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Blueprint for an American Empire

U.S. interventions in Latin America have served as the training grounds for White House military theorists to practice their imperial designs on the rest of the world.
 
 
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Editor's note: This is an edited excerpt from Greg Grandin's new book, " Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism."

For many of the policy and opinion makers who seized on 9/11 to promote their vision of an imperial America, placing the nation on a permanent war footing was as much a form of domestic collective therapy as it was an international crusade to reshape the world. “Nothing less than the soul of this country is at stake,” Norman Podhoretz wrote a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. “Nothing less than an unambiguous victory will save us from yet another disappointment in ourselves and another despairing disillusion with our leaders.” The attacks provided a chance for Americans who “crave ‘a new birth’ of the confidence we used to have in ourselves and in ‘America the Beautiful.’” Such desires to overcome the factionalism and disenchantment that had plagued America since the 1960s were not confined to the political right, as many liberals likewise hungered for a renewed sense of national purpose. The New Republic ’s Peter Beinart, for instance, called on Democrats to join the struggle against Islamic fascism and to rediscover their “fighting faith” in political liberalism. For their part, essayists Max Boot and Charles Krauthammer have expressed optimism that the brutality of a protracted global war on terrorism would finally form a callus over the national psyche, dulling the undue sensitivity to pain that spread in the wake of Vietnam.

But decades before 9/11 raised hopes that a galvanized domestic constituency for perpetual war could at last be forged, Reagan’s Central American policy offered the opportunity to contain, and begin to roll back, the anti-militarism that had infected U.S. political culture and institutions since the Vietnam War. More than any other 20th century conflict, Vietnam highlighted the porous border between foreign and domestic policy. Escalating protest, much of it linked to a reinvigorated internationalism, not only helped end the war but led to legislative measures that curbed the power of government security institutions, most notably the Central Intelligence Agency. At home, a deep skepticism shattered the governing consensus that had held sway for the first two decades after World War II. In what seemed a remarkably short period of time, the institutional pillars of society—universities, churches, newspapers, movies, Congress, and the judiciary—that had previously buttressed government legitimacy began to lean against it, advancing what some conservative critics came to deride as a permanent “adversary culture.” It was not just military defeat that brought about such a turnaround but also revelations of brutality committed throughout the Third World in the name of national security and of perfidy conducted under the cloak of government secrecy and executive privilege.

By the end of the 1980s, defense intellectuals and activists had achieved a revolution in the mechanics and morals of special warfare doctrine abroad. But for their revolution to take hold, they knew they had to confront this culture of dissent at home. In the face of persistent and growing opposition to U.S. policies in El Salvador and Nicaragua, militarists countered with a series of actions that eroded the boundary between imperial policies and national politics. Making little distinction between foreign enemies and domestic opponents, the Reagan administration put in place what one government official described as a “psychological operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in denied or enemy territory.” The operation unfolded on three fronts.

First, to confront an adversarial press, tame a presumptuous Congress, and make inroads on college campuses, the administration orchestrated a sophisticated and centralized “public diplomacy” campaign that deployed techniques drawn from both the PR world and the intelligence community. Second, the White House either loosened or circumvented restrictions placed on domestic law-and-order surveillance operations against political dissidents, reviving tactics that the FBI and other intelligence agencies had used to intimidate the anti-war movement in the 1960s, tactics that were thought to have been repudiated by the Rockefeller Committee and other congressional investigations into domestic covert actions in the mid-1970s. Finally, and most consequentially, the administration built countervailing grassroots support to counter what seemed a permanently entrenched anti-imperialist opposition, mobilizing militarists and evangelicals on behalf of a hard-line foreign policy. Such a campaign allowed the White House to go forward with its Central American program. More critically, it also helped create the ideas and infrastructure that turned the Republican Party into a mass movement and transformed the New Right into the dominant political force in America today.

Media education

In January 1983, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 77, creating a domestic interagency task force “designed to generate support for our national security objectives.” Five months later, the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean was born under the direction of Cuban émigré Otto Reich.

