Saturday, January 22, 2005

Chris Dickey on the lessons of El Salvador

Given the amount of attention I've been paying to this topic in the past couple of weeks, I sent off a note to Newsweek's Chris Dickey, asking him to take a look at the discussion we've been having. His response is below, with a bit more detail than was in the original article. I have to admit that, with my obsession over trying to ascertain whether there was, in fact, some latent or unintentional U.S. admission about culpability vis-a-vis the Salvadoran death squads, that I failed to highlight Dickey's far more salient point--that the U.S. hasn't learned the right lessons from El Salvador.

He writes that he was "less concerned with clarifying an earlier Newsweek story than with trying to make a critical but somewhat unconventional point that the blog entries ignore:"
The activities of the death squads in El Salvador were so abhorrent that even the Reagan administration eventually wanted to be seen to be condemning them, but they were in fact critically useful to its overall policy. In the real world, this is not a contradiction, and it was the central fact of life -- and death -- that I observed when I was assigned to the region in the early 1980s. The death squads, as such, antedated American concerns or involvement in El Salvador. We didn't create them. But after the Nicaraguan revolution, the Carter administration looked for ways, directly or by proxy, to train more effective units of the Salvadoran military -- like the Atlacatl Batallion responsible for the Mozote massacre.

Many of the key commanders of these units were part of the same military academy class as D'Aubuisson and shared his attitudes. Still, during the Carter administration U.S. policy was clearly against the death squads as such, and you saw several incidents in which leftist leaders were picked up by government forces, then released. The critical period came after Carter was defeated and the Reagan administration elected, which the death squads took as license to do whatever they wanted. The visits of several "unofficial" Reagan emissaries to the region reinforced that view.

At the same time, the Sandinistas and Cubans were encouraging the Salvadoran rebels to make a bid for all-out insurrection. In January 1980, hundreds of thousands of people had poured into the streets to protest. Now a year later, if they would do that with guns in their hands, they could take over the country.

So, precisely at this point, from November 1980 through January 1981, the death squads went into high gear, and a lot of people got killed in what were often very poorly targeted operations, or purely stupid ones, like the murders of a couple of American labor leaders and a journalist at the Sheraton, and of course the nuns. But despite such inefficiencies, the slaughter was effective: the "final offensive" called for by the rebels in January 1981 fell flat. They no longer had an effective urban infrastructure, and had to fall back on a strategy of prolonged rural warfare. By 1982, the US felt the situation was secure enough to hold elections. This would not have been possible if the Left's power in the cities had remained intact.

After the elections the death squads became a liability, not least, because the United States stepped in to prevent D'Aubuisson from becoming president, and eventually engineered a victory, two years later, for Christian Democrat Napoleon Duarte. It is because the death squads opposed this US strategy, and endangered those who participated in it, that they were seen by the Reagan administration as problematic, not because they had murdered people who were seen as Communnists or Communist sympathizers. If there is any doubt about that just look at the sophistry with which the Reagan administration treated the Mozote massacre.

The lesson here for Iraq is not really about a "Salvador Option." It is about the difficulty the United States has controlling these kinds of forces once it creates them or gives them a tacit green light. The Phoenix Program was, of course, the relevant example from Vietnam. More recently, we see that we've had a tendency to embrace all kinds of thugs depending on who we define as the enemy du jour, only to discover ourselves fighting "our" thugs and embracing our enemies a few years down the road. The obvious example: the "Afghan Arabs" helping to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, who subsequently became the founders of Al Qaeda; and Saddam Hussein, whose atrocities and use of chemical weapons in his war against Iran and "Shiite fundamentalism" seemed perfectly justifiable examples of realpolitik in the 1980s. Now we support the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq, fighting a war for them against deposed and disenfranchised former clients and backers of Saddam, while hoping we can someday train them up to fight even more ruthlessly than we do. (See recent articles here and here)or

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