How White House Warmongers Learned to Love Empire

Long before President Bush articulated his Middle East doctrine, an earlier Republican administration argued that a different region was so corrupt, so in need of reform, and was saddled with such oppressive and backward rulers that bringing about stability and the potential for prosperity for its citizens was beyond the realm of politics or diplomacy.

Ronald Reagan smilingly asserted that only U.S.-backed violence and American-style nation building could give the benighted people of Central America a chance to join the modern world.

He followed the claim with his infamous "dirty wars," and his administration framed the bloodshed in the loftiest and most idealistic terms. The Reagan administration launched an intensive public relations campaign to convince Americans that the tens of thousands of civilian deaths that resulted were regrettable but necessary, not only because of the United States' mission to promote human rights and democracy around the world but also in order to defeat terrorism.

Clearly, there are differences between Reagan's wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua two decades ago and Bush's debacle in Iraq today. But there are also threads that bind the two.

In his new book, Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, historian Greg Grandin pulls those threads together and argues that U.S. intervention in Latin America, especially during the 1980s, served as a laboratory in which a group of neocons -- many of whom served both administrations -- distilled their unique and lethal worldview.

AlterNet caught up with Grandin recently to get the scoop on his new book.

Joshua Holland: Your book looks at the United States’ long history with Latin America, and you argue that during Reagan’s dirty wars in the 1980s in Central America, much of the ideology and the tactics and -- how should I put it? -- the sales pitch for supporting aggressive military action back home that we’ve come to associate with the Bush Doctrine were developed, and you say that it was possible precisely because Central America wasn’t important, that it wasn’t a focus of the international community and wasn’t caught up in the competition of the Cold War.

Greg Grandin: Of course Latin America as a whole has been extraordinarily important in terms of the development of both American foreign policy and our own domestic politics. What I try to do with the book is look at how U.S. corporate elites -- the Guggenheims, the Rockefellers and so forth -- first established themselves in Latin America with their overseas subsidiaries and how U.S. political elites viewed the region as the first place to project American power.

But Central America in the 1980s, I argue, was really a backwater and securely within the U.S. sphere of power. Washington could act there without fear of real consequences.

When Reagan came to power, despite his rhetoric as a Cold Warrior, he actually carried out a policy of moderation, and even conciliation, in much of the rest of the world; he pulled out of Lebanon, in the end he agreed to sanctions against South Africa and he negotiated with Gorbachev. And this is where Central America’s unimportance comes in. He gave the region to conservative movement cadres – it was a form of “wish fulfillment,” the place where they could match words to deeds, where they could carry out their fantasy of not just rehabilitating aggressive American militarism after our defeat in Vietnam, but of hitching that militarism to a reinvigorated sense of American purpose. This I argue is the core of the Bush Doctrine, or what I call in the book “punitive idealism.”

Holland: Let me pull that apart a bit. After Vietnam there was a lot of opposition to the kind of militarism that dragged us into that war, and many in the New Right reacted to that backlash by adopting some of the rhetoric of democratization and human rights that the war's critics had used. That's something we see from the Bush administration as well -- the idealistic wrapping. But one thing isn't clear to me: At times you seem to credit them with being true believers in the benevolence of American power, and at other times you suggest it was just pure spin.

Grandin: Well, obviously it’s a big question in the way one thinks about the motivation of what propels the Bush administration and what propels U.S. foreign policy more broadly. On one level, it was pure manipulation -- I mean you can look at memos from people like [formerly convicted Iran-Contra figure and current deputy national security advisor] Elliott Abrams in which he discusses in a very calculated manner how the concept of human rights should be appropriated to re-establish American policy on a more moral footing. Or you can look at [Bush’s former special envoy to the western hemisphere] Otto Reich’s Office of Public Diplomacy, which was set up in 1983 to sell the wars in Central America using modern PR techniques -- his PR experts polled Americans and found out that concepts like human rights and democracy played well.

