What has Managua to do with Baghdad?

Watching the preparations for the recent Iraqi War gave me a disturbing feeling of deja vu. The Bush Administration issued ever more dire warnings about the danger posed by Iraq, though no imminent danger seemed evident to Iraq’s neighbors. From the start it seemed clear that the Bush Administration wanted to settle this “crisis” militarily; their requests for Congressional and U.N. approval were grudging gestures designed to placate critics and provide legitimacy for a course of action already decided upon. Moral and legal concerns about the launching of a preemptive war were brushed aside as quibbles unworthy of consideration. Where had I seen a pattern like this before? The answer was during the 1980s, in the Reagan Administration’s response to the “crisis” in Central America.

The issue of concern for the United States government in the 1980s was the presence of Communists in Central America. In 1979, the Sandinistas, a band of Nicaraguan Marxists with broad popular support, overthrew the hated dictator Anastasio Somoza and took over the country. In neighboring El Salvador, the communist FMLN nearly overthrew the military dictatorship in that country, but they failed and the result was a bloody civil war. Meanwhile communist guerrillas in Guatemala continued to battle against a string of military dictators who had ruled the country ever since a US-backed military coup in 1954. Honduras was a fragile democracy, pressed between an authoritarian military establishment and increasing popular demands for land reform. Only Costa Rica had a stable, democratic government, in part because it had abolished its armed forces decades earlier. Not coincidentally, Costa Rica was the only Central American country to escape major civil disorder in the 1980s. This was the situation when the Reagan Administration took office. In pointed contrast to the outgoing Carter Administration, they promised to take a hard line against the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere.

In pursuit of its ends, the Reagan Administration demonstrated a strong preference for military victory over a peaceful resolution to the region’s conflicts, even though that meant they had to collaborate with undemocratic regimes and bully democratic allies. They aided repressive military regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador that engaged in egregious human rights abuses. Governments in both countries were notorious for attacks against suspected Leftists that were so indiscriminate they targeted religious leaders such as Archbishop Oscar Romero, foreign missionaries such as Jean Donovan, and thousands of lay Catholics. The Reagan Administration organized and armed the Contras, a group of anti-Sandinista Nicaraguans that included former National Guardsmen who had committed human rights violations under Somoza and who now attacked civilians in Nicaragua from US-protected sanctuaries in Honduras. When asked what the Sandinistas would have to do to placate the U.S., Reagan responded cavalierly that they would have to “Cry Uncle!,” evidently meaning that nothing short of their overthrow would satisfy him. The Reagan Administration pressured the government of Honduras to allow the Contras to operate illegally out of Honduran territory and gave large amounts of military aid to the Honduran Army, practices that undermined civilian control of the armed forces and contributed to a wave of human rights abuses in that country. They tried to force Costa Rica to accept military aid and to rebuild its armed forces so that it could serve as a “second front” against Nicaragua, and they threatened to punish Costa Rica economically when, to preserve that nation’s peaceful and democratic traditions, their government refused the proffered aid.

Another hallmark of the Reagan Administration’s approach was its repeated tendency to exaggerate the danger posed by the existence of communists in Central America in order to scare the American public into supporting a military solution to the region’s conflicts. On one occasion, President Reagan warned that Managua was closer to Harlingen, Texas, than Harlingen was to Washington D.C., implying that Communists could come boiling across the border at any moment. His remark ignored the existence of intervening countries such as Mexico. Another time, aerial photos of baseball diamonds in Nicaragua were produced to prove the presence of military advisors from Cuba who had presumably brought the sport with them. When it was pointed out that baseball had been popular in Nicaragua ever since U.S. Marines occupied the country in the nineteen teens and twenties, the claim was quietly dropped. When Sandinista forces chased Contra attackers back across the border, the U.S. charged that they were invading Honduras. On another occasion, President Reagan warned that Nicaragua was about to receive advanced fighter aircraft from the Soviet Union, and it tried to parlay the resulting scare into an excuse to invade the country. The charges could not be substantiated and top U.S. Military commanders reportedly balked at the prospect of fighting street battles in Managua so the invasion never occurred. Throughout the decade, the CIA conducted a disinformation campaign in which Central American journalists were paid to publish alarmist accusations against the Sandinistas in the regional press. These stories were then picked up by the U.S. media and cited by the Reagan Administration as evidence in support of drastic action.

Underlying the Reagan Administration’s policy in Central America was a fundamental indifference to national and international law. As noted, the U.S. organized the Contras inside Honduras and then directed them to cross the border to conduct raids inside Nicaragua, a clear violation of international law. U.S. Special Forces, laid mines in the Nicaraguan harbor of Corinto, an act of war, and then tried, unsuccessfully, to blame the Contras for the deed. Such egregious behavior finally prompted the U.S. Congress to order the President to halt the “covert war” against Nicaragua, but the Administration continued to arm and train the Contras and U.S. Special Forces and CIA contract operatives continued to conduct illegal operations inside Nicaragua. Telephone logs from a CIA safe house in El Salvador that served as the base for Eugene Hasenfus, a CIA contract employee who was shot down over Nicaragua, led the office of Vice President George Bush Sr. to use the phrase “plausible deniability” to indicate that he had covered his tracks sufficiently to avoid taking responsibility for the mission.

