serious questions and responses:

Dallas, TX: The pictures of voting Sunday in Iraq and the incredible turnout demonstrate the determined will of a courageous people. Even if President Bush was wrong in invading Iraq, doesn't the result make it all worth while?
Rod Nordland: It was indeed a very heartening occasion. Still, Bush didn't invade the country to bring it democracy. By that reasoning, we should also invade Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, etc., none of which have anything even remotely resembling democracy. No WMD, remember, which was one reason, and no al Qaeda, the other reason—until after we invaded. And Iraq now is the biggest producer of terrorists in the world, which it wasn't before.

Fort Sam- Houston, TX: Why should we not pull U.S. forces out of Iraq now?
Rod Nordland: Aside from issues like American prestige, projection of power, protection of oil producing areas, and so forth, the more practical and pressing consideration is that if U.S. troops left precipitously, the very poorly trained and ill-equipped Iraqi security forces would crumble in the face of a determined, fanatic insurgency, and the country would descend into civil war among militias representing various ethnic groups, terrorists, and former Baathists. It'd be a bloodbath, and we would be responsible for it.

Richmond, CA: Shouldn't the U.S.A. invade Iran next? I think they certainly should.
Rod Nordland: I guess you're in favor of reinstitution the draft and raising an army of another million men in order to handle the extra work. Good luck selling that one to your fellow Americans.

Tacoma, WA: Did Saddam run for office?
Rod Nordland: No, he assassinated his way to power.

Hartford, CT: If the world were ruled by "Muslim law," what would it look like???
Rod Nordland: You mean by Islamic law? There are many different versions of that, depending on the society, the culture, the sect of Islam, and it's a bit unfair to generalize. But I suppose one quick answer is it would be as unattractive as, say, a world ruled by fundamentalist Christian law.

Mukilteo, WA: What percentage of eligible voters did in reality vote?
Rod Nordland: A lot more than vote in most U.S. elections.

Portland, OR: When will we have a free election in the USA to get rid of the chief insurgent and terrorist George W. Bush? The phony election under U.S. occupation led by George W. Bush is meaningless until Bush is brought to justice for his crimes and treason against the American people. The illegitimate puppet election of Bush is a joke!!! When will the atrocities of killing and violence led by Bush be brought to a halt?
Rod Nordland: I guess you've never really seen a puppet election before, like the charades Saddam used to have, or the communists held regularly. You can find lots of faults with the US electoral process, but the really serious fault lies with the voters and the wisdom (or lack of it) of their choices.

Boise, ID: With all of the blunders in tactics and with the shame of Abu-Ghraib on all Americans, why is Donald Rumsfeld still the Secretary of Defense??
Rod Nordland: Because a majority of American voters re-elected his boss.

Kennesaw, GA: Did Ayatollah Ali Sistani vote?
Rod Nordland: Good question. I don't know. But as he made it a religious obligation to do so, I would expect that he did. On the other hand, he rarely goes out of his little house in Najaf. I'm actually going to check and find out, and I hope you'll read it in the magazine next week.
(Ed. Note: See his very interesting article on Sistani, and follow-up to that question, in the Feb. 14 edition of Newsweek.)

Havre de Grace, MD: Do you consider it a democratic election where an occupying force including armored vehicles are dictating the election circumstances and an occupying force decided who is eligible to vote. Shades of Hitler! He was also duly elected!
Rod Nordland: So you would prefer to have seen U.S. forces withdraw and let the voters be slaughtered at the polls by a resistance that vowed to kill anyone who voted, and not just them but their children as well? It wasn't a perfect election, but when was the last time you had to risk your life to vote?

Lincoln, RI: The United States spent billions trying to establish democracy in the foreign culture of South Vietnam. What makes us so optimistic that we can do it in the Middle East where none exist now except in Israel?
Rod Nordland: Who's optimistic?

Now for some, er, shall we say, more direct questions and answers:

Hopatcong, NJ: Do you, Masland and Dickey mean "F---ing Murderers" when you say "insurgents" and "fighters" in your STUPIDITY? I've grown sick and tired of you "politically incorrect" reporters. Why don't you have the gumption to call a spade a spade?
Rod Nordland: OK, you're an idiot. How's that?

Bucharest, Romania: Hi! Do you really think that democracy is the best thing for Iraq? I mean it's obviously the best thing for some countries (like the U.S.), but is it the best thing for others? Maybe democracy and voting just doesn't fit them, just as royalty for example wouldn't fit U.S. And is that what democracy is all about: who isn't like us is against us, therefore we should try to impose democracy everywhere (by force!)?
Rod Nordland: We're going to invade Romania next, so just watch out. Belarus, they really need invasion. Moldavia, Central African Republic. So many dictatorships, so little time!

London, England: Divide and rule is what the simpleton Americans use to control other weaker nations. What a pathetic, bullying, ruthless, cowardly lot you are!
Rod Nordland: E tu madre.

Santa Fe, NM: Why aren't American leaders subjected to war crimes?
Rod Nordland: Probably the Secret Service would try to stop that.

Hellowell, ME: why does Bush care so much about what happens in Iraq when there are so many poor, sick, poverty-stricken people in the U.S.?
Rod Nordland: Who said he cares?

Grand Rapids, MI: If WMDs don't exist in Iraq, where are the destroyed ones?
Rod Nordland: I think they're in Atlantis.

Harwich, MA: Saddam Hussein has been deposed, no WMD's have been found, the elections are taking place, and the U.S. military is losing lives, ground, and legitimacy daily. WHAT/WHEN IS OUR EXIT STRATEGY? Do we even have one?
Rod Nordland: It's very simple: last one out, please turn on the lights.

Time out

As I take some time off from blogging this week, I've taken the liberty of adding Boz's reading list to this page, just below mine, under "Worth a Peek" to the right.

He has a keen eye for a worthwhile story, and even though we rarely overlap in our choice of articles, that's only because he probably finds the good ones first. I hope he doesn't mind.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Juan Cole's Hare chase

Juan Cole continues to be confused about the electoral system being used in Iraq. First, back in November, he argued that it was based on Israel's system, imposed by U.S. neocons:

the Americans, especially the neoconservatives, crafted a ridiculous electoral system based on that of Israel.

