Nuts and dolts

Sorry to snicker over such a dire topic. But I had to laugh out loud this week reading an L.A. Times front-pager reminding us that while Iraq’s "landmark" elections are now less than a month away, the "nuts and bolts" of holding a credible vote are yet to be worked out.

I don’t know what "nuts and bolts" means to you, as the Times apparently has its own curious definition. In that same story we’re told that, under threat of assassination, thousands of poll workers are being recruited in secret; that some election workers have already been gunned down and left to bleed in the streets; that many candidates fear they will be murdered; that no one knows where and how the votes will be counted; and, finally, that no one has a clue as to what sort of bloody götterdämmerung will be unleashed by insurgents on election day itself or if the warehouses stocking all the election paraphernalia will simply be burned beforehand.

Buried deep in the piece, Ashraf Khalil, Times reporter in Baghdad, coldly and accurately predicts: "The stark reality is that some election workers and candidates will not survive to see the election." Khalil, in fact, does a thorough job of depicting the Dantesque backdrop to the January 30 vote. I’m convinced it was some sun-starved desk editor back at home who fouled his reporter’s work by tacking on that harebrained lead about mere "nuts and bolts."

The simple formula is that, of course, the farther one is from ongoing nightmares like Iraq, the easier it is to apply whatever convenient ideological gloss. And, man, are we ever gonna get glossed in the next few weeks, when we will be lectured over and over on how monumental these Iraqi elections will be.

The ideological markers of the debate were firmly etched a few months ago by conservative linesman David Brooks. Writing in The New York Times, Brooks argued that the 1982 elections organized by the U.S. in El Salvador were a shining example of how a wartime vote can produce peace. Yes, Brooks concedes, El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war, violence abounded, voters lacked security. And yet Brooks says:

"As we saw in El Salvador and as Iraqi insurgents understand, elections suck the oxygen from a rebel army. They refute the claim that violence is the best way to change things. Moreover, they produce democratic leaders who are much better equipped to win an insurgency war . . ."

There’s only one small problem with this version of Salvadoran history as applied to the coming vote in Iraq: It’s false.

I was in San Salvador on that 1982 election day. Diane Sawyer was also there, along with a small brigade of network producers and anchors and a company of print reporters, all of them ready to document the miracle that the Reagan administration was producing: the supposed birth of democracy in a barbarously bloody civil war. And all with just one simple U.S.-sponsored election.

My experience wasn’t quite so rosy. The morning of the election, I was awakened on the fourth floor of the San Salvador Camino Real Hotel at 5 a.m. by the sounds of bombs and machine guns exploding throughout the city. Elections or not, it was just one more day of battle in a country suffering from its third year of internal war.

As the gunfire snapped, I met in the hotel lobby with fellow reporters Ronnie Loveler and Gene Palumbo, and, with our driver, we headed out to hunt down the battle lines. Another car, full of Chilean TV reporters, headed out with us. We flipped a coin to see who would go in front. The Chileans lost — meaning they would be in the point car.

No more than 15 minutes later, we found the closest skirmish. Salvadoran army troops behind sandbags were shooting it out with leftist guerrillas. When the Chilean cameraman right in front of me got out to film, he was shot right through the neck. The fire was so heavy we couldn’t get to him as he bled on the ground. We finally got to a Red Cross station down the road, but by the time they got to our Chilean colleague, he had bled to death.

My two colleagues and I rushed over to the El Presidente Hotel, where the international press was stabled for the day. We approached professional blowhard Hodding Carter, who was in El Salvador doing a PBS special on the press. But he couldn’t be less interested in our story — the dead guy was only a Chilean. And, really, he was there for the same reason as most of the rest of the media: to stand witness to the rejuvenating miracle of American-backed elections.

All this is a fitting metaphor for what’s about to go down in Iraq. The 1982 Salvadoran elections, artificially imposed by the U.S. in the middle of an internal war, not only failed to bring democracy, but rather stoked the conflict and prolonged the bloodshed. The Salvadoran war lasted a full decade more, taking the lives of another 35,000 people (mostly all civilians, mostly all killed by the "democratic" and "elected" government legitimated by the hollow Potemkin elections).

The peace was finally concluded in 1992. Not because the elections "sucked the oxygen" out of the insurgency. On the contrary. Only after the insurgents brought the war into the heart of the Salvadoran capital, fighting the government to a standstill, and only after the world was shocked by the grotesque murder of six Jesuit priests carried out by the American-trained Salvadoran army, did peace negotiations finally take traction.

The Salvadoran peace was concluded, by the way, under the tutelage of the United Nations, not the U.S. And it was cemented and lasts until today only because that U.N. process folded the insurgents (or, in Brookspeak, "the terrorists") into a compacted coalition with the government forces — something the U.S. had spent billions in dollars and thousands in Salvadoran lives trying to prevent.

One caveat: Iraq and El Salvador are not wholly comparable situations. Indeed, Iraq is much more dire. El Salvador, at least, had some semblance of a pre-existing competitive democratic political tradition to fall back upon — including well-organized and entrenched political parties. The Salvadoran war, in addition, was of fairly low intensity, and life went on as normal in many parts of the country, even in the worst of times.

And in Iraq? The restrictions and dangers are "not comparable with any other country," an international elections expert told the L.A. Times — an expert whose team has worked in Cambodia, Indonesia, Kosovo and Liberia, no less.

Reflecting on these coming Iraqi elections leads me to ruminate over the little fairy tales we all tell ourselves so we can get through a bad day or, worse, a bad war. George W. Bush and Don Rumsfeld can look at this month’s coming elections in Iraq and tell themselves that — just as in El Salvador — American-style democracy must finally be materializing.

The real lesson of El Salvador, of course, is quite the opposite. What El Salvador teaches us is that belligerent U.S. unilateralism failed miserably in trying to stabilize that tiny and suffering nation. In the end, it was a U.N.-negotiated multilateral solution that secured the peace and stopped the bloodshed.


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