War Crimes and Double Standards

(of Ronald Reagan and the press)

by Robert Parry

iF magazine, May/ June 1999



... The United States invites the charge of hypocrisy when it accuses "enemy leaders" of war crimes, while it turns a blind eye to equally horrific slaughters committed by allies, sometimes guided and protected by the U.S. government.

With release of truth commission reports in several Central American countries - most recently Guatemala - there can no longer be any doubt about the historical reality.

In the 1980s, U.S.-backed forces committed widespread massacres, political murders and torture. Tens of thousands of civilians died. Many of the dead were children. Soldiers routinely raped women before executing them.

There can be no doubt, too, that President Reagan was an avid supporter of the implicated military forces, that he supplied them with weapons and that he actively sought to discredit human rights investigators and journalists who exposed the crimes.

It is also cleat that the massacres at El Mazote and other villages across El Salvador, the destruction of more than 600 Indian communities in Guatemala, and the torture and "disappearances" of dissidents throughout the region were as horrible as what Slobadan Milosevic's Serb army has done in Kosovo.

But for Milosovic and his henchmen, there is talk of a war crimes tribunal. For Reagan, there are only honors, his name added to National Airport and etched into an international trade center, even a congressional plan to carve his visage into Mount Rushmore.

In the apt phrase of New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner, the 1980s were a time of "weakness and deceit." Yet, the continuing blindness to crimes against humanity in Central America in the 1980s has brought that weakness and deceit into and through the 1990s, now as a permanent trait of Washington's political class.

Without doubt, it is safer for an American journalist or politician to wag a finger at Milosovic or at the killers in Rwanda or at the Khmer Rouge than it is to confront the guilt that pervaded Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Reagan, after all, has a throng of ideological enthusiasts - many with opinion columns and seats on weekend chat shows. Nothing makes them madder than to hear their hero disparaged.

To suggest that Reagan should be held to the same moral standard as Milosovic also invites lectures about "moral equivalence," a clever construct of the 1980s that meant, in effect, that the Cold War justified whatever American policy-makers did. One must not equate "our" crimes with "theirs."

Ironically, many of the conservatives who today advocate rock-hard moral values and who deplore fuzzy moral relativism embraced exactly that sort of situational ethic in the 1980s.

They did so under the banner of the Reagan doctrine, which held that battling the Evil Empire sanctified all actions no matter what other moral laws were violated, like some Medieval crusade, blessed by the pope and then sent off to slaughter infidels.

In this context, murder of unarmed civilians was not wrong. Neither were assassinations, torture, genocide, rape and drug smuggling. indeed, nothing was wrong as long as it was done in the name of winning the Cold War.

It didn't matter that the Soviet Union was in steep decline before the 1980s. It didn't matter that there never was a master plan for conquering the United States through Central America. It didn't matter that most of the victims simply wanted basic rights that North Americans take for granted.

But even more corrupting in its own way was the slippery refusal to debate the rationalizations openly. While the "moral equivalence" debate captivated some intellectual circles, the Reagan administration's basic strategy was simply to lie.

Rather than defending the atrocities, Reagan and his loyalists most often just denied that the crimes had happened and attacked anyone who said otherwise as a communist dupe.

Mostly, this lying strategy worked. By the end of the Reagan-Bush era, the national media no longer put up any fight for these historic truths. By the 1990s, the star reporters were more dedicated to their careers than to the principles of their profession.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the shocking historical disclosures form Guatemala earned only brief notice in the major news outlets.

But in our view, there are two important principles here: first, that truth is fundamental to a healthy democracy, and second, that the rules of common decency must be applied to all human endeavors. There are some acts that are simply wrong no matter who does them and why.

Through much of this century, those principles were held by many in Washington. Under those ideals, the United States led the fight against Nazi Germany and established many of the basic principles of international law.

... The larger question is whether the United States can confront its complicity in shameful war crimes committed against the people of Latin America.

While no one expects the ailing Ronald Reagan to face a war crimes tribunal, it is time for the nation to face the painful truth about him and his presidency - and to stop rewarding him with high honors...

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