Israel does have a List PR system, like 35% of the rest of the world, but 1) this system was one of three proposed by the United Nations to the Interim Governing Council, which approved it by a vote of 21-4 -- and for the life of me I can't figure out how U.S. neocons manipulated that vote; and 2) the system for counting parties, using the Hare quota, is actually more fair to smaller parties than the D'Hondt system used in Israel.

Today, he tries to explain this system, calling upon the services of Andrew Arato:

AFP is convinced that the UIA may all by itself be given 140 seats, not 133, because of a "complex counting system" to be employed in seating delegates. Andrew Arato writes, "This would be so, because wasted votes for very small parties . . . would have to redivided. Say it is 8%. 48% of that is 4%. Even of 5 half is 2.5% that would put them over."

Clear as mud, right? If you're like me -- neither a Middle East expert nor a political scientist -- you might want to probe a bit more deeply than an AFP report cited by Cole, and try googling around for better information. For example, you'll find a far clearer explanation from the United Nations website about the process:

How many votes are needed to win a seat?

  • The number of votes required to gain a seat (the natural threshold) will be determined by the number of total valid votes cast . A maximum estimation of 14,270,000 valid votes would create an initial threshold of 51,891 votes to gain a seat; 10 million votes would require 36,363 votes; and, 5 million votes would require 18,181 votes.
  • The chosen electoral formula (the Hare formula) proceeds after the natural threshold calculation based on the “largest remainder”. In effect, this means that subsequent seats (for lists that pass the natural threshold) cost fewer votes.

The variety of electoral systems is discussed at great length over at wikipedia, but here's a quick and easy definition of the Hare system from Encyclopedia Britanica:

(or single transferable vote), election system that gives minorities representation on elective bodies in proportion to votes received; voters indicate first, second, or other choices; a quota of votes necessary for election is fixed; if all seats are not filled, surplus votes of successful candidates and those of weakest candidates are distributed.

Complex, yes.

Impossible to understand, no.

Cooked up by the Neocons, doubt it.

UPDATE, Monday morning: Juan Cole now admits that he doesn't understand the electoral system, and ends his post with more gobbledygook from Arato (who seems to be a smart fellow when it comes to other subjects). In an earlier post picked up by my RSS reader, Cole even contested whether the Hare system was being used -- because all press reports only talked about voting for one list. But now he's dropped that assertion, and leaves the reader with two of the wikipedia references I've noted for further reference.

If he hadn't backed off, I would have mentioned that only under a Hare system could the votes for the UIA jumped from 133 to 140. Otherwise, they would have picked up only one more vote at the most, under a simpler largest remainder system (like the one used in El Salvador).

Mea Culpa, Feb. 26: In response to Andrew Arato's comment here, I checked in with an academic friend who's an expert on electoral systems. Seems I was confused, but he also managed to explain what was going on here more clearly than either of Cole's posts:

The overrep of larger parties here does not have to do with Hare vs. D'hondt (or any other divisor system). Rather, the Iraqi rule holds that in order to be eligible to win any seats, a list must clear a threshold of one full Hare quota first (Total votes/275). That is, you can't win remainders seats without getting at least one by full quota. So all the votes won by all the lists that didn't get at least a quota (99 lists, I think) are wasted. The beneficiaries of that, of course, are the parties that cleared the TV/275 threshold -- that's where the seat bonus comes from.
At least I'm glad to see Arato didn't challenge my citation of Cole's ridiculous charge months ago that led off this post.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

NATO taking the lead in Afghanistan

Even while German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is calling for a reassessment of transatlantic relationships, NATO is taking on new responsibilities in Afghanistan. Given that the U.S. needs desperately to reduce its commitments abroad, it seems surprising that this story has gotten so little play in the MSM. From Der Spiegel:
The United States and NATO agreed Thursday to merge their missions in Afghanistan, which would effectively put control of peacekeeping operations there into European and Turkish hands. The move marks a major step forward for European-American cooperation in the country, which has been occupied since the US overthrew the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. Among the expansions of the mandate of the 8,000-strong NATO force will be to send new troops to Herat and other Western cities. By 2006, NATO is hoping to have peacekeeping troops in all parts of the country.

What the new combined mission won't do, however, is pull counterterrorism missions under the joint umbrella. Germany opposed melding those missions because it would make it impossible for the government to obtain approval in parliament to extend the presence of German Bundeswehr troops in Afghanistan. Under the agreement reached, NATO members are also invited to participate in risky anti-terror operations at their own discretion - a move that neatly skirts sensitivities over the issue. Last week Germany rejected a request by Washington that would have made a number of anti-terror initiatives -- like operations near the Pakistan border - the Europeans' responsibility. The US has been seeking to reduce its 10,000 troops in Afghanistan so it can send reinforcements to Iraq. Now it looks like it will be able to do that, but British troops will be taking over many of the messy jobs in Afghanistan.

Clean counterinsurgency?

From a story in today's Washington Post about the training of Iraqi forces, we learn that the mission of Iraqi Special Forces is " 'direct action counter-terrorism,' and its members are trained to use American weapons, technology and gear." So what's missing in the following?

In Baghdad, Rumsfeld visited the Iraqi Counter-Terrorist Force, a group of 171 troops modeled on U.S. Special Operations forces. While fewer than half of the specialty force's soldiers have been trained, 100 of the 451 men in the force are attending a 13-week course in Jordan.

The unit has performed missions in Baghdad, Fallujah, Najaf and Mosul. Army trainers who have been working with the unit said that under their watch, the Iraqis had executed 538 combat missions and have captured 431 insurgents and seized more than 1,700 weapons.

538 combat missions, and no insurgents have been killed? That's either incredibly humane counterinsurgency, or sanitized information for the American public.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Internal Sunni pressures...

