The Most Important Place in the World

excerpted from the book

Empire's Workshop

Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism

by Greg Grandin

Metropolitan/Owl, 2006, paper


The first part of Richard M Nixon 1958 vice presidential tour of Latin America was mostly uneventful, although Peru offered a hint of what was to come when students stoned Nixon during his visit to the national university. His handlers were nervous about Venezuela, the scheduled last stop on the tour. Just a few months earlier, popular protests had put to an end a ten-year Washington-backed dictatorship, which had given lucrative contracts to American mining and oil interests. And Eisenhower's granting of asylum to a number of the old regime's most hated officials, including the head of the murderous National Security Police, did nothing to ease tensions between Washington and the new democratic government. But buoyed by pro-American rallies that took place in a number of cities, the vice president insisted that the trip continue as planned.

Stepping out of his DC-6 onto the tarmac, ion, along with his wife, Pat, was confronted with an angry crowd that had assembled on the balcony of the terminal, screaming "Go home," "Get out, dog," and "We won't forget Guatemala"-a reference to the U.S.-orchestrated overthrow of that country's democratically elected president four years earlier. 4 Members of Nixon's entourage had to pass under the balcony to get to their motorcade and when they did a torrent of spit fell on them that some of the stricken at first thought was rain. On the highway out of the airport, hostile drivers tried to sideswipe the vice president's limousine. Upon entering Caracas's narrow city streets, the motorcade was surrounded by a mob and attacked with sticks, rocks, and steel pipes. Nixon was eventually rescued, but not before his Secret Service detachment drew their guns and not before Eisenhower readied the armed forces to evacuate his vice president if need be.

After the assault on Nixon came the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the 1964 Canal Zone riots in Panama, along with armed left insurgencies throughout South and Central America. "Castro-itis," diagnosed CIA director Allen Dulles, was spreading throughout Latin America ... John F Kennedy's response - not just to trouble in the Western Hemisphere but to the broader challenge that nuclear rivalry and decolonization posed-was to resurrect the crusading language of the early Cold War while deflecting it onto the third world.

Through Nixon's one and a half terms, the cycle of South American coups that began during the Johnson administration continued apace, terminating, often with U.S. help, democratic governments in Uruguay, Chile, Ecuador, and Bolivia. As president, Nixon, perhaps because of his 1958 near-death experience, never visited Latin America. But this didn't stop him from appreciating the region's newfound political conversion. "Latin America's had 150 years of trying at it," he observed in late 1971, "and they don't have much going on down there." But unlike in the "black countries" of Africa, its leaders at least knew how to maintain stability. "They at least do it their way," he said. "It is an orderly way which at least works relatively well. They have been able to run the damn place."

Nixon's praise of Latin American dictators, therefore, was not just personal opinion but conveyed the essence of the Nixon Doctrine, which charged the security forces in each country with keeping their own house in order-not unlike Kennedy's promotion of counterinsurgency in the third world but stripped of its ennobling rhetoric about development and democracy. "We must deal realistically with governments in the inter-American system as they are," said the president in 1969.' In 1976, Argentina fell to a military junta, bringing the cycle of South American coups to completion. The entire Southern Cone and most of the continent were now ruled by anti-Communist dictatorships. Kissinger, who continued as secretary of state in the Ford administration after Nixon's resignation, gave the Argentine coup his blessing: "We have followed events in Argentina closely, we wish the new government well," he said to its plotters, "we wish it will succeed. We will do what we can to help it succeed." Sounding not too little like Machiavelli - or Tony Soprano - Kissinger advised the junta that "if there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly."

Happy with the political direction Latin America was moving in, Nixon was caught off guard when he learned in late 1970 that Chileans had elected the Marxist Salvador Allende president. "That son of a bitch, that son of a bitch," screamed Nixon. When the president noticed his startled ambassador to Chile, he calmed down and said, "Not you, Mr. Ambassador.... It's that bastard Allende." He then commenced a seven-minute monologue on how he was going to "smash Allende." He instructed the CIA to "make the economy scream," and over the next three years, Washington spent millions of dollars to destabilize Chile and prod its military to act.

Henry [Kissinger] saw Allende as being a far more serious threat than Castro," remarked one NSC staffer. "If Latin America ever became unraveled, it would never happen with a Castro. Allende was a living example of democratic social reform in Latin America. All kinds of cataclysmic events rolled around, but Chile scared him." Another aide recalled that his boss feared that the effects of Allende's election would spill over into Western Europe, particularly into Italy, where the Communist Party had broken with Moscow and was trying to chart a middle path similar to Allende's. "The fear," according to Seymour Hersh in his biography of Kissinger, "was not only that Allende would be voted into office, but that after his six-year term-the political process would work and he would be voted out of office in the next election. Kissinger saw the notion that Communists could participate in the electoral process and accept the results peacefully as the wrong message to send Italian voters."

