January 13, 2005,
When I was a wee think-tank gnome at the American Enterprise Institute, a scholar there told me a story. An expert on South America, during the 1980s he was often asked to appear on television to defend the Reagan administration's policies in Central America. This meant that every now and then when some goon squad in South America murdered a bunch of nuns he'd get a call from PBS's Newshour. "Hello, Dr. So-and-So, we were wondering if you could come on the program tonight to round-out a panel discussing the recent developments in El Salvador."
"Who else do you have on?"
"Oh. We have so-and-so from the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights. We've got you-know-who from Amnesty International. And we've got our-old-friend from the Center for Democracy and Dignity from Rutgers University, and we'd like you to take the last spot."
"Oh I see. In other words, you want me to fill the pro-dead-nun chair?"
Michael Hirsh and John Barry write:
Now, Newsweek has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration's battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.
Don Rumsfeld has denied all of this, but when Sean McCormack was on Wolf Blitzer's show this week, he offered a sort of non-denial denial. To which David Corn responded:
This is what we're left with. A major media organization reports the Pentagon is considering recruiting death-squad-like paramilitary units in Iraq, and the White House declares it has nothing to say on this explosive matter. How can we not read between the lines and draw the obvious conclusion? The awfully-named "Salvador Option" is alive.
If this were an Airplane! movie, a giant spear would suddenly fly into the wall behind Lloyd Bridges and vibrate, just to highlight the drama.
Okay now, let's clear a few things up. First of all, the "El Salvador Option" was used in hold on, let me get my map, yes, yes, that's right El Salvador, not Nicaragua. Whatever the merits or demerits of American policy in El Salvador or Nicaragua, the effort in El Salvador did not lead to the Iran-Contra scandal. Newsweek seems to think that piling on negative associations with Latin American foreign policy will help dramatize a story they might not even have in the first place. After all, the substance of the initial story is that people inside the Pentagon are discussing their options. Someone reorder my adult diapers, that is scary!
What is particularly piquant that's right I used the word piquant about the conflation of Nicaragua and El Salvador is that it suggests America's entire effort "down there" was nothing but folly, hubris, and imperialism. That is, after all, what the Left believed at the time and still believes today. That's fine, I suppose, but it should help remind all of us that the Cold War was not exactly an issue that received a lot of bipartisan consensus in the 1980s, despite the efforts of liberals today to pretend otherwise. We've heard a lot from liberals in recent months about how the Cold War was marked by a consensus across the ideological spectrum and how George Bush's greatest failure is not pursuing a similar consensus on the war on terror. All of this is ahistorical and dishonest twaddle.
Another point worth clearing up: We didn't set out to create "death squads" of any kind. That is a label the Left stuck on a wide variety of activities in El Salvador, some of which were certainly criminal and horrendous. But it's worth noting that the work American special forces did in El Salvador led to successful elections and helped put an end to a civil war that had killed 75,000 people.
What united opponents of American policy in Central America was a vague sense that we were on the wrong side. They tittered at Reagan's declaration that the Contras were freedom fighters. They made movies that turned the leftists into the good guys in El Salvador. John Kerry, Pat Leahy, Tom Harkin, and other titans of international statesmanship actively worked against American foreign policy. "I see an enormous haughtiness in the United States trying to tell them what to do," Kerry said about American relations with the Soviet client Sandanista regime. He lent his name to support groups aiding the Communist-controlled regions of El Salvador.
I have no doubt that opposition to the "death squads" was also based on revulsion at some of their excesses. But there can be no doubt that they were also vexed that we were fighting Communists at all. Moreover, our special forces were not sent to El Salvador to train anybody to murder people. They were sent to help stop the widespread civil chaos and murder being perpetrated by others. They largely succeeded.
So I have to ask, would the Left oppose the "El Salvador Option" in Iraq if they didn't have a similar ideological hang-up about our efforts there? We're told that opponents of Iraq are part of the bipartisan consensus on fighting the war on terror, from which they claim Iraq is a distraction. Okay, maybe. But why then do opponents of the Iraq effort seem determined to ignore the fact that the most prominent leader of the "insurgency" has been hired as al Qaeda's man in Iraq?
Also, what exactly is the substantive opposition to the El Salvador Option being turned into the Iraq Option? Is it unfair to terrorists? David Corn says the danger is that such militias can get out of hand and kill innocent people. No doubt. But we're killing innocent people by mistake in Iraq already. Most liberals supported the bombings in Yugoslavia, which surely killed large numbers of innocent people. Was that preferable because it was sanitary? Or was it preferable simply because Bill Clinton did it?
I don't know whether the El Salvador Option is a good one on the merits. I will leave that to people who understand the military details. Personally, I have no principled problem with the U.S. doing whatever it can to capture and, preferably, kill the terrorists in Iraq. The El Salvador Option sounds like the Chicago Way to me, and that's fine. If American-trained Kurds and Shia can do it better than Americans, that's cool with me.
But I do know that I've heard a lot of people say that we should get out of Iraq now or that we should turn things over to the Iraqis as soon as possible or that George W. Bush's greatest blunder has been not training the Iraqis to defend themselves fast enough.
Am I crazy or don't all of these criticisms amount to a demand for a Super El Salvador Option for the entire country? The El Salvador Option allegedly under consideration is an idea for a retail operation. What opponents of the war want is a wholesale approach in which the whole of the Allawi government becomes a death squad of sorts. Or am I missing something?