No Passage

American officials and others say the United States learned vital lessons in El Salvador that policymakers are now applying in Colombia. The gist of this argument is that like in El Salvador, the United States support of the Colombia military will eventually force its rival guerillas to the negotiating table. Last week in IC, Benjamin Ryder Howe quoted the Colombian academic, Eduardo Pizarro, who said: “[T]he strategy [in El Salvador] was very successful. The guerrillas got nothing. In the end, they had to negotiate because of what United States did for the Salvadoran army.”

Remember 1989

America’s record in El Salvador suggests something else, however. In November 1989, two days after the Brandenberg Gate in the Berlin Wall was finally opened, the largest Cold War military battle in this hemisphere began in the tiny Central American republic.

By then, U.S. intelligence agencies had dismissed El Salvador’s leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) as a waning force. “Although they have not been decisively beaten, the guerrillas, in our view, no longer have the capability to launch and sustain major offensives,” reported the CIA in 1986 in a SECRET assessment. But Langley was wrong. Although U.S. officials received various indications by 1989 that the FMLN was planning a major offensive, they chose to ignore their own intelligence and told Washington not to worry about the expected guerrilla action. The result put many of the same officials at risk.

It began loudly at 8 p.m. on Nov. 11. My favorite story is of the State Department official who, while huddled on the white tile floor of a San Salvador Pizza Hut, proposed to his girlfriend minutes after gunfire broke out on Avenida Escalon. Although he had planned on waiting until after dinner to offer her the ring, he decided he had no time to waste as FMLN guerrillas and government forces exchanged gunfire outside. Just up the street, the U.S. military attache, Col. Wayne Wheeler, found himself barricaded inside his home with his family as guerrillas and government forces fought over Escalon Circle. A little farther north, CIA Station Chief Robert W. Hultslander briefly saw his residence on Avenida Capilla in the San Benito neighborhood taken over by the guerrillas who spared his life after learning his identity. (Hultslander is now a private consultant who publicizes his past CIA positions on the Web to attract clients for the Washington-based firm, Global Business Access, Ltd.)

The calm before the storm

One U.S. official who missed the 1989 offensive was David Passage, who helped run the U.S Embassy in El Salvador in the mid-1980s. This spring he wrote a paper for the U.S. Army War College about Colombia in which he claims to draw lessons from America’s counterinsurgency experiences in both El Salvador and Vietnam. Ambassador Passage rightly explains the lesson of Vietnam that America applied in El Salvador: “The United States made clear [to Salvadoran authorities] that it was El Salvador’s war, not ours, to be won or lost by Salvadorans.”

But he attempts to draw a far less solid lesson from America’s experience in El Salvador for Colombia. Like Pizarro, the Colombian political scientist, Passage argues in his paper: “El Salvador’s armed forces improved their military performance to the point that the guerrillas ultimately concluded that they needed to negotiate a peace or risk being wiped out.”

Passage left El Salvador in 1986 — the same year as the aforementioned CIA SECRET assessment. The mid-1980s was the height of U.S. aid to El Salvador, made possible by the election of President Jose Napoleon Duarte. (Duarte is the only serving head of state who ever wrote his autobiography in a language foreign to his own nation.) Duarte was a consensus-building figure in the U.S. Congress where he provided a humanist face to an anti-communist cause. During Duarte’s administration, the United States encouraged the Salvadoran military to stop killing suspected civilian supporters of the guerrillas and instead to target armed guerrillas themselves.

The success of the Duarte period, however, faded as quickly as his book did. Although crimes of war decreased at the same that the U.S.-backed military made some battlefield gains, the advantages of U.S. firepower began to diminish once the FMLN adjusted to the new situation by breaking down their rebel concentrations into smaller, more mobile squads. In response, first the CIA and then U.S. Special Forces tried to train the Salvadoran military to also break down their large units into smaller, more mobile patrols. But the Salvadoran military never made an effective transition to small unit operations. The main reason was the lack of morale among Salvadoran soldiers, most of whom came from peasant families like most of the guerrillas.

Was American policy in El Salvador a failure?

The United States also backed civic action programs in El Salvador to help the military win popular support. But Army dentists fixing teeth in villages along with clowns handing balloons to children could never undo the damage done by previous military massacres. In the late 1980s, while the military was trying to gain ground in the countryside, the guerrillas were expanding their support bases among poor urban communities in San Salvador and other cities that they would later use as staging grounds for the November offensive.

After the fall

The seizure of San Salvador along with every other city in the country in 1989 took Salvadoran military officers along with their U.S. advisers by surprise. U.S. Army Major Eric Warren Buckland was a psychological operations specialist within the Salvadoran High Command. He said the offensive “was like the fall of Saigon.” The strength and scope of the siege was so overwhelming that for the first four days of the offensive the Salvadoran High Command also feared that the country might fall.

The November offensive broke at a time of great debate within the High Command. Officers including the former military intelligence chief, Army Col. Juan Orlando Zepeda, were arguing that the military needed to reject American exhortations about human rights to once again repress suspected civilian supporters of the guerrillas. Late the evening of Nov. 15, the Salvadoran High Command, in a meeting presided over by Chief of Staff Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, decided to kill civilians, according to a U.N. Truth Commission report released four years later. Early the next morning, the Salvadoran military executed six Jesuit University priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. The offensive continued for more than another week.

Images of Jesuit corpses wearing pajamas on the bloodied campus grass resonated in Washington. The events of the time killed several myths that revisionists like Passage seem to have forgotten. One was that the Salvadoran High Command had allegedly grown above ordering the murders of civilians. Another busted myth was that rather than nearly “being wiped out,” the guerrillas reached their peak of military strength in 1989, and they remained strong until a lasting cease-fire was signed in 1992.

A third denuded myth was that rather than being marginal, the guerrillas had considerable support. While the rebel offensive had failed to spark a popular insurrection as many guerrillas and a few of their leaders had hoped, it nonetheless showed that the rebels enjoyed enough sympathy among poor communities to smuggle food, arms and combatants into the capital along with every other city without being detected in most cases.

