Planting the Flag

In his second inaugural address, George W. Bush declared that “the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands, America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” He then added, “The defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom.”

Author and critic Tom Wolfe saw in this presidential message a pledge to apply the Monroe Doctrine to lands and peoples beyond Latin America. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Wolfe wrote of the benefits our interventions had conferred on “our sanctified Western Hemisphere.” Writing in the context of the Iraq war, he said that many new citizens of our country will agree with “President Bush—and with Theodore Roosevelt—that it is America’s destiny and duty to bring that salvation to all mankind.”

I paid particular attention to Wolfe’s article because I, too, had heard echoes of the Roosevelt Corollary in Bush’s triumphant victory speech. Just as Teddy Roosevelt saw it as his duty to use the Big Stick to restore stability to the tumultuous states of Central America and the Caribbean, Bush came to believe that it was his destiny to oust Saddam Hussein because of his flagrant abuses of power, thus bringing democracy to the Middle East.

Whereas Wolfe welcomed this global mission announced by the president, I feared and mistrusted it. Behind the noble rhetoric of democracy and liberty, I sensed an imperial ambition that would involve the United States in constant military excursions abroad and a steady erosion of civil liberties at home. Yet I had no doubt that Wolfe’s article gave eloquent expression to the views of millions of Americans who firmly believe, despite the evidence, that Latin America has benefited from our interventions.

Empire’s Workshop makes the case for “Latin America’s primary role in the formation of the U.S. empire.” In itself, this is not a new idea. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, several authors held up our hegemony over Latin America as a model of how to control the world through local elites and a minimum expenditure of blood and treasure. A work titled Supremacy by Stealth: Ten Rules for Managing the World is not the delusion of some marginal megalomaniac, but a work by a serious commentator on world affairs, Robert Kaplan of the Atlantic Monthly.

Greg Grandin argues that Central America provided the perfect arena for conservative militarists to rekindle the faith of the American people in military solutions. “Central America’s very insignificance,” he writes, made it the ideal laboratory for the Reagan administration to roll back the antimilitarism that had permeated American society in the aftermath of Vietnam. To ensure that the American people got this message, Reagan issued National Security Directive 77, which created an interagency task force designed to generate public support for national security objectives.

This proved to be a formidable job because the propagandists in the Reagan White House had little good news to report. Despite an unstinting flow of resources, the proxy armies of the United States never came close to achieving a military victory in either El Salvador or Nicaragua. For twelve years, the rag-tag revolutionary coalition fought the Salvadoran army to a standstill. Nor did the Contra army in Nicaragua ever put the Sandinista military on the defensive. It was Washington’s strangulation of the country’s economy that led to the political defeat of the Sandinistas.

At the time, organizations like Amnesty International and the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights frequently released reports documenting the barbaric conduct of the armies we sponsored. To counter these, the Reagan White House called on the manipulative talents of Jeane Kirkpatrick, Otto Reich, and Elliott Abrams. These official disinformation experts regarded the murder of nuns and the massacres of unarmed men, women, and children as all in a day’s work, mere inconvenient facts to be covered up, explained away, or flatly denied. They worked hard to intimidate the press and to confuse public opinion. Members of Congress shrank from confrontations with these propagandists who did not scruple to characterize those who opposed them as apologists for communism.

To build support for its Central American wars, the Reagan White House mobilized the leaders of various factions and interest groups. Empire’s Workshop excels in its description of the mutually reinforcing roles of these domestic actors. Grandin identifies the principal members of this coalition as neoconservatives, Christian evangelicals, free marketers, and nationalists. To give just one example: The Reagan administration established the White House Outreach Working Group on Central America. It “coordinated the efforts of the NSC and CIA with more than fifty private organizations, including Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, Pat Robertson’s Freedom Council, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, and the Heritage Foundation.”