No way the Sunni Arab leadership could have ever participated in the Jan. 30 elections, even if the elections had been postponed. I think that under any electoral system, either with regional member districts, or with the closed list national PR system that ended up being implemented, the Sunnis would have boycotted, due to internal pressures. From the Feb. 10 Christian Science Monitor:

Sunnis under pressure as well

But the Sunni Arabs who the Shiite leaders are dealing with are also in a precarious position. On Monday, when members of the Islamic Clerics Committee and the Iraqi Islamic Party, another Sunni group who boycotted the election, met with Hammoudi, they rolled up in five Mercedes, behind tinted windows protecting their identities. They asked for a closed meeting. "We wanted this to be open to the public, but the Sunnis are feeling pressure from their own side," says Hammoudi, who was jailed and tortured by Hussein until his own exile. "This is a little strange - it's like we're protecting Sunnis from other Sunnis."

An aide to Hammoudi said the meeting went well, though it resulted only in an agreement to form a joint working committee to explore how Sunni demands can be met. Adnan Pachachi, a prominent secular Sunni Arab who led a list that is likely to win a few seats in the assembly, has called this week for a national reconciliation conference to ease Sunni fears.

"This is not a problem between Sunnis and Shiites," he says. "I was jailed with Sunnis from ... Tikrit," Saddam Hussein's home town. "We're not fighting Sunnis. We're fighting the old regime."

UPDATE: And Juan Cole today, in making an argument for why the insurgency may go on for years, indirectly supports my argument (which I've been mulling over, and will say more about in the future):
The old Sunni Arab power elite, mainly Baathists or the officer class, has not reconciled itself to the political ascendancy of the Shiites and Kurds. They still think they can destabilize the country and take back over. I would compare them to the Phalangists, the fascist Maronite Christians in Lebanon, who fought tooth and nail 1975-1989 against recognizing that Christians were no longer a dominant majority in Lebanon. Eventually they had to accept a 50/50 split of seats in parliament (which is generous to the Christians, given that Muslims are now a clear majority). That the Sunni Arab elite might be quicker studies than the Phalangists is possible but a little unlikely.

Chomsky on Iraq

From Left Business Observer's Doug Henwood's listserv:
On my fundraiser radio show on Thursday, I'm running an interview I recorded Monday with Noam Chomsky. Chomsky has a surprising view on the Iraq elections (they occurred against the will of the US, and were a victory for the nonviolent resistance - though it's doubtful whether the US will accede to the results). He also makes the argument that the intensity of Bush's campaign of lies about Iraq is evidence of how far you have to go to sell an imperial war to the US public. (As an aside, he said if the things Bush said about WMDs and Saddam's ties to 9/11 were true, he'd have supported the war too.) As he's done before, he contrasted the Iraq war to Vietnam, when it took five years for an antiwar movement to develop. And he cited a poll showing that, retrospectively, some 70% of the US public thought the Vietnam war was "fundamentally wrong, and not a mistake."

More of the same

And how stupid does the IMF think we are? From today's WSJ:

IMF Wants Further Economic Liberalization In Latin America

Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal
February 9, 2005; Page A9

WASHINGTON -- An International Monetary Fund study released yesterday blames a decade of disappointing growth in Latin America on the failure of nations in the region to more fully liberalize their economies and work-force rules, and on high levels of government corruption.

The IMF prescribes a series of remedies, including insulating central banks from political pressure but largely ignores criticism that earlier IMF advice is partly to blame for the region's woes.

The report, part of a series on regions and issues of interest to the fund, is sure to intensify self-examination in Latin America. Populist discontent with lackluster economies has helped leftist politicians win power in such countries as Venezuela, Brazil and Uruguay. Faced with a record of economic failure, development-agency officials, academics and Latin American government officials are rethinking ideas on how to spur growth.

[Lagging Growth]

Most Latin American countries adopted far-reaching economic-overhaul agendas during the 1990s. These included selling off state-owned enterprises, sharply reducing tariffs, battling inflation with debt reduction and tight monetary policy, as well as opening to foreign investment. Many of these changes were strongly advocated by the IMF, which put together about 70 loan packages for Latin American nations between 1989 and 2004. Typically, the fund -- a global lending agency that aims to promote economic growth -- requires countries to open their markets in order to get its low-cost financing.

Nevertheless, between 1998 and 2003, per-capita gross domestic product actually fell by 0.1% in the region, after adjusting for inflation, the IMF reported. The poverty rate remained stuck at more than 40%.

What went wrong? The IMF says the region was battered by economic crises partly because it had opened its markets so widely to capital from abroad without strengthening financial regulation, leaving them overexposed during financial crises of 1994 and 1997-98. The region also didn't liberalize as much as it should, the IMF found. For example, although tariffs were slashed to about 11% in the late 1990s from around 49% in the mid-1980s, that wasn't sufficient because many countries kept tariffs high on industrial goods.

"From an institutional and structural perspective, reforms were uneven and remained incomplete," the IMF report says.

The analysis flabbergasted critics of the IMF because the report didn't explain the fund's advocacy of policies that the report criticized. For years before the 1997-98 financial crisis, for instance, the IMF was pushing countries to open their markets to foreign capital -- even though that eventually made the countries vulnerable to sudden withdrawal of funds.

The report also chastises Latin American governments for not using fiscal policy to counteract the effects of downturns. But during financial crises, the IMF counseled nations to keep interest rates high and budgets tight as a way to protect their currency and limit inflation, even though that may have worsened recessions.

"What a whitewash," said Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist who clashed with the IMF when he was the World Bank's chief economist in the late 1990s. "The IMF was part of the problem."

Anoop Singh, the IMF's chief for Latin America, said the report isn't meant to examine the fund's failings and noted that an earlier IMF report had criticized its policy toward Argentina. Had yesterday's report done the same, "it would have been open to the charge of it being defensive and too focused on the fund."

The IMF report made several recommendations to generate growth, including further insulating central banks from political pressure by having them announce a target for inflation, and wrapping monetary policy around that goal. Latin American nations also should ease labor-law restrictions that make it hard for workers to shift to growing industries, the fund recommends. It also urges a crackdown on corruption because "visibly reducing corruption would provide a positive impetus to growth and help to sustain support for the reform process." But it offers few specifics of how the IMF might help relieve corruption.