Long-term risk

The lesson of El Salvador is that the guerrillas could not be so easily wiped out, and that in the end the United States needed to pressure not them, but America’s own allies in the Salvadoran military to reach a peace settlement. Washington favored a gradual military victory over the FMLN before its November 1989 offensive. After it and the Jesuit murders, Congress and President Bush together cut the Salvadoran military’s aid in half, forcing the military to finally accept real negotiations with the FMLN.

Today, the United States is training and arming the Colombian armed forces with the hope they will eventually be in a better position to negotiate with their country’s FARC guerrillas. That could take years and cause untold carnage. There is a better way.

One critic of the Colombia plan is the Bush administration’s former Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Bernard Aronson. Writing recently in The Washington Post, Aronson warns that Colombia’s guerrillas need to be brought to the table sooner instead of later, and he addresses the example of El Salvador along with two other cases: [A]s successive administrations have done with the PLO, the FMLN (in El Salvador) and the IRA, the United States needs to find a formula to talk with the Colombian guerrillas, and a cease-fire in our domestic political wars would make that possible.

America’s domestic political warfare continues although the perceived foreign enemy has switched from communism to drugs. When shaping U.S. Colombia policy, no one should forget El Salvador’s 1989 offensive or the U.S. officials who — believing their own myths — found themselves and their loved ones in danger. The lesson of El Salvador suggests that the United States should change policy to really support a negotiated settlement in Colombia now, not later.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who covered El Salvador for CBS News Radio, The Economist and the Village Voice. He is co-author of Dialogue and Armed Conflict: Negotiating the Civil War in El Salvador, Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute(1988), and El Salvador: Is Peace Possible? Prospects for Negotiations and U.S. Policy, The Washington Office on Latin America (1990). He is a contributing editor at, and his website is at

Africa’s Inexplicable Horn

Ethiopia’s former communist leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, prolonged a famine in northern Ethiopia in the mid-1980s to dry out two Marxist insurgencies that were each deeply rooted there. Today one former insurgent, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, prolongs a famine in southern Ethiopia to punish his former guerrilla ally on the northern Horn, Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki. During recent peace negotiations, Meles and other Ethiopian officials warned that, if necessary, they would teach Eritrea a lesson. Ethiopia launched an offensive against Eritrean positions last Friday just two days after the American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, finished shuttling across the Horn between the two leaders to say in Eritrea that the war “can [still] be resolved by diplomatic means.”

The Ethiopian offensive is the Horn war’s third major round of fighting and it began on May 12, the two-year anniversary of Eritrean troops first seizing several positions in the disputed border area between the two nations. Six days before the 1998 Eritrean invasion, Ethiopian militia opened fire on an Eritrean army unit near the disputed borderline, killing a handful of soldiers and officers. For months afterward, Eritrean officials kept silent about the Ethiopian militia attack, even though it was the first drawing of blood in the Horn war and it preceded Eritrea’s initial seizure of disputed territory. “It was a mistake not to publicize the [Ethiopian militia] attack,” says one Eritrean official now in hindsight.

Such tight-lipped deportment by Horn leaders is consistent with their respective characters. While African combatants from Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of the Congo fight over commodities like diamonds, Horn combatants fight over emotions alternating between ego and humiliation. The lack of any clear strategic objective for either side in the Horn war has long baffled observers.

Africa’s Horn wars are more over pride than politics.

“It’s inexplicable these two countries would go to war over these differences,” said Holbrooke in Asmara last Wednesday. Holbrooke apparently fails to see that each Horn leader needs to be perceived by his own constituents as having made the other guy eat dirt.

Ethiopia builds up

“Might is right” was something Eritrea’s Isaias said during the interim between the first Eritrean advance in May 1998 and the Ethiopian counter-attack in February 1999. Only after losing most of the disputed border terrain including “Badame” in an epic trench battle killing tens of thousands did Isaias finally reverse his prior refusal of an Organization of African Unity (OAU) peace proposal to accept it. After reclaiming “Badame,” Ethiopia’s Meles delayed for over a year before last week finally rejecting the OAU peace process. Over the same period, Eritrea only grew more anxious to sign it. Eritrea made the same mistake in 1998 that Ethiopia appears to be making now in thinking that a massive deployment of force will bring it a relatively quick and painless victory. .

Tiny Eritrea is hemorrhaging badly — a fact that should surprise no one considering that Ethiopia’s economy is more than nine times the size of Eritrea’s. Even though Ethiopia spent about $550 million last year on the war, its military spending still represents less than 10{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of its gross domestic product (GDP). Eritrea, meanwhile, spent about $180 million in 1999 on the war, which is more than one-fourth of its GDP. Most of Eritrea’s arms purchases have been purchased by funds sent by expatriates living as diaspora who, according to official sources, sent back $121.3 million in remittances last year. Nevertheless, Eritrea can still not afford to buy more than a few jet fighters to match the ones Ethiopia recently bought.

In recent months, Ethiopia bought more arms including Russian SU-25 attack jets. By then, the early-warning system that Meles’ government implemented to avoid disasters like famines worked perfectly. Foreign experts and Ethiopian officials alike knew that 8 million Ethiopians — largely ethnic Somalis — concentrated in the Ogaden region of southeastern Ethiopia were at risk of starvation.
What about human suffering?

Up to eight million more Ethiopians are threatened with starvation if the famine spreads. This time usually drier Eritrea is in better shape because it has absorbed more rain, unlike much of southern and eastern Ethiopia, which is in the third year of a drought. The rainy season that in some areas came early this year and usually lasts until September only worsens the immediate tragedy. Rains help farmers who have already sown seeds, but they do nothing for the three-quarters of a million men and, in Eritrea’s case, women deployed at or near the front. The rains have already begun to impede some travel from Red Sea ports that international relief agencies need to bring food and other supplies to the Ogaden and elsewhere in Ethiopia. Rather than spend even a dime on building weather-proof passages on roadways to feed people in the southeast, Meles’ government has devoted its resources to fighting Eritrea in the north.

Meles’ government has shown a similar callousness when it comes to Assab, Eritrea’s second Red Sea port. Although it falls within the original Italian colonial borders of Eritrea, Assab was modernized by the communist Mengistu regime, which expanded the port and built the roadway connecting it with Addis Abeba. In April, Isaias offered to allow the U.N. and other relief agencies to bring food to Ethiopia via Assab, which has traditionally served Ethiopia’s relief assistance needs. But Meles refused the offer. “In Ethiopia, we do not wait to have a fully tummy to protect our sovereignty,” he later explained. Instead, U.N. and other agencies have begun to bring in food from neighboring Djibouti and the international community has already spent millions to improve Djibouti’s port and the road connecting it with Ethiopia.

Meles’ government has only grown more popular, ironically, with the war. This Monday up to 200,000 Ethiopians demonstrated in support of the war effort in Addis Abeba. (Some Ethiopian Orthodox Church officials along with other religious leaders remain critical of the government’s handling of the famine.) Much of their protest focused on the U.S. and British embassies for their joint proposal for a U.N. arms embargo against both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

An international answer?

Like elsewhere in Africa, Western efforts on the Horn come too little too late. Even if the U.N. security council were to now impose an arms embargo on the Horn, it could only help lessen the intensity of the next possible round of fighting. And with U.N. peacekeepers unable to control irregular forces in Sierra Leone, no one is suggesting that they should be deployed between the armies of two fully engaged Horn nations. The only remaining option is to escalate diplomatic pressure on Meles to compel him to halt his offensive, which, in the continued absence of any clear goal, only serves his need to be perceived by his own people as having punished Eritrea.

The West faces a similar conundrum to one it faced 16 years ago. The more the responsibility the international community assumes to feed Ethiopia’s people, the more resources it frees up for the nation’s ruling regime to spend on the largest conventional war ever in Africa. The death toll in the previous one of this scale, the Afrikaner-Boer war, was a little more than 30,000 combatants. No doubt by now the Horn war’s death toll is greater. To fuel its campaign, Meles’ government even tried and failed to tax the first sacks of Western food aid arriving this year for the famine. “They are completely expecting the international community to deal with it,” says an official from a donor nation.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist and a contributing editor at He has previously written about the African Horn in Foreign Affairs, World Policy Journal, The New Republic and Jane’s Intelligence Review. His website is

Expanding Globalization’s Agenda

One poster carried by a young protester near the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington last Sunday showed many small fish coming together in the shape of a huge, collective fish to swallow a big one. The question for many activists and others is how to help empower the little fish in poor countries.

Demonstrators this week in Washington, like the ones last fall in Seattle, seek to slow down or stop the globalization process that has so far championed only capital. They include the AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth that helped organize the non-violent rallies in both Seattle and Washington (Young anarchists led most of the violent protests that occurred in both cities). The “South Summit” of 133 developing nations that assembled last week in Cuba echoed some of their demands.

An uphill fight

Unlike the protesters on the street, most human-rights groups take no stand on globalization and articulate no positions on any economic issues. Nonetheless, they often try to piggyback on the commercial ties that globalization seeks to expand. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and George Soros’ Open Society Institute each regularly lobby the United States and other Western governments to pressure weaker nations to respect international human-rights standards as a condition of expanded trade and other bilateral relations.

The demonstrators have highlighted dubious WTO/IMF practices

The street demonstrations deserve credit for bringing needed attention to the most dubious practices of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank and the IMF. They need greater transparency and a more participatory decision-making process. The painful and destabilizing form of globalization that the IMF practices, especially, needs to change. And the notion that nations should embrace free societies at the same time that they accept free trade remains almost as low on the agenda for people working inside the institutions as it is for those outside them protesting their annual meetings.

Trying to stop globalization is like trying to win the war on drugs; both efforts seek to negate market dynamics. Nevertheless, presuming that communities everywhere should stand by while capital-driven globalization overwhelms and, in too many cases, impoverishes them is just as narrow-minded. The current agenda of most globalization backers, including the Clinton administration, is hardly inspiring to anyone but those who have already accumulated much capital. Today’s open economic waters give wealthy nations and their corporations the obvious advantage.

Last week’s scenes in Washington resonated across the Florida straits in Havana, where U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan addressed the “South Summit.”

The 133 nations meeting in Havana timed their gathering to coincide with the annual IMF and World Bank meetings. Some Americans might easily dismiss the “Group of 77” (still known for the original group of 77 states that began the poor nation movement back in 1964) if one did not know that the Southern coalition today includes many nations important to U.S. interests like Colombia, Indonesia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

The limitations of protest

The agenda of the “South Summit” was a bit more focused than the protests in Washington. This year’s chairman is Nigeria’s U.N. representative, Chief Arthur C.I. Mbanefo. He echoed the call by American church groups in Washington for broad debt relief for developing nations. In Havana, Annan avoided the most controversial issues while urging delegates to make sure that “the voice of the South [is] heard good and loud” by sticking to a “positive, practical agenda.” Like the demonstrators in Washington, one 40-nation panel of the group demanded not only both more transparency and broader participation in decision-making at both the IMF and the World Bank, but also more power for the U.N. General Assembly and enlargement of the U.N. Security Council.

The “Group of 77,” however, does not want to abolish the World Bank or the more-resented IMF, which a group press release said could still play an effective role in “stabilizing volatile international capital flows.” Neither do leading anti-poverty non-governmental organizations, like OXFAM. In recent years, the World Bank has expanded badly needed programs like providing credit to women (repeated studies have shown that they are far more reliable to repay them than men are) to help them establish their own small businesses in the face of the multinational corporations that are now earning the most from globalization.

Of course, implement any large-scale debt relief or anti-poverty measures for most developing nations would require more resources from wealthy nations. And the United States still gives little more than one-tenth of 1{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of its total economic output for non-military foreign aid, far less proportionately than either Western Europe that on average gives over two-tenths of 1{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af}, or Japan that gives nearly three-tenths of 1{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af}. Yet hardly anyone in the globalization debate — in the United States at least — has yet to suggest that Americans should pay higher taxes in order to finance such measures. Instead, most of the demonstrators in Washington, like the heads of state and foreign ministers in Havana, are demanding a transfer of resources from North to South without saying how the United States, Europe, and Japan should divide up the bill.

The limitations of this approach are apparent, and it makes for an unusual alliance between wealthy non-American elites and anti-wealthy American radicals. Most developing nations are dominated and governed by their own privileged circles, while most demonstrators this spring in Washington say they are agitating on behalf of the world’s masses. Today both foreign elites and American demonstrators seek to strengthen the international concept of national sovereignty to resist World Bank and IMF measures that in recent years have inflicted painful measures on corrupt elites along with the usual poor in a few nations like Indonesia. At the same time, most American labor and environmental groups distrust their own government too much to try and piggyback their demands on globalization’s cross-border agenda.

Let go of sovereignty

Unlike anti-globalization protesters, human-rights activists do not cling to the concept of state sovereignty. They are not necessarily worried about wealthy states pushing weaker ones around. That leading human-rights groups criticized the NATO war on Yugoslavia only on tactical grounds is one example. They also supported the case against Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who stands accused in Spain of having committed crimes against humanity in Chile.

The effort to establish the International Criminal Court further challenges the sovereignty of all states. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International back the court, while they defend political and collective bargaining rights across borders. Neither group takes any position outside its mandate. George Soros, for one, openly supports a limited, regulated form of capitalism that would give small fish a better chance to compete and grow.

Whether to strengthen or weaken national sovereignty in the 21st century is an issue of profound importance for not only the international flow of capital but also for information, rights and standards. Clinging to sovereignty as a panacea for globalization’s woes is as myopic as trying to break down borders for capital alone. The United States will only gain credibility among people and states to open more markets if it couples the campaign with the international adoption of minimum standards to protect labor, people and the planet. In the long run, their adoption would not only reduce costs, it would help stabilize nations and create emerging markets for not only investments, but goods.

Instead, globalization’s backers like the Clinton administration follow short-sighted greed. One thing is already clear in the water. The little fish need help, and only a few of them are getting any, even though many different people, groups and institutions speak in their name.

Frank Smyth is a contributing editor at

Al Gore and the Iraqi Democracy Question

How carefully did Vice President Al Gore choose his words last month when he became the first Clinton administration official to apply the “d-word” to Iraq? In a one-page, Feb. 8 letter to Iraqi exiles based in London, Gore became the first high-level U.S. official ever to publicly promise to promote “democracy in Iraq.” Nothing would be more revolutionary for a place that, for centuries, has been dominated by a small social minority. Nothing would be more threatening for Saddam Hussein, who, for decades, has been the same ruling minority’s strongest leader.

Religious identity is what sets Saddam and his regime apart from most of the people in both Iraq and Iran. Saddam along with most of his military officers, ruling-party officers and elite combat personnel are ethnic Arabs who are members of the Sunni Muslim faith — just like most members of every Iraqi regime including the monarchy that was deposed in 1958. At the same time, at least 60{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iraqis and 89{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of Iranians (who are mainly ethnic Arabs and Persians, respectively) share allegiance to the Shia Muslim faith. Ethnic Kurds who also practice the Sunni faith comprise a third social group in Iraq. They comprise less than 20{2ef06ca992448c50a258763a7da34b197719f7cbe0b72ffbdc84f980e5f312af} of the country’s population and are as small as Iraq’s ruling Sunni Arab elite that, since 1979, has been led by Saddam.

The issue of democracy for Iraq is sensitive because any free elections there would probably lead to greater autonomy for Iraq’s long-disenfranchised Kurdish minority, and also finally bring representative power to the country’s long-disenfranchised Shia majority. To prevent either outcome, the United States has long maintained a de facto alliance with Iraq’s ruling Sunni minority led by Saddam. Today many U.S. officials still fear that without Sunni Arabs like Saddam in control, Iraqi Kurds would try and form their own state which would de-stabilize America’s regional NATO ally, Turkey, while Iraqi Shias would turn what is left of Iraq into another radical Islamic state allied with Iran.

An uneasy imbalance

The U.S. must back democratic reforms in the Persian Gulf selectively.

This perception is outdated. The Persian Gulf has changed in recent years. The winding down of a 15-year Kurdish guerrilla war in Turkey gives U.S. policymakers more opportunities to deal with Iraqi Kurds, and the unexpected rise of moderate Shia leaders in Iran through successive elections over the past three years turns the American notion that equates Shias with fundamentalists on its turban. To strengthen American interests in both Iraq and Iran, either President Clinton or his successor should finally state that the United States supports the eventual goal of democracy for Iraq, whenever Saddam finally falls — just as candidate Gore, however unwittingly, recently did.

Americans have tended to perceive all Persian Gulf Shias in a negative light since the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that lasted until 1981. The United States has since sought to contain Shia political forces throughout the Persian Gulf. The Reagan administration backed Saddam and his Sunni-dominated regime throughout the Iran-Iraq War that finally ended in 1988.

Many Shias in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon share their own hatred for Saddam. Since 1998, three of Iraq’s Supreme Ayatollahs have been killed in the streets by unidentified gunmen after encouraging Shias to return to their mosques to receive daily prayers instead of receiving them from state television. A year ago after the third murder, Shias spontaneously demonstrated against Saddam. In Tehran, Iran’s most hard-line cleric, Supreme Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, immediately denounced the latest top-cleric murder.

The last time Shias worshiped freely in Iraq was right after the Gulf War during the period known as the intifada or “shaking off.” It began the evening after President George Bush urged Iraqis to remove Saddam. First Shia rebels in the south and then Kurdish guerrillas in the north overtook local army, air force and ruling-party bases. The Bush administration, however, never intended to provoke a popular insurrection and instead allied with Saudi Arabia in trying to provoke a palace coup against Saddam in order to keeps Iraq’s ruling Sunnis in power. As a result of U.S. inaction, Saddam quickly snuffed out the Shia/Kurdish intifada. President George Bush would later say that he ordered U.S. forces to stand by because he feared the intifada’s triumph might have destabilized the region.

The failure of current policy

The Persian Gulf remains unstable today because of Saddam and his regime. Few doubt that Iraq is actively rebuilding its weapons of mass destruction while its efforts are no longer being monitored. Russia, China and France recently forced the United Nations to appoint a relatively weak candidate, Hans Blix, to renew U.N. inspections. The new inspection regime that Blix is forming will no doubt be the weakest one since the Gulf War, granted Saddam’s regime even allows the inspections to resume at all.

The United States also goes on paying an ever-higher political price over U.N. sanctions against Iraq. The top two U.N. officials to administer the oil-for-food program that is designed to alleviate the suffering of Iraqi people resigned in February in protest of the program’s failure to do so. In January, 68 members of Congress wrote a letter to President Clinton demanding an end to the sanctions against Iraq — a program that the administration has already begun to weaken in the face of mounting international pressure.
Backing the notion of democracy for Iraq would represent nothing less than a strategic shift for U.S. policy. The change would finally dump the idea of backing a coup against Saddam that would preserve most of his Sunni Arab-dominated regime — an anti-democratic goal that both the Bush and Clinton administrations have separately pursued at one time or another.

The case for U.S. support of democracy in Iraq

Democracy, of course, is uncommon in the Middle East, and it may only be promoted in most nations slowly and with caution. Saudi Arabia is a monarchist dictatorship that is generations away from reform. Self-rule for Iraq would be even more threatening to another oil-producing giant, Bahrain, where, like in Iraq, another Sunni minority rules over a Shia majority. The United States must back democratic reforms in the Persian Gulf selectively in a way that preserves its economic and strategic interests.

But the presumption that America could never back democracy in Iraq is inconsistent with both American values and interests. America’s long-held view that only Sunni Arabs can maintain stability in Iraq is near-sighted. Whether he realizes yet or not, Al Gore has taken a radical stand in backing the simple goal of democracy for Iraq. Other presidential candidates should now be asked whether they back it there, too, while Gore should be asked when exactly he plans to engage in a dialogue with the men who represent Iraq’s Shia majority. Back in 1998, leaders of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution for Iraq based in Tehran said they wanted to work more closely with the United States. But Gore’s allies in the Clinton administration still keep them at arm’s length.

America must finally begin discussions with truly representative Iraqi groups about a future form of government that could keep Iraq together in a way that would protect both its people’s majority and minority rights. Of course, that would be a tall order, and every Iraqi frontline state, among others, would have legitimate concerns about the process. The effort would no doubt fail without leadership from the United States. But it could conceivably succeed. The unexpected continuation of Saddam’s regime in power has been a sobering experience for Iraqis, Iranians and Americans, among others, who share the burden of living with Saddam.

American backing of democracy for Iraq would involve more than risks. It would finally cast the United States in a favorable light in Iran. Shias from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean are sure to retain anti-American sentiments if they rightfully perceive that America is still trying to keep Shias down. But if America were to back democracy for Iraq, there would be no better way to influence Iran.

The policy change would be the most dangerous one imaginable for Saddam. Observers who think the United States could remove him if it wanted to generally are overly impressed with America’s technological advantage while failing to consider that America along with the rest of the West has little or no effective intelligence base today inside Iraq. Backing democracy for Iraq is not the same thing as backing Saddam’s ouster. Democracy presumes that not only will Saddam be forced to leave office but that one way or another Shias will eventually gain the representative power they deserve.

Self-determination is one reason why the Clinton administration went to war with Yugoslavia over its province of Kosovo, and it is the same principle upon which the Bush administration purportedly fought the Gulf War with Iraq to free Kuwait. Yet, America’s moral record is inconsistent. To serve its own interests, the United States needs to apply the same principle now to Iraq. Did Gore mean to use the “d-word” or not?

Frank Smyth, who covered the Gulf War and the intifada for The Economist, CBS News and the Village Voice, is a contributing editor for He is also a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

France’s Feeble Demand

One trait that France and the United States have in common is that each nation acts like it has moral authority to lead the world.

The opportunity for global leadership rests largely on other factors — namely power, wealth and credibility — things that the United States tends to have more of than France. But whenever a smaller state challenges a larger one, it usually needs a moral advantage to prevail. A good example is the one Panama enjoyed in negotiations with the United States over the Panama Canal. That lesson has eluded France. Even though France’s ethical credibility remains stained over its unconditional support for Rwanda until the early days of the Central African nation’s 1994 genocide, French leaders recently launched a bipartisan challenge to the United States over its unilateral dominance of world affairs.

The French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, began the refrain last November in a Paris speech when he called America a “hyperpower.” A month later, Vedrine, a Socialist, told American reporters in Paris that American leaders “have always been for sharing the burden” of multilateral actions. But, he added,”[t]hey’ve never been much for sharing the decision-making” over those actions.

The same week, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, another Socialist, urged America to exercise power more “discreet[ly],” and President Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist, insisted that the United States do nothing less than share its power. Their joint demand would no doubt stand a better chance of success if nations were to perceive that France enjoyed moral authority over the United States.

Is France up to the challenge?

Many non-Americans fear America’s influences needs to be checked.

At the very least, countless people worldwide are glad to finally see at least one Western nation stand up to the United States. Many non-Americans fear that America’s overwhelming economic and cultural influences need to be checked. The world, too, has observed the technological superiority of U.S. weapons in strikes from Baghdad to Khartoum, along with America’s readiness (and shamelessness) to use them. Since American bombers (with the help of the British) dominated NATO’s air strikes last year against Serbia, France has pushed Europe to upgrade its capabilities in order to provide a Western military alternative to American-led might.