The Watergate scandal revealed something more damning than the criminal behavior of a president and his top aides. It exposed Nixon's pathological style, providing an archetype of the politician not as moral leader but as paranoid conspirator ...

The Ninety-third Congress (1973-75) was perhaps the most anti-imperial legislature in United States history, passing a series of measures that, for many of its members, were designed to repudiate American militarism. The 1973 War Powers Act gave Congress the power to review, and reverse, executive decisions to send troops abroad. For the first time ever, the intelligence system was placed under the supervision of Congress: the 1974 Hughes-Ryan Amendment required that the CIA inform up to eight congressional committees of its covert operations; two years later, the Senate, followed by the House, created a permanent committee to monitor intelligence activity. In 1975, Congress upgraded the already existing Freedom of Information Act with a powerful enforcement mechanism and abolished the Un-American Activities Committee, which had been operating under a new name, the Internal Security Committee. In 1976, the Clark Amendment banned Washington from supporting anti-Communist rebels in Angola, while Attorney General Edward Levi issued new guidelines that ruled out domestic covert operations. In 1976, Gerald Ford signed Executive Order 11905, prohibiting peacetime assassinations of foreign leaders. Between 1974 and 1976, Congress cut military aid to Turkey and placed limits on assistance to South Korea, Chile, and Indonesia. During this period, Congress also gave itself the power to review and veto proposed major arms sales and shuttered the Office of Public Safety, a government agency implicated in torture and other human rights abuses in the third world.

Before Jimmy Carter made "human rights" the centerpiece of his diplomatic policy, young reformist congressional Democrats such as Tom Harkin of Iowa, Ed Koch of New York, and Donald Fraser of Minnesota attempted to transform the Cold War liberal moralism of Truman and Kennedy into an ethical concern for the immediate suffering caused by 'Washington's national security policies. Latin America, where the United States had the greatest influence and the Soviet Union the least, was the natural venue to try out efforts to make human rights a foreign policy concern. They focused on dictatorships in Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile and on the civil wars of Central America, which were then just beginning to gain the attention of the U.S. press. In 1976, during Gerald Ford's administration, the reformists scored their first major victory when Koch pushed through an amendment that ended aid to Uruguay. In retaliation, Pinochet's secret police hatched a plan to assassinate the New York congressman-not an idle threat considering that in that same year Chilean agents executed the Allende official Orlando Letelier, along with his assistant, Ronni Moffitt, with a car bomb in Washington's Dupont Circle.

As with the New Left, the Vietnam War radicalized the New Right. However, while for the Democratic Party this led to fragmentation of its different constituencies, for the Republicans it furthered consolidation. The diverse groups that made up the conservative coalition pursued many, often contradictory, objectives, yet they came together over the need to restore America's authority in the world and they increasingly understood this authority in military terms.

With détente out of the way, f conservatives turned against the antimilitarism that had seeped into the Democratic Party, with Carter's presidency serving as a lightning rod to help advance the New Right agenda. Soon after his inauguration in 1976, Jimmy Carter pardoned draft resisters, declared human rights to be the moral compass of his foreign policy, and announced that America was "now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear." It seemed as if, as Kissinger had feared, the peace movement that had emerged in the wake of Vietnam was setting the national agenda.

But much more than his predecessor, Gerald Ford, Carter had to deal with the fallout of defeat in Southeast Asia. Widespread domestic and international distrust of Washington's motives, demands to cut the defense budget and reform intelligence operations, calls to scale back overseas commitments all combined to limit his foreign policy options. Critics derided his responses to a series of crises, including revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua, hostage taking in the Middle East, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Marxist insurgencies in Africa and Central America. Chronic inflation and gas shortages contributed to a general feeling that America was in decline. Carter's supposed willingness to, in the words of Jeane Kirkpatrick, "negotiate anything with anyone anywhere" only confirmed to conservatives their critique of détente, which had devolved, as they had warned it would, into acquiescence and appeasement." Conservatives attacked Carter's stated concern for human rights, which they claimed he applied more to allies like South Africa than to foes like Cuba, as a symptom of a larger malady. It was nothing less than a manifestation of a crisis of confidence in the principles and values that made America great.