Empire building on the backs of the poor

How stupid does the Bush administration think we are? From Slate's Today's Papers, by Eric Umansky:
Doing some crackerjack reporting, the NYT's Elisabeth Bumiller covers Bush giving a speech lauding his proposed cuts. Referring to the Even Start program, which serves kids with illiterate parents and is penciled in for elimination, the president said, "After three separate evaluations it has become abundantly clear that the program is not succeeding." Bumiller quotes an Event Start lobbying group official crying foul, and leaves it at that. But how hard would it have been to track down those three purported evaluations or to get an independent assessment of the program? TP, using such obscure tools as Google, found a study, commissioned by the government, concluding, "On the whole, Even Start projects are meeting their legislative mandate. They recruit and serve needy families. And, a high percentage of families take part in core services and receive an amount of service that compares favorably with other existing programs."

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)

Monday, February 07, 2005

Surviving the embrace of Bush

Morgan over at Old Town Review Chronicles pulls out the last two grafs from Hendrik Hertzberg's comment in the New Yorker, and they're good enough to be repeated here:

Critics of the Bush Administration can take comfort in the fact that the apparent success of the Iraqi election can be celebrated without having to celebrate the supposed wisdom of the Administration. Like the Homeland Security Department and the 9/11 Commission, the Iraqi election was something Bush & Co. resisted and were finally maneuvered into accepting. It wasn’t their idea; it was an Iraqi idea—specifically, the idea of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Shiism’s most prominent cleric. In a way, it was a by-product of the same American ignorance and bungling that produced the unchallenged post-Saddam looting and the myriad mistakes of the Coalition Provisional Authority. But this time—for the first time—the bungling seems to have yielded something positive.

Iraq is still a very, very long way from democracy. And even if it gets there, the costs of the journey—the more than ten thousand (so far) American wounded and dead, the tens of thousands of Iraqi men, women, and children killed, the hundreds of billions of dollars diverted from other purposes, the lies, the distraction from and gratuitous extension of the “war on terror,” the moral and political catastrophe of systematic torture, the draining of good will toward and sympathy for America—will not necessarily justify themselves. But, for the moment at least, one can marvel at the power of the democratic idea. It survived American slavery; it survived Stalinist coöptation (the “German Democratic Republic,” and so on); it survived Cold War horrors like America’s support of Spanish Falangism and Central American death squads. Perhaps it can even survive the fervent embrace of George W. Bush.

But why stop there, let's go back a couple of paragraphs to Hertzberg's smart dismissal of that old press report about Vietnam's elections in 1967 that everyone cited last week, frequently without comment (and as if no comment were necessary.) Well, here's a comment (with no comment necessary):
There are plenty of Vietnam echoes in America’s Iraq adventure, especially in the corrosive effects on domestic comity, the use of false or distorted intelligence to create a sense of immediate threat, and the arrogance, combined with ignorance of local realities, of many senior strategists. But the differences are large, beginning with the nature of the enemy. The Vietnamese Communists possessed a legitimacy derived from thirty years of anticolonial struggle—against France, then Japan, then France again, and, finally, willy-nilly, the United States. Iraq’s insurgency has support in the Sunni minority, but it is no national liberation movement. And for all the cruelty of the Iraq war’s “collateral damage,” it has produced no equivalents of Vietnam’s carpet bombings, free-fire zones, or strategic hamlets. (Nor, it must be said, did Vietnam produce an equivalent of Abu Ghraib; but then Vietnam was a war in which both sides held prisoners.)

Iraq is not Vietnam, and Iraq’s election was not like Vietnam’s in 1967. The latter was a winner-take-all presidential and vice-presidential “contest,” staged on American orders. The predetermined winners were the military strongmen already in power, Generals Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky. The exercise was as meaningless as one of those plebiscites by which the cowed citizens of banana republics ratify whichever colonel or corporal has lately mounted a coup. The Iraq election was the real thing. Voters had a choice of a hundred and eleven party lists, ranging from Communists to theocrats to secularists. (The murderous “security situation” made personal campaigning next to impossible, but this was less important than one might think; there were some seventy-seven hundred candidates on the national lists, far too many for voters to keep track of, so the election was about political, religious, and ethnic identity, not about personalities.) Moreover, the voting was the first stage of a process that, if it goes as planned, will provide fairly strong incentives for consensus and disincentives for civil war. Once the votes are counted—a laborious process—the result will be an extremely diverse two-hundred-and-seventy-five-member assembly, which will choose a transitional government and write a constitution. Since the draft constitution can be vetoed by two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces—a provision which, though originally designed to protect the Kurds, could prove equally efficacious in protecting the Sunnis—the assembly will have every reason to design a mechanism that accommodates the interests of minorities.

RSS feeds for my reading (and blog)

If you're reading this blog through an RSS feed, or something like Bloglines (which I can recommend), then you'll miss out on the column to the right, which includes my clippings of recently read papers. On slow days, I may only post clippings.

So, if that's the case, you can also subscribe to my "Worth a Peek" readings by adding this RSS feed. You may want to do this, because in Blogger I can only get 10 articles to appear at a time. While some of the articles and blog posts I cite you might come across anyway, I suspect that many others won't, and it will be an easy way to see what's out there.

I also inspired Boz to add a similar column, and his clippings look equally interesting. His RSS feed is here.

P.S. If you haven't noticed, the RSS feeds for this blog are on the column on the right, just before "Previous Posts."

Latin America's economic growth prospects

(Notice which country is stuck at the bottom)

From the Christian Science Monitor

Sunday, February 06, 2005

International law, and a Phoenix program for Iraq

I just lost a long transcription of an NPR story by Tom Gjelten on a conference on the role of Special Operations in Iraq. Rather than rewrite the whole thing, I'll just quickly summarize the two points, but I urge you to listen to the five minute report from Friday. The basic thrust, though, is that in a post-9/11 world, the U.S. wants to do be able to do publicly what it previously could only get away with through covert or clandestine means.

Most notably, Gjelten quotes a Pentagon official as promoting an interpretation of international law whereby the U.S. has the right to go into any country and snatch up terrorist targets, if that sovereign country is not acting responsibly.

Secondly, he quotes Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin (remember, the evangelical and intolerant extremist, to use William Arkin's characterization), as saying that the U.S. is already running a Phoenix-like program in Iraq. Boykin said "We doing what the Phoenix program was designed to do, without all of the secrecy." (This, I think, is the "Salvador option" in action.) That admission came right after a top counterterrorism guy at State (John Dinger) said it would be "very risky" to institute such a program, and could "create a worldwide blowback of bad publicity."

Myths about U.S. aid generosity

The news today from the Washington Post that foreign aid will get a $2.1 billion increase in FY 2006, up to a level of $9.5 billion, is peppered with cautionary words from various quarters, and properly so. The administration is increasing funding for the Millenium Challenge Account, which would bypass the aid bureaucracy to a great extent and give more aid to poor countries that demonstrate principles of good governance, but the $3 billion is still less than the $5 billion goal for 2006 set by the Administration a few years ago. It also seems that aid will go more toward "on the front line of terrorism, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan," the Post reports, whereas the highly inequitable countries of Latin America will continue to see aid flows reduced.

There's been a great deal of rhetoric out of Washington these days about how generous the U.S. really is in foreign aid, including a revised methodology by USAID to determine what should count as U.S. assistance. For my money, the Center for Global Development puts out consistently good analysis of current aid policies and proposals that are helpful in wading through the data. Below are some points from a recent publication by CGD, on U.S. aid, global poverty, and the earthquake/tsunami death toll:

According to the Commitment to Development Index, which ranks 21 rich countries on how much their policies hurt or help poorer countries, when it comes to giving money, America is less generous than most other rich countries.

• The U.S. gives 13¢/day/person in government aid, roughly one cup of Starbuck’s coffee a month.

• American’s private giving—another 5¢/day—is high by international standards but does not close the gap with most other rich countries. Norway gives $1.02/day in public aid and 24¢/day in private aid.

• President Bush was right when he said that the U.S. gives 40% of relief aid, but this is about 2 cents per day per American, ranking the U.S. 9th among 21 donors.

When all policies and types of support to developing countries are included, the U.S. is tied for seventh place with France, Germany, and Norway.

• The U.S. ranks 19th on aid because it gives little compared to the size of its economy.

• The U.S. ranks last on environment because its rapid fossil fuel consumption contributes to global warming, which will have devastating effects on low-lying poor countries. Much of Bangladesh, for example, could be inundated by sea level rise, forcing poor farmers off their land.

• But the U.S. ranks #1 on trade because its borders are relatively open to food, clothing, and other goods made in developing countries.

• And it ranks #2 on migration because it is comparatively open to people from developing countries coming to the U.S. to work and send home money.

Overall support to development matters because the earthquake did not cause all these deaths. Poverty deserves as much blame.

• A similar-magnitude quake in the Northern Pacific would have cost fewer lives, because the Pacific is rimmed by rich nations such as Japan and the United States, which maintain a high-tech tsunami detection and monitoring system, and have stronger buildings and better infrastructure.

• The difference can be seen in the death tolls from tropical cyclones and hurricanes. Hurricane Mitch killed 10,000 in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador in 1998, and a “supercyclone,” which is like a hurricane, killed 50,000 in the Indian state of Orissa in 1999. Deaths from similar storms in Florida can typically be counted on two hands.

“Most of the people killed by the tsunami died because they are poor,” says Michael Clemens, a research fellow at the Center for Global Development. “Even with improved warning systems, little can be done to prevent natural disasters from becoming massacres as long as people's livelihoods, infrastructure, and public health conditions are precarious. To minimize the death toll in future disasters we need to do a much better job of supporting long-term economic development in these countries."

Big disasters like the tsunami grab attention while larger, silent tragedies are ongoing. Yet there are proven ways to overcome these tragedies. It is in the best interests of the U.S. to do more to support development.

• Estimated deaths from the earthquake and tsunami: 70,000–100,000 –once a century.

• Deaths from HIV/AIDS: 240,000 a month. (Of which in rich countries: 1,776)

• Deaths from diarrhea in developing countries: 136,000 per month.

• And yet…a river blindness control program supported by 22 donor countries prevented 600,000 cases of blindness in west Africa and made 25 million hectares of arable land safe for resettlement—enough to feed 17 million people.

• A USAID anti-diarrheal disease program in Egypt helped save the lives of 300,000 children in1982–89.

• A donor-backed campaign to eradicate guinea worm in many poor countries in Africa cut the number of cases 99%, from 3.5 million cases in 1980 to 35,000 today.

• “The U.S. is not doing enough in terms of development assistance to meet our own goals of creating a more stable and democratic world,” says CGD senior fellow Steve Radelet. “It’s not so much a question of generosity as doing what is best for the U.S.”

Friday, February 04, 2005

Letting Elliott get to you

It's good to see at least someone getting worked up about Elliott Abrams' shady past, and I have little of substance to add to Nadezhda's diatribe over at LAT. Whether any pundits will take notice, however, I rather doubt it at this point. As Laura Rozen points out, Abrams new job is pretty much the same as what he's been doing all along.

In support of one of Nadezhda's arguments, by which Abrams' continued access to power is a horrible symbol for domestic governance, it's important to remember that, after all, he only lied to Congress. Others did all the real dirty work of Iran-contra. But wait, he lied, and then went on to write an entire book in which says that he had no regrets for having done so. Apparently, he only pled guilty to avoid a trial, and that he still thinks he did nothing wrong. (See his autobiographical Undue Process: A Story of How Political Differences Are Turned Into Crimes.)

Sounds like a model policy maker for the Bush administration to me!