So on that level, it’s certainly very calculated, but on another, the reason that it works is that it taps into a deep and abiding strand of American political culture -- of American nationalism -- this sense of having a special providential purpose in the world and having a kind of moral mission to bring freedom or democracy to benighted lands. So, yes, it’s calculated, but it wouldn’t be effective if it didn’t have real resonance, including among policy makers.

Observers also contrast real politik, or realism, with the human rights rhetoric of the Bush administration. Some “old right” conservatives, like Pat Buchanan, call for a restoration of an old-fashioned realism rooted in a defense of national interests and not designed to spread democracy through the world. But if you look back at the kind of hard-headed realism that they’re talking about – the kind embodied during the Reagan era by Jeane Kirkpatrick, his ambassador to the U.N. -- there is a deep moralism embedded in it. Even though Kirkpatrick repeatedly chided the Democrats for believing they could democratize the world, there is in her writings and speeches a sense of moral righteousness that easily morphs into neocon idealism, a belief that if the U.S. acts with purity of purpose to defend its national interests, it will benefit the rest of the world. In the book, I describe it as Hobbes meeting Kant in Central America.

Holland: Even Hans Morgenthau (known as the “father of modern realism”) chafed at suggestions that realism was amoral.

Grandin: Exactly, and if you look at “Democracy and Dictatorship” or any of these classic essays by Jeane Kirkpatrick, they’re just drenched in moralism. True, they were going after the human rights diplomacy of Carter as misguided, as driven by the loss of a sense of confidence, of surety of purpose in the world that overcame Democrats in the wake of Vietnam. But the confidence that she wants to restore is equally moral, or idealistic. It’s a faith that America’s national interests represent the world’s interests.

Holland: Good segue there. You discuss how Latin America during the Reagan era played a key role in restoring Americans’ faith in military action. Describe that a bit more, and also, I wonder whether one of the reasons that supporters of the Iraq war have been so vicious in attacking their critics is because of some deep fear of a resurgence in the kind of opposition that sprung up after Vietnam. What’s your take?

Grandin: Taking the second part first, I think that’s right. The war on terror or its component parts -- gaining public acceptance of torture, for example, or rendition or the war in Iraq -- is as much a domestic affair as it is a foreign one. If you read the writings of neocon intellectuals like Christopher Caldwell or William Kristol, it’s all about steeling America’s domestic culture and making the population more resistant to pain, both ours and the pain we inflict on others. And it seems that it’s not just that they look at America’s political culture and see dissent or anti-militarism, but they really see a culture of weakness, and they expected that the war on terror would bring about a restoration of American strength. The fact that it’s completely backfired on them really freaks them out and helps explain the vitriol with which they greet criticism.

To the larger point, in terms of the military establishment, coming out of Vietnam you have a generation of officials who want to put what they consider the aberration of Vietnam behind them. They develop what was first known as the Weinberger Doctrine, later the Powell Doctrine, which defines in clear terms the use of American force and the need for exit strategies. The U.S. military, according to this view, shouldn’t be used for ambitious democratization projects -- so there’s a clear retrenchment on the part of the military high command.

But at the same time, pushing against that retrenchment, you see a radicalized generation of anti-Communist militants and Vietnam veterans -- Oliver North is a good example -- and they’re committed to refighting Vietnam. And what they do in Central America is that even as the military high command is putting up these firewalls designed to limit U.S. military intervention, they’re advancing a vision of military force where there’s no division between politics and warfare; where the goal -- certainly in Nicaragua -- is to launch a democratic revolution. In El Salvador it’s the same thing. The objective there is not just to defeat the insurgency but to implement the most ambitious project of nation building since the end of Vietnam. So there are two tendencies kind of working at crosscurrents: Central America is the place where the more inflamed wing of the anti-Communist movement is given free rein. But what is key is that it is unleashed in the negligible region just at the same time as the Cold War is being brought to a close. So while you could make a credible argument that the Cold War was won through policies of moderation -- because containment worked, because Reagan was willing to engage with Gorbachev -- these neocon militarists could point to Central America and take the lesson that it wasn’t containment or negotiation or restraint that won the day but rollback and aggression. They then take their perceived victory and extrapolate it to the entirety of the Cold War. So it becomes almost a metaphor -- or it becomes a framework for the way a lot of these people view the rest of the world. In that sense it was just a short step from the kind of militarism in the name of democratic revolution in Nicaragua under Reagan to Bush’s launch of his global democratic revolution to rid the world of evil.