One might dismiss France’s challenge if one did not know that France has the largest non-American military force of any NATO ally but Turkey, even though France’s troops are still less than one-fourth the size of U.S. forces. Nevertheless, France is richer and stronger than America’s closest ally, Great Britain. France enjoys another advantage in challenging America’s global influence. Most French people not only want their government to play a lead role in foreign affairs but, unlike Americans, they both expect and accept that French troops will assume risks as needed. Since the Cold War, French troops have been deployed amidst ongoing crises in places from Rwanda to Kosovo with broad French public support.

French people also seem to understand better than Americans do the limits of military power. During the Cold War, France withdrew from Vietnam before the United States decided to back the same army that France had already abandoned. Unlike Americans, French people know well the lesson that even seemingly invincible empires later fall, from the examples of King Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte. Even France’s currently governing Fifth Republic was founded upon realism. The first president, Charles de Gaulle, sought to rival America’s global power at the same time that he began to withdraw French troops from a civil war in French colonial Algeria over independence.

Another trait that France shares with the United States is the notion that its foreign policy, besides following its own realpolitik over trade and investments, also rests upon moralist ideals. After all, the 18th-century notion that men (and now also women and minorities) enjoy inalienable rights is the moral bedrock of both republics. But while America’s crusades have revolved around exporting economic and political models, France’s campaigns have leaned more toward evangelizing culture and language.

Both Western powers also have placed much weight on upholding their own military credibility to defend their respective allies from perceived external threats, sharing the logic that if one ally were to fall others might follow. This thinking, however, has sometimes led the United States and France to separately squander their credibility along with their principles. While America, during the Cold War, backed South Vietnam against North Vietnamese-backed forces, France, one year after the Berlin Wall fell, began to back Rwanda against another kind of foreign-backed aggression.

Fear of falling dominos has led America and France to each respectively back many regimes, including the aforementioned ones, even as they committed obvious war crimes. President Clinton finally took a step toward acknowledging America’s bloody record a year ago when he apologized in Guatemala City for United States’ complicity in what a U.N. Truth Commission the month before called “acts of genocide.”

France’s role in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide stands as the Fifth Republic’s bloodiest foreign campaign, which is all the more ironic being that it failed. The policy was a bipartisan effort led by a Socialist, President Francois Mitterrand. Of no strategic importance and without any valuable resources, Rwanda was not a priority for France until 1990, when a newly formed guerrilla front invaded from Uganda with Ugandan arms as large as Katyusha multiple-rocket launchers. To Rwanda’s ruling Hutu majority, the invading rebels were members of Rwanda’s minority ethnic group, Tutsis. But to France, the rebels were Anglophones backed by Uganda seeking to overthrow an allied Francophone nation.

Belgium, not France, had governed colonial Rwanda, although it was France in the early 1990s that rushed to aid Rwanda’s Francophone regime. Before Belgium had only strengthened colonial Rwanda’s ethnic divisions by issuing the first identity cards with ethnic categories. But over a half-century later, Belgium’s policy was mindful of the massacres that had accompanied the overthrow of a Tutsi monarchy during the country’s transition to independence. Yet France paid no mind to Rwanda’s prior ethnic violence as it provided arms, advisors and paratroopers to the regime. French artillery units assumed positions just south of the northern front bordering Uganda, while, over 40 kilometers away in Kigali, French armored cars patrolled the capital. Meanwhile, Belgium only provided the regime with boots and uniforms in a failed gesture to pressure Rwanda to share power.

French officials apologized for the Hutu government even though the Hutu forces committed many massacres of civilians as it was receiving French arms. “Civilians were killed as in any war,” French Col. Bernard Cussac, France’s military commander in Kigali, said in 1993 about ethnic killings that occurred in the three years leading up to the genocide. Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud was more discreet. “There are violations by the Rwandan army,” he said, “[but] more because of a lack of control by the government rather than the will of the government.”

On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan president died when his plane was hit by a rocket fired from the vicinity of a Rwandan army base. Hours later, presidential guards began killing fellow Hutus who were political opponents of the ruling party, starting with the country’s first elected prime minister and 10 Belgian peacekeepers around her. As ruling-party militias spread out to target all Tutsi, France seized control of Kigali’s airport, ostensibly to evacuate French and other Western nationals if necessary, but also so France could still fly in French troops if needed. Days later, however, or on the seventh day of the 90-day genocide, Ambassador Marlaud withdrew all French personnel from Rwanda to leave behind France’s remaining Francophone allies, who by then were directing the slaughter.

France’s role in Rwanda is not without dereliction.

French troops returned to Rwanda less than three months later under hastily granted U.N. auspices to establish a safe haven that, while no doubt protecting many innocent Hutu refugees, also protected countless former regime members turned genocidaires. Although human-rights groups already knew the names of many of the lead suspects, French troops did not apprehend even one. Today France, as part of its regional efforts to build anti-American alliances, is pursuing a similar strategy in the Balkans, where French troops have consistently failed to arrest Serbian war-crimes suspects who seem to move about freely within France’s U.N.-authorized zones of control.

French leaders make a popular case when they demand that America share the reigns of global leadership. But the notion that either Western nation has moral authority over the other only ignores the blood on both their hands. And without ethical credibility to back up its bi-partisan stance, France, alone, is too small and weak to successfully push the United States.

Frank Smyth is author of Arming Rwanda, a January 1994 Human Rights Watch report. The views expressed here are his own. He is a contributing editor of

Leader of the Pack

Irrespective of how things might look after the protests against the World Trade Organization talks in Seattle turned unexpectedly fierce right before the talks themselves suddenly collapsed, a consensus has already emerged in the presidential debate over foreign policy that is sure to last. The question is no longer whether Washington should try to control the pace and terms of globalization, but how and toward what ends. The leading candidates have each rejected isolationists to both their right and left while favoring different strategies for more globalization. One way or another, America is likely to become more engaged abroad in the 2000s.

Bradley’s plan

Although the candidates have so far barely addressed foreign affairs, one man long known for his ability to synthesize information, Bill Bradley, recently became the first to articulate a new strategy. Last week at Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass., Bradley said that the United States must stop going it alone so much in the world and making decisions unilaterally. Instead, America must learn to work more cooperatively with other states to “help mold [the] international system,” Bradley said. “This requires partners in the world to do this, alliances with international organizations.”

Bradley’s plan is so ambitious that he says it will do nothing less than establish the basis for the first consensus on America’s role in the world since the Cold War, even though it is based on the unconventional notion that America must finally get over its suspicions of multinational institutions like the United Nations and instead learn to guide them in the future. Bradley’s plan also is based on the novel idea that the interests of America and other nations have been merging since the Cold War. Popular in some circles, the concept that the world community shares an interest in matters like environmental preservation motivated many protestors in Seattle.

However radical he may sound, Bradley echoes recent establishment authors in the premier journal of its kind, Foreign Affairs. Both Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard University professor, and Richard N. Haass, a former Bush administration national security adviser (and an IC contributing editor), have argued separately that American hegemony over the world has waned since the Cold War and that U.S. power now is only likely to decrease more. These leading “realists” say the United States no longer has any choice but to work more cooperatively with other states within international fora.

American interests and of other nations have been merging since the Cold War

Can Gore and Bush respond?

Bradley is a quick study, and his plan establishes him as a serious foreign-policy thinker. His idea — that even though we are the world’s only surviving superpower, we should work cooperatively with other states to forge a global community — was originally a progressive one that only this year was legitimized by conservatives. By being the first candidate to promote it, Bradley has begun to define America’s foreign-policy debate along new, broad lines that transcend the old divisions of the Cold War.

Bradley’s words challenge his main rival, Al Gore, and leave him with bad options. Top heavy with too many advisers loyal to Clinton as well as the vice president, Gore only suffers over his ongoing embrace of the administration. The rationale Bradley is using to explain his plan is that the United States will not necessarily stand by in the face of more crises like Kosovo, but that it cannot afford to assume either the costs or the responsibilities for future interventions by itself. The solution then is for the United States to find effective ways to support multilateral institutions like the United Nations to assume those costs in the future, says Bradley. To do so, the United States must reverse itself 180 degrees in its attitude to the United Nations and back it with the spirit and resources to make it work well.

Bradley’s plan is likely to be opposed by candidates like John McCain who this week, at the U.S.S. Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York, argued that the United States should strengthen and reform its own military to better handle future problems by itself. Some conservatives are likely to have even stronger objections to Bradley’s new internationalism. A few years ago, so many members of the gun lobby believed conspiracy myths that the National Rifle Association issued a disclaimer declaring false widely-disseminated rumors that U.N. forces were flying “black helicopters” in a secret plot to take over America. Few Americans in their lifetimes have heard much more than criticism of the United Nations. No doubt, both Gore and George W. Bush will say they represent the majority of Americans when and if they express skepticism about Bradley’s plan.

But Gore finds himself cornered. The Clinton administration has recently lost big battles over arms control and global trade, and its most important legacy is likely to be its Kosovo intervention. President Clinton’sgreatest flaw in taking the United States in a bold new direction in leading humanitarian intervention is that he never set any limits to decide when it is and is not worth the risk and costs. Gore has many reasons to defend the effort, but he can no longer defend its lack of realism. Now whether he denies or admits the policy’s shortcomings, he will go on being associated with them.

Bush, too, must eventually face Bradley’s new pitch. And although, like Gore, Bush has plenty of big-name foreign-policy advisers, he still seems unsure of his own views. While Bush has yet to articulate any response to Bradley’s plan, the views of the realists who dominate his foreign-policy team are well known.

Like their most influential strategist, Henry Kissinger, most realists opposed the Clinton administration’s NATO-led intervention against Yugoslavia. But while they argue for the need to scale back international humanitarian interventions, they nevertheless recognize that the United States must, in the words of Gulf War-era adviser Haass, “support constructive notions of how international society should be organized and should operate,” instead of going on like it has done and acting mainly unilaterally.

Bush’s advisers surely will encourage him to eventually speak out against Bradley’s foreign-policy plan, although some of them may already agree with the notion that the United States must learn to work more effectively within multinational institutions to promote greater globalization. Bush, however, is sure to back efforts promoting trade instead of any leadership for humanitarian interventions, for which U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has recently all but begged. Meanwhile, Bradley’s and Annan’s separate plans seem wholly compatible. Bush might decide to attack their unspoken alliance, but whatever move he makes now will be catch up to Bradley’s breakaway last week.

Leaving the competition behind

Bradley also is the first candidate to spell out how he would handle Russia, criticizing the Clinton administration for pushing Russia to adopt unpopular economic reforms while neglecting to disarm the former Soviet empire’s various nuclear missiles. Bradley was also the first to speak out on trade.

Before the collapse of the Seattle talks, Bradley said that the World Trade Organization should afford labor and environmental groups the right to file “friend of the court” briefs to the organization, although he has yet to explain how the ultimate decisions should be made. Bradley favors global trade, but he wants it to expand at a slower, more cautious pace than some other business advocates.

While Gore and Bush alike each go on consulting their respective advisers who are no doubt giving them conflicting advice, the former New York Knicks forward and Rhodes scholar has already thought a lot about foreign affairs. He has never looked more alpha leading the pack.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has written for Foreign Affairs, World Policy Journal and Jane’s Intelligence Review. He is a contributor to Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, edited by Roy Gutman and David Rieff. He is a contributing editor at

Guatemala’s Narco-military

No country so small has ever moved so much cocaine north. Earlier in this decade, about 50 to 75 metric tons of cocaine passed through Guatemala each year, according to the State Department. But today, the State Department estimates that Guatemala annually transships (receives and then ships on) approximately 200 to 300 metric tons of cocaine, making Guatemala a frequent stop along the American drug-trade route. At least half of all the cocaine that State Department experts estimate reaches the U.S. market goes through Guatemala.

Colombia has long been at the heart of the drug trade, and back in the 1980s most of its cocaine was transshipped north through the Caribbean. But in the 1990s, Colombian drug trafficking routes shifted to the northern Central American and Mexican land isthmus. Throughout this decade, it was Mexico, which shares its southern border with Guatemala, that transshipped up to three-fourths of America’s cocaine. But over the past two years, Guatemala’s role in the trade has dramatically expanded. “Mexico still moves the same amount of cocaine,” says one U.S. expert, only now most of it goes to Guatemala first.

When it comes to the drug war, however, the Clinton administration along with its Congressional critics are concentrating mainly on Colombia. American leaders are focusing on the role of Colombia’s leftist “narco-guerrillas” in the drug trade, while ignoring the role being played by rightist military forces in Latin American nations from Colombia to Guatemala.

La Bodega

There is something ironic about Guatemala’s increased role in the drug trade especially when one considers the nature of the criminal syndicates behind it. Guatemala was a staunch Cold War ally of the United States and, back in 1954, the CIA engineered a coup from Honduras that deposed Guatemala’s elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, after he first nationalized the lands of the U.S. firm United Fruit and then received arms from Czechoslovakia. The coup established the Guatemalan military as the country’s dominant institution, and its officer corps has since enjoyed near-blanket impunity from prosecution.

While most of Central America was consumed by ideological warfare in the 1980s, Guatemala’s conflict was by far the bloodiest. Its anti-communist military explicitly rejected human-rights considerations along with any covert U.S. aid conditioned upon them, although the CIA continued to provide the Guatemalan military with covert assistance even as its forces committed many war crimes.

The war crimes peaked in the early 1980s with the wholesale massacres of as many as 400 ethnic Mayan villages suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas. Last February, a U.N. truth commission reported that the Guatemalan military abuses included acts of genocide. One month later, President Clinton apologized in Guatemala City for America’s past complicity in the Guatemalan military’s war crimes.

But President Clinton has yet to address the Guatemalan military’s role in drug trafficking, which the DEA first began to detect during the Bush administration. As early as 1990, DEA special agents termed Guatemala, la bodega or “the warehouse.” One of their first suspects was a Guatemalan Army lieutenant colonel, Carlos Ochoa Ruiz. The DEA maintains that Ochoa transshipped a half metric ton of cocaine –worth $7.5 million wholesale — from Western Guatemala to Tampa, Fla., where he remains indicted in a U.S. federal court.

Eastern Guatemala peasants say military officers there, too, transshipped cocaine. In 1992, they filed a petition with the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City that accused suspects including four Army colonels of driving them off their farmland in order to build clandestine runways to run drugs, after killing at least nine people — including a mother and her son — in order to accelerate the land clearing. One of the suspects named by surviving peasants, Arnoldo Vargas Estrada, was later convicted in a U.S. federal court in New York of smuggling several metric tons of cocaine a month from Guatemala to New York. Yet not one of the four Army colonels named by the peasants in Guatemala was ever charged with any crime.

While some Army officers moved cocaine in private planes, some Air Force officers moved drugs in military planes. The highest-ranking officer accused of trafficking by the DEA is Gen. Carlos Pozuelos Villavicencio who retired in 1993 as Guatemala’s Air Force commander. Although the Clinton administration denied him a U.S. entry visa explicitly over his alleged role in cocaine transshipments, Pozuelos, too, was never charged with the crime.

The Ochoa case

So far, only one major military drug suspect in Guatemala received a serious sentence. Ironically he is the same suspect, Army Lt. Col. Carlos Ochoa Ruiz, that the DEA first accused of trafficking back in 1990. Ochoa currently is incarcerated in Guatemala after being convicted in a Guatemalan court even as he remains wanted for trial in a U.S. federal court in Tampa. No case better illustrates the difficulties of prosecuting Guatemalan military officers for running drugs.

Ochoa was the first Guatemalan military officer the United States tried to prosecute for trafficking. After a U.S. federal grand jury indicted him in 1990 in Florida, the State Department asked Guatemala to extradite him there to stand trial. The Guatemalan military gave Ochoa a dishonorable discharge in order to put distance between his name and the institution, but that did not stop a military tribunal from inexplicably reclaiming jurisdiction over him later to try and dismiss the case against him allegedly for lack of evidence.

The State Department appealed the case three times — all the way to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial body. The presiding judge, Epaminondas Gonzalez Dubon, was already well respected for his integrity, having bravely ruled against a 1993 “self-coup” by Guatemala’s then-President Jorge Serrano. Because of his unblemished record, State Department officials were confident that Gonzalez would lead the court to favor their appeal.

Gonzalez did exactly that, although he paid with his life for his decision. According to court documents published later by the Costa Rican daily newspaper, La Nacion, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court led by Gonzalez voted four to three to extradite Ochoa on March 23, 1994. Nine days later, a four-man team murdered Judge Gonzalez Dubon in Guatemala City in front of his wife and son. Eleven days later, the same court led by a new presiding judge voted seven-to one against the extradition.

A wall of silence

Although the matter was the end of a four-year effort by the United States, Clinton, like his Guatemalan Ambassador Marilyn McAfee, remained shamefully silent about the interminable loss of the case. State Department officials would later say the administration saw no reason to protest a decision it could no longer appeal. Meanwhile, Ochoa went free only to go on running cocaine to the United States.

Ochoa got caught trafficking again — this time with 30 kilograms of cocaine — in Guatemala in 1997. This year in July, a Guatemalan court finally convicted him, with Judge Marco Tulio Molina Lara sentencing him to 14 years. Such a lengthy sentence is unprecedented for a senior Guatemalan military officer, even though hundreds of officers have been implicated in either human rights or drug-trafficking crimes.

No doubt, the conviction and sentencing of a recidivist military trafficker is an important first step for Guatemala toward breaking the wall of impunity that has long protected its officer corps from justice. But the State Department’s report about the country’s recent expansion in cocaine transshipments only shows that this change has come too little too late for the United States.

Frank Smyth, who covered El Salvador for CBS News Radio, the Village Voice, The Economist and other outlets, is co-author of Dialogue and Armed Conflict: Negotiating the Civil War in El Salvador. He is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Communication at American University.