But while Carter's incoherent presidency allowed militarists to sharpen their knives, a number of his actual policies facilitated the rearming of the Cold War that his successor would execute in full. It was Carter, not Reagan, who began to increase the military budget at the expense of domestic social services. It was Carter who first proposed the creation of a Rapid Deployment Force to be dispatched into trouble spots outside of Europe, designed, according to his NSC adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, to strike "pre-emptively" against brewing trouble." It was Carter who initiated support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan six months prior to Moscow's 1979 invasion. Such support, Brzezinski recently admitted, was meant to provoke the invasion and drag the USSR into its own Vietnam-style quagmire." It was also Carter who began America's more active military engagement in the Persian Gulf, threatening in his last State of the Union address to defend the region "by any means necessary." And while conservative detractors belittled his human rights diplomacy, America's first born-again Christian president did reinvest foreign policy with a sense of ethical principle-an investment that his successor, Ronald Reagan, successfully exploited.

Reagan's 1980 election gave the first generation of fledgling hawks an opportunity to occupy influential if not publicly prominent roles in his administration. Drawn from think tanks, universities, and the defense industry, they often had no actual expertise in specific regional areas, but all were broadly dedicated to restoring a sense of national purpose, which, in their minds, inevitably meant a restoration of military power. Here began the isolation and purging of regional experts in the CIA and the State Department who might suggest a more nuanced policy. As head of the State Department's policy planning staff, for instance, Wolfowitz replaced nearly all of the staff 's twenty-five members with neoconservative allies - familiar names such as Francis Fukuyama, Alan Keyes, and Lewis "Scooter" Libby-many of whom were recruited from his former teaching posts at Cornell and the University of Chicago.

Joining these civilian militarists was a generation of Vietnam vets politicized by their time in Southeast Asia. Many of the New Right's most committed cadres, such as Oliver North, Richard Secord, John Singlaub, and Richard Armitage, had served multiple tours of duty, bringing their firsthand experience of defeat to their work as midlevel analysts and operatives in the shadowy front lines of foreign policy. Armitage, for instance, played a role in the CIA's infamous Phoenix program in Vietnam, which was accused by the same congressional committee that exposed the U.S. role in Chile of executing tens of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians. Armitage served as point man for third-world low-intensity warfare operations during his tenure as Reagan's assistant secretary for international security affairs, developing close relations with Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence Directorate and the jihadists of Afghanistan's anti-Soviet mujahedeen.° Others, such as Singlaub, mostly stayed out of government service, instead influencing public policy through the development of a thick international and interlocking network of anti-Communist associates, political pressure groups, and think tanks.

Bound together not by their knowledge of the world but by a devotion to American power, members of this new "strategic class," either from within the government or without, in think tanks and magazines that now had the administration's ear, were committed to reorienting diplomacy, as Chalmers Johnson notes, to "policies in which military preparedness"-and, one might add, a generic belligerent response no matter what the specifics of the crisis "becomes the highest priority of state."

Secretary of State Alexander Haig to President Ronald Reagan at an NSC meeting that "you just give me the word and I'll turn that fucking island [Cuba] into a parking lot,"

Up until the late 1970s, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua were ruled, as was most of Latin America, by corrupt, deadly, but pro-American dictatorships: But in 1979, the Nicaraguan regime fell to the leftist Sandinistas, with the State Department worrying that El Salvador and Guatemala, also challenged by armed insurgencies, would soon follow. With little geopolitical importance, few consequential allies, and no significant resources, these countries afforded the White House an opportunity to match its actions with its rhetoric. While Reagan in effect carried on détente everywhere else in all but name, in Central America, all bets were off.

Once in office, Reagan came down hard on Central America, in effect letting his administration's most committed militarists set and execute policy. In El Salvador, over the course of a decade, they provided more than a million dollars a day to fund a lethal counterinsurgency campaign. In Nicaragua, they patronized the Contras, a brutal insurgency led by discredited remnants of the deposed dictator's national guard designed to roll back the Sandinista revolution. In Guatemala, they pressed to reestablish military aid to an army that was in the middle of committing genocide, defending the country's born-again president even as he was presiding over the worst slaughter in twentieth-century Latin America. All told, U.S. allies in Central America during Reagan's two terms killed over 300,000 people, tortured hundreds of thousands, and drove millions into exile.