Holland: Let’s get back to the issue of domestic support. You detail how during Reagan’s dirty wars there was essentially a full-spectrum effort to counter opposition to the policy and also to build some grass-roots support for it on the right. And you talk about the use of techniques that were traditionally means of influencing foreign populations here at home -- the psychological operations and propaganda, the use of proxy groups and friendly media. Tell me a bit about that.

Grandin: Well, think about Iran-Contra. That was much more than just an illegal arms sale and diversion of revenues to the Contras. The House Committee on Intelligence described it as a covert operation run on domestic soil. The office of Public Diplomacy was nominally run out of the State Department to get around prohibitions on using public money to influence domestic public opinion. It was staffed with psychological warfare operatives drawn from the military and the CIA, and what they used was a fusion of strategies to manipulate public opinion. They contracted the services of Republican-linked public relations firms to do polling and focus groups and come up with a list of emotive keywords that would work their way into the speeches of public officials. They combined that information with the expertise of psych warfare, covert operations, spook-types.

They also mobilized public support through the use of right-wing, supposedly grass-roots organizations, and they put enormous pressure on legislators -- people like Michael Baines of Maryland, who opposed Reagan’s Central American policies, and Jim Wright in Texas, the speaker of the House -- as well as journalists who reported critically from the war zones, academics, etc. It was quite an impressive campaign, you can see from the documents in the National Security Archive, and many of the tactics they employed clearly preceded what the Rendon Group did to sell the war in Iraq.

Holland: You talk about how, during the Reagan years, this aggressive foreign policy, especially in Latin America, was kind of the glue that held the New Right coalition together -- the corporatists, the nationalists, the religious right. Right now there are a lot of cracks in that coalition, but it seems that to a certain degree the “war on terror” is the one thing that is still keeping people in the fold.

Grandin: I think when you look at some of the great studies in recent years of the New Right -- for example Thomas Frank’s analysis of the cultural issues that empower conservatives – many don’t take into account the importance of foreign policy. What I try to do with the book is apply what Jeane Kirkpatrick said about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua: The reason they were dangerous, according to Kirkpatrick, was that to maintain a core base of support and to draw new constituents into their coalition, they had to constantly keep those groups mobilized and projected outward in an aggressive foreign policy. It’s a classic Cold War take on socialist movements, but you could say the same thing about the Reagan revolution: What started out as a chauvinistic core of fringe conservatives coming out of the Goldwater campaign really started to build momentum in foreign policy, pulling new constituents in through an expansive foreign policy. And it was in Central America where the constituencies of the New Right -- the Free-marketeers, the secular militarists and neocons, the theocons, all pursuing sometimes contradictory objectives -- came together in an anti-Communist crusade organized around a strong state. Modern conservatives are very statist, which is why libertarians always had a fraught relationship with the Reagan revolution and why many of them have broken completely with the Bush administration.

So I think we’re seeing something very similar now: The cracks that have formed in the conservative coalition are impressive, but there hasn’t been an effective opposition that could leverage the divisions, largely because the war on terror has been a powerful organizing tool of the right. Consider the potency of Bush’s use of the word “freedom” -- it has a different meaning for all the members of the coalition: The free-marketeers see it in terms of economics, and neocons understand it in terms of politics and the theocons take it as a cipher for religious moralism. They’re all able to project their own values and desires onto it. What would be a comparable single concept that could help bind the Democratic coalition in the same way? Justice? Equality? I don’t think those words have the same kind of resonance as does “freedom.”

What also separates Republicans from Democrats is that while Democrats are obviously also invested in maintaining a strong and aggressive foreign policy, the Republicans need to keep up that state of perpetual mobilization in order to hold their coalition together, and that’s why, under the sway of the right, they’re much more dangerous.

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