UPDATE: David Adesnik seems to think that I'm "less than happy" about Abrams' promotion, not an unreasonable inference from this post. I'm actually rather indifferent -- for my own sanity and sense of well-being, I long ago withdrew from the gobiernos de turno the power to influence my personal state of happiness.

Praktike also responds:
I don't think it's so special for someone to be committed to democracy promotion, in all honesty. It's pretty easy. I'm pro-democracy and pro- rule-of-law, especially in the United States. But I think that Abrams' dreadful performance regarding postwar planning in Iraq ought to merit his dismissal regardless of what he believes or did twenty years ago. I haven't seen a convincing defense of him on that score, and David [Adesnik] doesn't offer one. For understandable reasons.

Latin American retreat on human rights?

As I've noted before, there's talk of an alternative Latin American body that would pronounce itself on human rights issues, something that might run interference with the good work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). There were already rumblings of this tendency when the dethroned Miguel Angel Rodríguez of Costa Rica, the former SG who resigned over a corruption scandal, tried to weaken the IACHR, a move which has been put on hold by interim secretary general Luigi Einaudi. Marcela Sanchez wrote on this subject yesterday, also worried about its potential impact:

It is understandable that Latin American officials have grown fond of regional mechanisms, in part because they provide greater independence from Washington. This alone can be a good thing, allowing governments in the region to assert themselves and demonstrate that independence doesn't mean laxity.

But when officials have grown so fond of such mechanisms that they intend to use them to counter any criticism -- or worse, distort reality -- they go too far. It's one thing to decry unilateral finger-pointing. It's something altogether different to attempt to undermine a multilateral system, including the IACHR, that has proved its effectiveness.

Earlier this week the UCA radio station scored Francisco Flores' recent speech to the OAS (promoting his candidacy for secretary general) as hinting at support for a revamping of the inter-american system. I haven't been able to find a copy of the speech to get the precise details, however, just a press release on the OAS site.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Misreading the lessons of El Salvador, again

No sooner did I discover CIP's blog, Plan Colombia and Beyond, that Adam Isacson has come up with a great post on the whole issue of the demobilization of paramilitaries in Colombia.

Isacson takes on a prominent columnist in Colombia, as well as the U.S. Ambassador, both of whom use the example of the post-war crime wave in El Salvador and Guatemala as a reason why the Uribe government, with the support of international donors, should be quick to demobilize and reintegrate those very nasty paramilitary forces.

Isacson does a good job in skewering their main argument -- that Colombia should avoid the mistakes of El Salvador's peace process, in which insurgents and military forces were supposedly demobilized without any attention to education or jobs. This was certainly not the problem. Donors provided plenty of aid to these guys.

Donors provided plenty of aid to these guys. But international donors will likely never provide enough aid for the kind of rehabilitation needed for persons for whom guns and violence have become a way of life. And, of course, if you want to avoid having lots of criminals running around, you'll also need to make sure you have a more equitable society, a functioning judicial system, and good law enforcement.

I won't go on with this, but I hope Adam goes further in contesting this fallacious "lesson learned" from Central America. If the topic interests you, you should read the whole post, and don't neglect to check out my comment as well.

Why I'll never join up


SAN DIEGO -- At a panel discussion in San Diego Tuesday, a top Marine general tells an audience that, among other things, it is "fun to shoot some people."

The comment, made by Lt. Gen. James Mattis, came in reference to fighting insurgents in Iraq. He went on to say, "Actually, its a lot of fun to fight. You know, it's a hell of a hoot. I like brawling."

"You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for 5 years because they didn't wear a veil," Mattis continued. "You know, guys like that ain't got no manhood left anyway. So it's a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them."

About 200 people gathered for the discussion, held at the San Diego Convention Center. While many military members laughed at the comments, a military expert interviewed by NBC 7/39 called the comments "flippant."

"I was a little surprised," said Retired Vice Adm. Edward H. Martin. "I don't think any of us who have ever fought in wars liked to kill anybody."

Mattis also discussed operational tactics of the war, calling on military members not to underestimate the capacity of terrorists.

Mattis leads Camp Pendleton's 1st Marine Division in Iraq. He is in charge of the Marine Corps combat development and is based in Quantico, Va.

via Progressive Review

A rare civic debate on CAFTA

As I prepare to move back to the states in April, one of the things I'm most looking forward to, after more than 14 years abroad, is more fully exercising my rights as a citizen. Well, it looks like I'm moving to a great state for doing just that--Maine. Yesterday, the Bangor Daily News reported on a public discussion that will be held today on the merits of CAFTA:
International agreements usually don't give a hoot what states think - trade negotiations are mysterious and Congress has prevented itself from amending the agreements; it merely can vote yes or no. Maine last year, however, gave the state a voice - not a powerful one, but at least an informed, bipartisan one - in trade agreements by approving the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission, the only one of its kind among states.
And Maine is also starting to get some attention for its Clean Elections law, which was voted in by citizen's initiative (not by the State legislature) in 1996, and by which nearly 80 percent of all public candidates used public financing in the last elections.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Lessig goes to Linux Heaven (in Brazil)

I've said nothing about the World Social Forum these past days, and I have to admit to not having followed it all that closely. But I just came across this inspirational post from Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig, who was on a panel last Saturday along with Manuel Castells and Gilberto Gil. But get a load of his visit last Thursday to the WSF's Youth Camp, devoted this year to free software and free culture.

We arrived in the middle of a concert. Gil was asked to speak. As he went to the mic, the tent fell silent. Hundreds were packed into a tiny space. Gil began to describe the work of the Lula government to support free software, and free culture, when a debate broke out. I don't speak Portuguese, but a Brazilian who spoke English translated for Barlow and me. The kid was arguing with Gil about free radio. Two minutes into the exchange, about 8 masked protesters climbed onto chairs on one side of the tent, and held posters demanding free radio. A huge argument exploded, with the Minister (Gil) engaging many people directly, and others stepping in to add other perspectives. After about 20 minutes, the argument stopped. The band played again, and then Gil was asked to perform. For about another twenty minutes, this most extraordinary performer sang the music he's been writing since the 1960s, while the whole audience (save Barlow and I) sang along. When the concert was over, Barlow, Gil and I were led out of the tent. It was practically impossible to move, as hundreds begged Gil for autographs, or posed for pictures. At each step, someone had an argument. At each step, Gil stopped to engage. Even after Gil was in the car, some kid rapped on the window, yelling yet another abusive argument. Gil, with the patience of a saint, opened the window, and argued some more.