... the realism that powered America's military resurgence in the 1980s was of a particular variety; deeply ideological and committed to a fulfillment of American purpose in the world. Central America was its proving ground, as a group of conservative defense intellectuals worked hard to restore America's sense of self-confidence in order to justify the carnage taking place there in the name of national defense. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick was the most prominent of this group, and it was she who vided the moral and intellectual framework to rationalize Reagan's Central American policy. In so doing, she merged the realist and idealist traditions of American diplomacy into a powerful synthesis.

Kirkpatrick considered herself a realist when it came to foreign policy, in the tradition of Hans Morgenthau, Dean Acheson, and George Kennan. Though a lifelong Democrat, she found herself repulsed by the self-flagellation that she believed had overcome her party; Attracted as a result to Reagan's bid for the White House, Kirkpatrick met with the candidate early in 1980 and pronounced his "intuitive grasp" of foreign affairs "generally correct and very realistic" and soon accepted his invitation to join his campaign.

As an "action intellectual"-to borrow a phrase coined by Theodore White to describe the academics who abandoned their scholarship to join FDR's New Deal and JFK's New Frontier governments-Kirkpatrick combined practice and theory to rebut the philosophical premises that underwrote post-Vietnam antimilitarism.° Appointed by Reagan to the position of ambassador to the United Nations, she served notice that condemnation of Washington, which had come too easy in the past, would now have a cost. Her office compiled and distributed the voting records of each member nation, and when one or another country maligned this or that U.S. policy, she called its envoy into her office and demanded an explanation. In her speeches and writings, she repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of condemning Israel while praising Libya, say, or censuring apartheid in South Africa while ignoring human rights violations in Cuba.

But Kirkpatrick did more than just point out double standards. Prior to serving as ambassador to the United Nations, which under her tenure was raised to a cabinet-level position with direct access to the president, she worked as a Georgetown political scientist who mostly researched the arcanum of the presidential nominating process. She had a broad engagement with intellectual history, though, and where groups like the Committee of Santa Fe offered visceral but not very effective reactions to the Vietnam syndrome, Kirkpatrick wrote terse, accessible essays that updated the conservative tradition to the current moment. Drawing on Thomas Hobbes's respect for the centrality of power in human affairs and Edmund Burke's respect for the intractability of tradition to understand the limits of that power, Kirkpatrick not only pointed out what she described as the hypocrisy behind criticisms of countries such as El Salvador and South Africa but actively defended the institutions of those countries as important bulwarks of order and stability.

It was in Latin America where Kirkpatrick's ideas were most fully elaborated and applied. In a series of articles, she used the region to refute what at the time seemed like an emerging consensus on the correct role of America in the world. The U.S. military's defeat by a poorly armed peasant insurgency in Vietnam led many in the Democratic foreign policy establishment to rethink the wisdom of seeing all global conflict through the bifocal lens of superpower conflict. They began to recommend an acceptance of "ideological pluralism"-the belief that not all societies will follow the same road to development. Accordingly, third-world nationalism of the kind that drove the United States out of Southeast Asia was to be dealt with on its own terms and not as a cat's paw for Soviet Communism.' Even Carter's hawkish national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, argued that increased technological and commercial interdependence had made the world less ideological; in this, he foreshadowed much of the techno-optimistic writing on globalization during the Clinton years. Old dogmas concerning the relationship of territory to national interests no longer held, Brzezinski suggested, which meant that the United States could adopt a "more detached attitude toward revolutionary processes."

Kirkpatrick responded point by point to this sanguine philosophy of international relations, while broadly countering it with an old-fashioned conservative insistence on the dark side of human nature. Carter, of course, had either ignored or opposed much of the new liberal internationalism, yet Kirkpartrick successfully linked it to his administration to account for the fall of Nicaragua and Iran, the spread of insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala, the ongoing influence of Castro, and the emergence of revolutionary nationalism throughout the Middle East and the Caribbean.

Kirkpatrick provided the Republican administration with the argument it needed to justify continued support for brutal dictatorships. Autocrats, no matter how premodern their hierarchies and antimodern their values, allowed, she said, for a degree of autonomous civil society. By contrast, Marxist-Leninist totalitarians such as the Sandinistas mobilized all aspects of society, which made war, as a means to maintain such mobilization, inevitable. Since political liberalization was more likely to occur under a Somoza than under a Marxist regime like that of the Sandinistas, Kirkpatrick insisted that a foreign policy that forced allies to democratize was not only bad for U.S. security but detrimental for the concerned countries as well: it led in Nicaragua and Iran not to reform but to radical regimes and was threatening to do the same in Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and South Africa. Kirkpatrick's analysis was not original. It recycled not just dubious distinctions between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" regimes but also well-rehearsed justifications for supporting Latin American dictators dating back to the beginning of the Cold War. Yet it did provide the Reagan administration with a rationale for undoing many of Carter's human rights initiatives.