Grandin describes how the importance of this network and its organizing efforts soon transcended Central America. Gradually, the coalition developed into the linchpin that helped hold the Reagan network together. However much Reagan might anger the ideological conservatives by his failure to dismantle the welfare state, or tarnish his anti-Communist credentials by negotiating an arms agreement with the Soviet Union, Central America could always be counted on to reunite the faithful. They would overlook Reagan’s transgressions and thrill to his rhetoric as he described the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in Manichaean terms of good versus evil, freedom fighters versus terrorists.

Empire’s Workshop would have been a better book had Grandin ranged over narrower territory. He tries to cover all of Latin America instead of concentrating on Central America and the events of the 1980s, where he is clearly more at home. There is also occasional sloppiness in his use of facts, as well as a tendency to claim too much, stretching those facts to justify his argument. To say that Reagan’s Central American wars “can best be understood as a dress rehearsal for what is going on in the Middle East” today implies that the architects of that policy were consciously using El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s as practice runs before the main event (opening in New Haven prior to Broadway).

In his A Very Thin Line, Theodore Draper produced solid evidence that the secret White House cabal that involved us in the overthrow of the Sandinista government “threatened the constitutional foundations of the United States.” He noted that unless this story is “fully known and understood, a similar usurpation of power by a small strategically placed group within the government may well recur before we are prepared to recognize what is happening.” But that was as far as Draper was willing to go. Nowhere did this bold, thorough scholar hint that the practitioners of the Central American conspiracy were consciously laying the foundations for future imperial adventures.

Grandin’s citations to the contrary, no key figure in the Central American wars—and here I specifically include Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and national security council aide Elliott Abrams—has been given any important role in the planning and execution of the Iraq strategy. The chief architects of the Iraq invasion—Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, and national security aide Lewis Libby—played no role in the making of Reagan’s Central American policy.

Despite these flaws, Empire’s Workshop makes a powerful, original, and compelling case that the Reagan wars in Central America forged a new combination of interest groups, united behind a vision of the United States as the unilateral enforcer of world order. When President Bush, in the context of the Iraq war, stated that “the defense of freedom requires the advance of freedom,” he was speaking directly to this new coalition, shaking the Big Stick of Teddy Roosevelt no longer just at Latin America but also at nations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

There is a direct contradiction between the constitutional safeguards of the republic and the unchecked presidential authority required if the United States is to impose a global Pax Americana. I do not doubt that Tom Wolfe could furnish several examples of Latin American countries that received some transitory benefits from our armed occupations. Yet these few examples would be overwhelmed by the number of countries that suffered—and still suffer—from our arrogant and clumsy interventions. Look at Central America and you will find one success story and four failures. In 1948, Costa Rica abolished its army and invested the savings in education and health. In 1980, President Oscar Arias faced down the Reagan White House and refused to help Washington overthrow the Sandinistas and crush the Salvadoran revolution. Today, Costa Rica is a prosperous, democratic, middle-class nation that puts ex-presidents in handcuffs when they are credibly accused of corruption.

On the other side, in 1936, the United States installed the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua; in 1954, the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala; in 1963, a visiting general from the U.S. Southern Command gave a thumbs up to the military overthrow of the exemplary democratic leader in Honduras, Ramón Villeda Morales; and in 1972 when Napoleón Duarte won the presidential election, the United States refused to recognize his victory and smiled on the Salvadoran military colonels as they recounted the votes and declared Colonel Arturo Armando Molina president.

The people of Central America had every right to revolt against these corrupt military tyrants, but the United States intervened and through its proxy armies crushed these legitimate revolutions. Despite the heroic efforts of struggling democratic forces, the nations of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua are today four of the most unequal societies in the world, plagued by official impunity, endemic corruption, widespread violence, and narco-terrorism.

Perhaps the impending collapse of our military intervention in Iraq will bring home the forgotten truth that nations, large and small, must be permitted to make their own mistakes, correct their own errors, topple their own dictators, and arrive at their own political arrangements. As Grandin asks in his concluding paragraph, “If Washington was unable to bring prosperity, stability, and meaningful democracy to Latin America, a region that falls squarely within its own sphere of influence and whose population shares many of its values, then what are the chances that it will do so for the world?”

Published in the 2006-12-15 issue: 

Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy.

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