This was a scene that was astonishing on a million levels. I've seen rallies for free software in many placed around the world. I've never seen anything like this. There were geeks, to be sure. But not many. The mix was broad-based and young. They cheered free software as if it were a candidate for President.

But more striking still was just the dynamic of this democracy. Barlow captured the picture at the top, which in a sense captures it all. Here's a Minister of the government, face to face with supporters, and opponents. He speaks, people protest, and he engages their protest. Passionately and directly, he stands at their level. There is no distance. There is no "free speech zone." Or rather, Brazil is the free speech zone. Gil practices zone rules.

Even after the speech was over, the argument continues. At no point is there "protection"; at every point, there is just connection. This is the rockstar who became a politician, who became a politician as a rockstar.

I remember reading about Jefferson's complaints about the early White House. Ordinary people would knock on the door, and demand to see the President. Often they did. The presumption of that democracy lives in a sense here. And you never quite see how far from that presumption our democracy has become until you see it, live, here. "This is what democracy looks like." Or at least, a democracy where the leaders can stand packed in the middle of a crowd, with protesters yelling angry criticism yet without "security" silencing the noise. No guns, no men in black uniform, no panic, and plenty of press. Just imagine.

Lessig, by the way, once clerked for Judge Richard Posner on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Justice Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court. In a 2002 Wired magazine profile, they said of him: "Once a 'right-wing lunatic,' he's become a fire-breathing defender of Net values."

Everything you ever wanted to know about Colombia

I just came across a blog, run by Adam Isacson at the Center for International Policy, called Plan Colombia and Beyond. Although he seems to stray less "beyond" his subject matter than does the one you're reading, it's a great resource for understanding U.S. policy toward Colombia. The posts are often quite long and thorough, and Isacson is very good about responding to reader's queries.

He also coordinates CIP's demilitarization program, which, among other things, has published the very useful Just the Facts 2001-2002: A Quick Tour of U.S. Defense and Security Relations With Latin America and the Caribbean.

At Adam's personal website, he also has about twenty music reviews -- but there's obviously a generation (or geographic) gap here, because I've never heard of a single one of them.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Beer diplomacy

From the Los Angeles Times today, we have a story about the US Ambassador there getting married to what may be the wealthiest woman in Mexico, and everyone hopes this will help patch up U.S.-Mexican relations.

Now if Bush could only just dispatch elegible bachelors (of both sexes) as ambassadors to every country in Latin America (why not include the entire foreign service?), perhaps he would have a better chance at leveraging some of that soft power everyone's been talking about, and regain some of its declining influence in the region.

Remember that Farnaz Fassihi email?

There were so many compelling stories to choose from about Sunday's elections in Iraq, and some came from surprising quarters. Even that curmudgeon and skeptic, Robert Fisk, couldn't help himself: "it was the sight of thousands of Shias, the women in black "hijab" covering, the men in leather jackets or long robes, the children toddling beside them, that took the breath away." And doubtless there will be many more post-election analyses from sources like Robert Scheer, who today is uncharacteristically benevolent toward the Bush administration: "To be sure, President Bush did the right thing in pushing through the election, because the Sunni insurgency is not going to fade away as long as it can feed off the occupation's presence." (Worth a look.)

But I'm am a little surprised that Farnaz Fassihi's account has not gotten picked up more in the blogosphere. (I might have missed it myself, but for Marc Cooper pointing it out.) Remember Fassihi? She was the reporter whose private email last September became public, causing a bit of a stir, and prompting much navel-gazing by presswonks. Here's what she wrote about the elections last September:

Then I went to see an Iraqi scholar this week to talk to him about elections here. He has been trying to educate the public on the importance of voting. He said, "President Bush wanted to turn Iraq into a democracy that would be an example for the Middle East. Forget about democracy, forget about being a model for the region, we have to salvage Iraq before all is lost."

One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if any thing could salvage it from its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into a bottle.

The Iraqi government is talking about having elections in three months while half of the country remains a 'no go zone'-out of the hands of the government and the Americans and out of reach of journalists. In the other half, the disenchanted population is too terrified to show up at polling stations. The Sunnis have already said they'd boycott elections, leaving the stage open for polarized government of Kurds and Shiites that will not be deemed as legitimate and will most certainly lead to civil war.

I asked a 28-year-old engineer if he and his family would participate in the Iraqi elections since it was the first time Iraqis could to some degree elect a leadership. His response summed it all: "Go and vote and risk being blown into pieces or followed by the insurgents and murdered for cooperating with the Americans? For what? To practice democracy? Are you joking?"

Now compare that with her equally personal account in yesterday's WSJ, which I reprint in full here:
Reporter's Notebook:
Iraq Breaks From Past

January 31, 2005 9:11 a.m.

BAGHDAD -- The crowd began streaming into the polling station near our hotel by 10 a.m. They lined up patiently behind rolls of barbed wire and submitted to being frisked and searched with metal detectors. Men smiled as they handed over personal belongings -- mobile phones, cameras and pens -- to the security guard. Women, many covering their hair with festive scarves, pulled along little kids in party dresses.

There were boxes of sugar cookies, and congratulatory exchanges. In one classroom-turned-polling-center, the monitor hovered nearby with a big grin as voters neatly folded their large ballots and dropped them into the transparent plastic box. "Barak-Allah Eini," ("Well done, my dear"), he said to every single one.

Wathah Hussein, a 75-year-old woman with a hunched back and shaking hands, reached into her black abaya and brought out a crumpled back plastic bag that contained all of her identity documents: her food-ration card, birth certificate and voter registration card. She asked one of the monitors if he could help her vote. "I can't tell you who to vote for," he said.