Kirkpatrick went beyond merely justifying alliances with unseemly allies. In repudiating the "rational humanism" of the liberal internationalists, she gave voice to what may be called the Hobbesian impulse in U.S. foreign policy-an insistence that brute power and not human reason establishes political legitimacy. In a 1980 essay titled "The Hobbes Problem: Order, Authority, and Legitimacy in Central America," she invoked the seventeenth-century philosopher to attack Carter's conditioning of military aid to El Salvador on the implementation of social reforms, including a land reform, and on the reduction of human rights violations. Such requirements, she wrote, were wrongheaded because they ignored the fact that "competition for power," rooted "in the nature of man," is the foundation of all politics. Kirkpatrick advised the incoming Republican administration to abandon Carter's reform program and sanction the Salvadoran military' effort to impose order through repression, even if it meant the use of death squads. Such a course of action was justified, she contended, because Salvador's political culture respected a sovereign who was willing to wield violence-proof of which was that one of the death squads took the name Maximiliano Hernández Martinez, a dictator who in 1932 slaughtered as many as thirty thousand indigenous peasants in the course of a week. Kirkpatrick described Hernández Martinez as a "hero" to Salvadorans and argued that by taking his name the assassins sought to "place themselves in El Salvador's political tradition and communicate their purpose." (Perhaps a similar logic explains why a notoriously corrupt and brutal Contra unit in Nicaragua took the name "Jeane Kirkpatrick Task Force.") Washington needed to think "more realistically" about the course of action it pursued in Latin America, Kirkpatrick argued elsewhere: "The choices are frequently unattractive."

Kirkpatrick also repeatedly attacked what might be called the Kantian impulse in U.S. foreign policy, after Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher who believed that human progress would result in a peacefully ordered world government. Again and again she hammered against the conceit that U.S. power should and could be used to promote universal, internationalist abstract goals such as "human rights," "development," and "fairness." She warned against trying to be the "world's midwife" to democracy. "No idea," she complained, "holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances." In classic conservative terms, she cautioned that "thought set free from experience is unlimited by the constraints of experience or of probability. If history is not relevant then the future is free from the past. Theories cut loose from experience are usually blinding optimistic. They begin not from how things are but how they ought to be, and regularly underestimate the complexities and difficulties concerning how you get there from here."

It is important to emphasize that Kirkpatrick was not arguing against morality in foreign policy. Far from it, for she believed that a conviction in the righteousness of U.S. purpose and power was indispensable in the execution of effective diplomacy. But for America's foreign policy establishment, Vietnam shook that conviction. The optimism in which liberal internationalists approached the world, she charged, was but a thin mask to hide the shame they felt over American power. The problem was not idealism as such but Carter's misplaced application of it, which led him and his advisers not only to doubt American motives but to abandon the responsibility of power for the abstractions of history. Carter's White House, Kirkpatrick pointed out, repeatedly explained foreign policy setbacks in impersonal terms such as "forces" or "processes." "What can a U.S. president faced with such complicated, inexorable, impersonal processes do?" Kirkpatrick asked; "The answer, offered again and again by the president and his top officials, was, Not Much."

Setting the stage for today's neocons, she called for a diplomacy that once again valued human action, resolve, and will. If America acted with moral certainty to defend its national interests, the consequence would, by extension, be beneficial for the rest of the world. "Once the intellectual debris has been cleared away," she believed, "it should become possible to construct a Latin American policy that will protect U.S. security interest and make the actual lives of actual people in Latin America somewhat better and somewhat freer."

American diplomacy here, even in the hands of a committed realist such as Kirkpatrick, is an article of faith, expressed in the selfconfident writ of policy makers that when America acts in the world, even when it does so expressly to defend its own interests, the consequences of its actions will be in the general interest. It is in such assuredness that the roots of the punitive idealism that drives the new imperialism can be found, roots that began to sprout in Reagan's Central American policy.

In 1981, [Elliot] Abrams, as secretary of state for human rights circulated a memo approved by his boss, Haig, arguing that while a military response to the Soviets remained crucial, the United States also needed an "ideological response."

"We will never maintain wide public support for our foreign policy unless we can relate it to American ideals and to the defense of freedom..."

GW Bush warned Middle East regimes in his March 2005 speech
"The time has come to stop using murder as a tool of policy,"

Empire's Workshop

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