Public Diplomacy was officially charged with implementing a “new, nontraditional” approach to “defining the terms of the public discussion on Central American policy” and with “unshackl[ing] . . . public perception of policy from myths and cant.” In reality, it was the homeland branch of Casey and North’s “Enterprise,” staffed by psych-warfare operatives from the CIA and the U.S. Army’s Fourth Psychological Operations Group. In order to bypass the 1947 National Security Act, which prohibited the CIA from trying to influence domestic opinion, the office was placed under the nominal authority of the State Department. But Reich himself -- despite being vouched for as “politically sound” by Jeane Kirkpatrick -- was “review[ed] weekly” by Walter Raymond, a 30-year CIA propaganda operative who sat on Reagan’s NSC.

To circumvent laws that barred the White House from spending money to lobby Congress, the office implemented, as Raymond put it, a “public-private strategy,” coordinating the work of the NSC with PR firms, psychological warfare specialists, and New Right activists, intellectuals and pressure groups. It contracted Republican-affiliated advertising firms such as Woody Kepner Associates and International Business Communications and supervised the fund-raising and publicity activity of individuals and nongovernmental organizations such as Freedom House and Accuracy in Media. The office also worked closely with conservative cadres such as Carl “Spitz” Channell, who as a private individual raised millions of dollars, mostly through front organizations like the National Endowment for the Preservation of Liberty, the American Conservative Trust, and the American Anti-Terrorism Committee. The money was used to fund “television ads, newspaper ads and grassroots activities” on behalf of the Contras. Channell also funneled millions of dollars in private donations through a Swiss bank account to pay for weapons for the Nicaraguan rebels.

Congress proved more willing to cooperate with Reagan on his Salvadoran policy, so the office focused on Nicaragua, using polling data to identify Sandinista “negatives” and Contra “positives” and to compile “key words, phrases or images” that could turn Americans against the Nicaraguan government. A 1985 “action plan” formated according to the PR industry’s “perception management” guidelines listed simple notions or phrases, many of them repeated multiple times with no elaboration, to help administration officials and their allies to frame the debate. The Sandinistas were “evil,” Soviet “puppets,” “racist and repress human rights,” “involved in U.S. drug problems.” The Contras were “freedom fighters,” “good guys,” “underdogs,” “religious” and “poor.”

The memo offered a few concepts that went beyond two or three syllables. The United States, it said, wanted not to “overthrow” the Sandinistas but only to change their “behavior.” It was not “immoral” to support a “covert action.” But mostly the memo chanted buzzwords with mantralike minimalism: “military buildup,” “forced military conscription,” “the drug connection,” “Panama Canal,” “human rights violations,” “Communist connection” and “persecution of church groups.”

The office used the Nicaraguan campaign to shift the understanding of the threat facing America away from Communism, which no matter how vilified was part of the Western tradition and associated with the interests of a specific nation, toward the more capacious concept of “terrorism.” In the 1980s, the United States found itself ever more involved in Middle Eastern politics, and the Reagan administration increasingly tied Nicaragua to troubles in that region.

Aside from equating the Sandinistas with the Nazis and charging Managua with fomenting “terrorism” in Costa Rica and El Salvador, Public Diplomacy operatives accused the Sandinistas of having “ties with the PLO, Libya, and terrorists,” linking them, as Reagan did in a 1985 speech, with “Arafat, Qadhafi and the Ayatollah Khomeini.” The office even indicted them for persecuting Jews. Taking over the office from Reich in 1986, Robert Kagan recommended the distribution of reports that documented Sandinista “anti-Semitism” -- supplemented with “glossy pictures” and presented in an “In Their Own Words” style -- to “key Jewish journalists and interreligious publications.” Yet it was not the Sandinistas who traded in anti-Jewish sentiment. The American “media was controlled by Jews,” said one CIA handler, according to a respected Contra leader, “and if we could show that Jews were being persecuted, it would help a lot.” (In the 1960s the FBI likewise spread rumors that the Black Power movement was anti-Semitic in order to drive a wedge between it and Jewish intellectuals.)