"Iyad Allawi, Iyad Allawi," she repeated, explaining that she was illiterate and needed help finding interim Prime Minister Mr. Allawi's slate on the ballot sheet. Behind the makeshift booths made of cardboard, with shaking hands and a little assistance, she cast her vote and walked out waving her inked finger and saying to herself and anyone who listened, "This is a happy day, I am happy."

The dusty, dirty streets behind the hotel in the Jadriya district of Baghdad had suddenly been transformed into a neighborhood block party of sorts. Yet in the background, occasional booms of mortars raining down in the distance could still be heard. News came of carnage and explosions in other parts of the capital. Our Iraqi neighbors, the residents of the mostly Shiite district around our hotel in Baghdad, were braving the intimidations, threats of violence and risk of death to exercise democracy.

My window into Iraq's election was limited. I could not jump in the car, as I've done to cover past elections, and drive around from polling station to polling station to gauge with my own eyes how the day was faring. Even moving around my hotel was not risk free. I wore black pants and a long raincoat, covered my hair in a dark scarf and hid my press credentials, pretending to be local as I walked with my translator, an Iraqi named Haaqi, from one polling station to the other. "Try not to speak English or answer your phone while we are on the street," he instructed. The streets were dangerous and infested with insurgents, and he was taking no chances being spotted.

Navigating around Baghdad was especially tough because of the elaborate security measures. An all-day vehicle ban across the capital meant we could not drive around even if we wished. Several reporters attempted to do so by flashing their government-issued election credentials, only to receive warning shots from jittery Iraqi police at checkpoints. They were told to leave their cars and walk back home.

We were forced to find creative ways to cover the day. For starters, the curfew meant that our Iraqi staff, who live across town, had to temporarily move into our hotel, hostage to our needs for three days and abandoning their worried relatives. Between us, we came up with a list of Iraqi friends and contacts scattered around Baghdad. In between visits to the neighborhood polling stations the Iraqi staff, we worked the phones.

What's happening in the Sunni enclaves of Adhamiya and Ammariya, where the residents are notoriously anti-American and sympathetic to insurgents? "None of the polling stations have opened here. The streets are desolate," said my friend, Ziad, from his home in Adhamiya around 3 p.m. "We haven't left the house." From Sadr City, a slum near Baghdad where loyalty to militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr runs high, Ahmed Mukhtar, an Iraqi journalist friend called me in the afternoon to report with great excitement in his voice that polling stations were forced to bring extra ballot boxes.

"There are so many women voting, you wouldn't believe it, even more than men," he said. A mortar landed in a house behind a polling station in Sadr City, killing four people but the shock had not deterred voters, who were back in line an hour later. "This is the best day of my life."

The most astonishing news was that even some Sunni Muslims were voting. In some areas in the Sunni Triangle, like Samarra and Mahmoudiya, polling stations never opened, and in other places like Tikrit, voters were scarce. But Abu Munaf, our driver, called his brothers -- all of them former army generals and ex-regime Baathists who live in the Ghazalliya district of Baghdad, a home to many former army officers. He was amazed to discover they were speaking to him from the line outside a polling station. "This is unbelievable. The general has gone to vote," he exclaimed when he hung up the phone.

For me, one of the most extraordinary moments was watching Haqqi, my long-time translator, cast his ballot. Haqqi is from Tikrit and comes from a tribe related to Saddam Hussein. Until the fall of Baghdad, he had lived all of his 26 years enjoying privileges unknown to most other Iraqi families.

The son of an ambassador, he grew up abroad and was educated in international private schools. He drives a Mercedes and speaks impeccable English. He and I argue often and passionately about events in Iraq. He criticizes everything and anything since the fall of the regime; I point out that under Saddam he couldn't work for an American newspaper or so much as voice his opinion.

All along, as he followed me to interviews and press conferences, his attitude was dismissive and pessimistic. Then yesterday, half an hour before the polling center closed, he had a change of heart. I heard him pleading with election workers to allow him to vote out of his district. He had never bothered to pick up his registration form.

"I really want to vote," I heard him say. "I didn't before, but coming here today and seeing old people, handicapped and women and men vote made me feel very nationalistic. I am Iraqi. I have a right to decide the future. Please let me vote."

The election worker smiled and handed him a ballot sheet. Afterwards he simply said, "It was great," and quickly made a phone call to the rest of our staff encouraging them to rush over and cast a ballot.

Election Day was the most uplifting moment I've witnessed in the two years that I've been stationed in Iraq. I was here for the last Iraqi election, in October 2002, when Saddam held a referendum to solidify his rule. Then, there was one name on the ballot, and rejecting him meant retaliation no one dared to even ponder. At a polling station in Tikrit that day, the crowd broke into cheers and dances as soon as our bus full of journalists approached. Voters poked their hands with needles to pledge their alliance to Saddam with their blood. It was a formidable show, but obviously not genuine.

Since then, I have marked many milestones in Iraq since the war officially began in March 2003 -- fall of the regime, killing of Saddam's sons Uday and Qussay, formation of the Governing Council, the capture of Saddam, the handover of sovereignty to an interim government and now the creation of a national assembly. None has captured the attention and imagination of Iraqis the way yesterday's elections did.

Iraqis viewed those events with the skepticism and suspicion they always do for things forced upon them by an outside hand -- in this case the Americans. It's difficult to predict what yesterday's election will mean in the coming months. The new government will continue to battle a raging insurgency, while negotiating a new constitution in hopes it will help restore the war-torn nation.

But one thing is clear: Iraqis have finally broken from the past.

Farnaz Fassihi is the Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She joined the Journal in January 2003 and was immediately sent to Iraq. She has degrees in English from Tehran University and in journalism from Columbia University. Prior to joining the Journal, she was a roving foreign correspondent for the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. *Write to* Farnaz Fassihi at

A few months ago, I took out an online subscription to the Wall Street Journal, and it's been worth every penny, with lots of gems like the one above. The old adage that I used to hear some twenty years ago or more -- that the WSJ's reporting is as good as its editorial page is bad -- still holds.

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