The Reagan Administration’s disregard of the law eventually culminated in the Iran Contra scandal which revealed the following set of illegal activities: When the U.S. Congress cut off legal avenues of funding for its “covert war,” White House officials found other means to keep the operation going. They secretly diverted arms from U.S. military arsenals (a crime) which were then sold to Iran (a crime since Iran had been designated a “terrorist state”). The money raised by these sales was transferred to the Contras (a crime) who used some of it to buy arms on the black market (a crime) and some of it to buy drugs (a crime). The Contras shipped drugs into the U.S. (a crime) via secure air routes which had been set up for them by the CIA in order to get the arms past U.S. Customs (a crime). When the Congress asked Reagan Administration officials about their actions they, and the President, lied repeatedly (a crime, and a violation of their oath of office). President Bush Sr. pardoned all of those convicted of offenses in the Iran Contra affair. He also ignored a judgment against the U.S. for $17 billion in damages that the World Court issued in response to a complaint by the government of Nicaragua.

Stung by domestic opposition to its activities in Central America, in the mid 1980s the Reagan Administration began to trumpet democratization and economic liberalization as key elements of its strategic policy in the region. It pressured the military governments in Guatemala and El Salvador to hold elections and even pushed the
Salvadoran government to enact land reform. Little came of land reform, in part because the Salvadoran Armed Forces regarded even a U.S.-sponsored program with suspicion and killed a number of the participants. Elections showed more promise as a way to restore popular government but they were no “quick fix.” Military and paramilitary forces in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras continued to make life dangerous for anyone who advocated progressive social policies or who protested human rights abuses. The political environment was not conducive to free and fair elections, and only those known to be sympathetic to the military had much chance for success during the 1980s. In effect, the Reagan Administration’s penchant for military allies and military solutions trumped whatever commitment it had to social reform and democratization as solutions to the region’s problems.

Ultimately, the crisis in Central America was resolved when regional leaders decided to ignore the U.S. and settle their differences via negotiation. In the face of U.S. opposition, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica got all of the affected governments and movements to agree on a regional framework for peace involving demobilization and free elections in which all parties could participate. Ex-President Jimmy Carter helped supervise elections in Nicaragua which evicted the Sandinistas from power peacefully and legally. Ironically, this result was close to what the U.S. had been seeking fruitlessly through ten years of military intervention. Unfortunately, the cost of the Reagan Administration’s approach was very high for Central Americans: a decade of destruction and tens of thousands of deaths, the large majority of them civilian victims of anti-communist forces.

The resemblance of this earlier foreign policy experience with the recent run-up to the war with Iraq may be more than just coincidental. Many key figures from that earlier episode hold high positions in the current administration. John Poindexter was National Security Advisor to President Reagan. He was convicted of five counts of conspiracy in Iran Contra but got off on a technicality. He was appointed by George W. Bush as Director of the Information Awareness Office at the Pentagon. Elliott Abrams was Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs under Reagan. He was convicted in Iran Contra of lying to Congress about the Reagan Administration’s activities in Central America but was pardoned by President George Bush Sr. He has been appointed as Special White House Assistant for Democracy and Human Rights. Richard Armitage negotiated the sale of arms to Iran for the Reagan Administration according to an Israeli Secret Service report. He is now Assistant Secretary of State, second in the Department after Colin Powell. John Negroponte was Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras. He was accused of channeling aid to the Contras and covering up human rights abuses by the Contras and the Honduran Armed Forces. He was appointed by George W. Bush as Ambassador to the U.N. Oliver North was Special Assistant to Ronald Reagan. He ran the Iran Contra operation with Reagan’s blessing, covered up most of the details with help from a compliant FBI, took the rap for everything like a good soldier, and was pardoned by President Bush Sr. Evidently he is still too hot for an official position, but he is a popular speaker on USAF talk radio.

The people mentioned above like to see themselves as “realists” who are not afraid to use force in pursuit of their ends, in contrast to “idealists” who prefer non-military solutions to international disputes. The experience of Central America in the 1980s does not support their high view of their own abilities, but their presence in the current Bush Administration does help to explain some troubling patterns such as the White House’s determination to resolve its dispute with Iraq militarily, its apparent exaggeration of Iraq’s ability to use weapons of mass destruction, and the cavalier way in which it brushed aside concerns about the legality of U.S. actions and invoked a doctrine of pre-emption which had never before been recognized as a legitimate cause for war. Perhaps the promised democratization of Iraq will prove to be a more positive element of the current policy. However the recent news that U.S. planners are thinking of placing Ahmad Chalabi, a shady financier wanted in Jordan for bank fraud, in charge of an interim Iraqi government is not reassuring. It suggests that, as in the earlier Central American case, democratization is an afterthought or a rhetorical strategy and that the real goal is not a politically autonomous Iraq but a pro-business and pro-American Iraq.

Central Americans paid a very high price when the Reagan Administration decided that the region’s problems could be resolved militarily. One can only hope that history is not repeating itself. Unfortunately, it appears that a repetition of that earlier approach is exactly what those who now lead our nation are seeking.

Daniel R. Miller is professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.