Operatives worked at a breakneck pace. Over just a two-month period in early 1985, the office laid out a chronology of 79 tasks to accomplish, among them:

  • Encourage U.S. reporters to meet individual Contra fighters;
  • Hold briefings for key Congressional members and staffers;
  • Request that Zbigniew Brzezinski write a paper which points out geopolitical consequences of Communist domination of Nicaragua;
  • Supervise preparation and assignment of articles directed to special interest groups at rate of one per week (examples: article on Nicaraguan educational system for National Educational Association, article by retired military for Retired Officers Association, etc.);
  • Draft one op-ed per week for signature by administration officials. Specify themes for the op-eds and retain final editorial rights;
  • Martha Lida Murillo (9-year-old atrocity victim) visit to Washington; possible photo-op with first lady;
  • Call/visit newspaper editorial boards and give them background on the Nicaraguan freedom fighters;
  • Prepare a “Dear Colleagues” letter for signature by a responsible Democrat, which counsels against “negotiating” with the Sandinistas;
  • Prepare document on Nicaraguan narcotics involvement;
  • Administration and prominent nongovernment spokesman on network shows regarding Soviet, Cuban, East German, Libyan and Iranian connection with Sandinistas;
  • Conduct telephone campaign in 120 congressional districts. Citizens for America district activists organize phone-tree to target congressional offices encouraging them to vote for Contra aid;
  • Organize nationally coordinated sermons about aid to the freedom fighters;
  • Organize major rally in the Orange Bowl, Miami, attended by President Reagan; and [with no irony]:
  • Release paper on Nicaraguan media manipulation.

The administration produced a steady flow of white papers, briefings, talking points, pamphlets and books on El Salvador and Nicaragua. For El Salvador, the job was primarily proving Cuban and Sandinista ties and rapidly refuting charges of atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military. For Nicaragua, when the White House was not fabricating facts wholesale, it was amplifying every statement and action made by the Sandinistas to prove their malfeasance. Documents with the titles “Mothers of Political Prisoners,” “Religious Repression in Nicaragua,” “Nicaragua and Cuba --Drugs,” “In Their Own Words -- Former Sandinistas Tell Their Story,” “Human Costs of Communism,” “Nicaragua in Quotes,” “Inside the Sandinista Regime,” and “Christians under Fire” were distributed either directly by the administration or by allied think tanks, ad hoc committees such as Citizens for America, CIA-front publishing houses, college organizations such as Young Americans for Freedom and Campus Crusade for Christ, the newly created National Endowment for Democracy, and an emerging network of alternative conservative news outlets, the most important at the time being the Christian Broadcasting Network and the Moon-owned Washington Times .

The administration distributed its literature not just to New Right organizations but to “church groups, human rights organizations, lawyers, political scientists, journalists, etc.,” each receiving “cover letters tailored” to their specific interests. The Office of Public Diplomacy organized conferences on Central America and invited “leaders of special interest and public policy groups (think tanks, foundations, church groups, labor organizations, Indian and Black organizations, academics) with special interest in Latin America.” In its first year of operations, the office arranged more that 1,500 speaking engagements and distributed material to “1,600 libraries, 520 political science faculties, 122 editorial writers and 107 religious organizations” It compiled a comprehensive list of moral and political objections to Contra funding and drafted appropriate responses to each one, briefed the press and Congress on a regular basis, and wrote, or helped write, op-eds that were published in the New York Times , the Washington Post , and the Wall Street Journal under the bylines of administration officials, retired military officers, Contra leaders, foreign policy experts and sympathetic scholars.

The reduction of foreign policy to a series of emotionally laden talking points that linked the Sandinistas to any number of world evils manifested itself in the speeches of administration officials such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, William Casey and Elliott Abrams. Nicaragua’s connections with terrorism, Soviet nuclear submarines, religious and ethnic persecution, totalitarianism, Castro, East Germans, Bulgarians, Libya, Iran, even the Baader-Meinhof Gang -- all were to be confronted with American purpose and resolve. Yet it was Ronald Reagan, listed by Public Diplomacy as an “asset” due to his communication skills, who best embodied the triumph of emotion over substance. With little respect for history or fact, Reagan offered an image of the Nicaraguan struggle professionally tuned to resonate with popular fears and self-perceptions, presenting support for the Contras as keeping faith with America’s “revolutionary heritage.” After all, the PR mavens at the Office of Public Diplomacy listed as their two most “exploitable themes” the idea that the Contras “are Freedom Fighters” fighting for “freedom in the American tradition” and the idea that American “history requires support to freedom fighters.” Who could argue?

Greg Grandin teaches Latin American history at New York University and is the author of a number of books, including the just published " Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism ."