W. Bush and his top advisers learned little from the Vietnam debacle of
the 1960s, since most avoided service in the war. But many top Bush
aides played key roles in the repression of leftist peasant uprisings in
Central America in the 1980s, a set of lessons the Bush administration
is now trying to apply to the violent resistance in Iraq.
The key counterinsurgency
lesson from Central America was that the U.S. government can defeat
guerrilla movements if it is willing to back a local power structure, no
matter how repulsive, and if Washington is ready to tolerate gross human
rights abuses. In Central America in the 1980s, those tactics included
genocide against hundreds of Mayan villages in Guatemalas highlands and
the torture, rape and murder of thousands of young political activists
throughout the region. [More on this below]
The body dumps that have been
unearthed across Central America are thus little different from the mass
graves blamed on Saddam Hussein in Iraq, except in Central America they
represented the dark side of U.S. foreign policy and received far less
U.S. press scrutiny. Another lesson learned from the 1980s was the
importance of shielding the American people from the ugly realities of a
U.S.-backed "dirty war" by using P.R. techniques, which became known
inside the Reagan administration as "perception management."
The temptation to recycle
these counterinsurgency strategies from Central America to Iraq is
explained by the number of Reagan-era officials now back in prominent
roles in George W. Bush's administration.
They include Elliot Abrams,
who served as assistant secretary of state for Latin America in the
1980s and is a National Security Council adviser to Bush on the Middle
East; John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s and now
Bushs U.N. Ambassador; Paul Bremer a counter-terrorism specialist in
the 1980s and Iraqs civilian administrator today; Bushs Secretary of
State Colin Powell, who was the senior military adviser to Defense
Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the 1980s; and Vice President Dick
Cheney, who was a Republican foreign-policy stalwart in Congress two
One important difference
between Iraq and Central America, however, is that to date, the Bush
administration has had trouble finding, arming and unleashing an Iraqi
proxy force that compares to the paramilitary killers who butchered
suspected leftists in Central America. In El Salvador, Guatemala and
Honduras, well-established security forces already existed. Plus, in
Nicaragua, Ronald Reagan could turn to the remnants of ousted dictator Anastasio Somozas National Guard to fashion a contra rebel force.
In Iraq, however, U.S.
policymakers chose to disband rather than redirect Saddam Husseins
army and intelligence services, leaving the burden of counterinsurgency
heavily on U.S. occupying troops who are unfamiliar with Iraqs
language, history and terrain.
Now, with U.S. casualties
mounting, the Bush administration is scrambling to build an Iraqi
paramilitary force to serve under the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing
Councils interior minister. The core of this force would be drawn from
the security and intelligence wings of five political organizations,
including Ahmad Chalabis formerly exile-based Iraqi National Congress.
Bushs national security
adviser Condoleezza Rice said on Nov. 10 that the administrations No. 1
strategy in Iraq is to build an Iraqi security force, which she claims
already numbers about 118,000 people, roughly the size of the U.S.
military contingent in Iraq. Many of these Iraqis have received
speeded-up training with the goal of using them to pacify the so-called
Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad.
Earlier, some U.S. officials,
including civilian administrator Bremer, balked at a paramilitary force
out of fear it would become a tool of repression. The unit that the
Governing Council wants to create would be the most powerful domestic
security force in Iraq, fueling concern among some U.S. officials that
it could be used for undemocratic purposes, such as stifling political
dissent, as such forces do in other Arab nations, the Washington Post
But faced with the rising U.S.
death toll, Bremer no longer has any objection in principle to this
concept, a senior U.S. official told the Post. [Washington Post, Nov. 5,
2003] With all the missteps that have plagued the U.S. occupation,
Bremer appears to understand that the Iraqi security situation needs to
be bolstered and quickly.
In much of the Sunni Triangle,
U.S. control now is intermittent at best, existing only during heavily
armed U.S. forays into resistance strongholds. American troops patrol
less frequently, townspeople openly threaten Iraqi security personnel
who cooperate with U.S. forces, and the night belongs to the
guerrillas, the Washington Post reported from Thuluiya about 60 miles
north of Baghdad. [Nov. 8, 2003]
One U.S. senator who has
visited the region told me that the struggle for Iraq may take 30 years
before a new generation accepts the American presence. But even taking
the long view does not guarantee success. Israel has been battling to
break the back of Palestinian resistance for more than three decades
with no sign that younger Palestinians are less hostile to the Israeli
occupation. The Iraqi insurgency already has spread too far and
penetrated too deeply to be easily uprooted, military experts say.
Central American Lessons
Having lurched into this Iraqi
quicksand, the Bush administration is now searching for lessons that can
be gleaned from the most recent U.S. counterinsurgency experience, the
region-wide wars in Central America that began as uprisings against
ruling oligarchies and their military henchmen but came to be viewed by
the Reagan administration as an all-too-close front in the Cold War.
Though U.S.-backed armies and
paramilitary forces eventually quelled the leftist peasant rebellions,
the cost in blood was staggering. The death toll in El Salvador was
estimated at about 70,000 people. In Guatemala, the number of dead
reached about 200,000, including what a truth commission concluded was a
genocide against the Mayan populations in Guatemalas highlands.
The muted press coverage that
the U.S. news media has given these atrocities as they have come to
light over the years also showed the residual strength of the
perception management employed by the Reagan administration. For
instance, even when the atrocities of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain
Rios Montt are mentioned, as they were in the context of his defeat in
Guatemalas Nov. 9 presidential elections, the history of Reagans warm
support for Rios Montt is rarely, if ever, noted by the U.S. press.
While the slaughter of the
Mayans was underway in the 1980s, Reagan portrayed Gen. Rios Montt and
the Guatemalan army as victims of disinformation spread by human rights
groups and journalists. Reagan huffily discounted reports that Rios
Montts army was eradicating hundreds of Mayan villages.
On Dec. 4, 1982, after meeting
with Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as "totally dedicated to
democracy" and declared that Rios Montt's government had been "getting a
bum rap." Reagan also reversed President Jimmy Carters policy of
embargoing military equipment to Guatemala over its human rights abuses.
Carters human rights embargoes represented one of the few times during
the Cold War when Washington objected to the repression that pervaded
Central American society.
Death Squad Origins
Though many U.S.-backed
regimes in Latin America practiced the dark arts of disappearances and
death squads, the history of Guatemalas security operations is
perhaps the best documented because the Clinton administration
declassified scores of the secret U.S. documents in the late 1990s to
assist a Guatemalan truth commission. The Guatemala experience also may
be the most instructive today in illuminating a possible course of the
counterinsurgency in Iraq.
The original Guatemalan death
squads took shape in the mid-1960s under anti-terrorist training
provided by a U.S. public safety adviser named John Longon, the
declassified documents show. In January 1966, Longon reported to his
superiors about both overt and covert components of his anti-terrorist
On the covert side, Longon
pressed for a safe house [to] be immediately set up for coordination
of security intelligence. A room was immediately prepared in the
[Presidential] Palace for this purpose and
immediately designated to put this operation into effect, according to
Longons report. Longons operation within the presidential compound
became the starting point for the infamous Archivos intelligence unit
that evolved into a clearinghouse for Guatemalas most notorious
Just two months after Longon's report, a secret CIA cable noted the
clandestine execution of several Guatemalan "communists and terrorists"
on the night of March 6, 1966. By the end of the year, the Guatemalan
government was bold enough to request U.S. help in establishing special
kidnapping squads, according to a cable from the U.S. Southern Command
that was forwarded to Washington on Dec. 3, 1966.
1967, the Guatemalan counterinsurgency terror had gained a fierce
momentum. On Oct. 23, 1967, the State Department's Bureau of
Intelligence and Research noted the "accumulating evidence that the
[Guatemalan] counterinsurgency machine is out of control." The report
noted that Guatemalan "counter-terror" units were carrying out
abductions, bombings, torture and summary executions "of real and
The mounting death toll in Guatemala
disturbed some American officials assigned to the country. The embassy's
deputy chief of mission, Viron Vaky, expressed his concerns in a
remarkably candid report that he submitted on March 29, 1968, after
returning to Washington. Vaky framed his arguments in pragmatic terms,
but his moral anguish broke through.
The official squads are guilty of
atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are
mutilated, Vaky wrote. In the minds of many in Latin America, and,
tragically, especially in the sensitive, articulate youth, we are
believed to have condoned these tactics, if not actually encouraged
them. Therefore our image is being tarnished and the credibility of our
claims to want a better and more just world are increasingly placed in
Vaky also noted the deceptions within the
U.S. government that resulted from its complicity in state-sponsored
terror. This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing
of all -- that we have not been honest with ourselves, Vaky said. We
have condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged or
blessed it. We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we
have rationalized away our qualms and uneasiness.
This is not only because we have concluded
we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we
suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as Communists
are being killed it is alright. Murder, torture and mutilation are
alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists. After
all hasn't man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be
too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our
Though kept secret from the American public
for three decades, the Vaky memo obliterated any claim that Washington
simply didn't know the reality in Guatemala. Still, with Vaky's memo
squirreled away in State Department files, the killing went on. The
repression was noted almost routinely in reports from the field.
On Jan. 12, 1971, the Defense Intelligence
Agency reported that Guatemalan forces had "quietly eliminated" hundreds
of "terrorists and bandits" in the countryside. On Feb. 4, 1974, a State
Department cable reported resumption of "death squad" activities.
On Dec. 17, 1974, a DIA biography of one
U.S.-trained Guatemalan officer gave an insight into how U.S.
counterinsurgency doctrine had imbued the Guatemalan strategies.
According to the biography, Lt. Col. Elias Osmundo Ramirez Cervantes,
chief of security section for Guatemala's president, had trained at the
U.S. Army School of Intelligence at Fort Holabird in Maryland. Back in
Guatemala, Ramirez Cervantes was put in charge of plotting raids on
suspected subversives as well as their interrogations.
The Reagan Bloodbath
As brutal as the Guatemalan security forces
were in the 1960s and 1970s, the worst was yet to come. In the 1980s,
the Guatemalan army escalated its slaughter of political dissidents and
their suspected supporters to unprecedented levels.
Ronald Reagan's election in November 1980 set
off celebrations in the well-to-do communities of Central America. After
four years of Jimmy Carter's human rights nagging, the region's
hard-liners were thrilled that they had someone in the White House who
understood their problems.
oligarchs and the generals had good reason for optimism. For years,
Reagan had been a staunch defender of right-wing regimes that engaged in
bloody counterinsurgency against leftist enemies. In the late 1970s,
when Carter's human rights coordinator, Pat Derian, criticized the
Argentine military for its "dirty war" -- tens of thousands of
"disappearances," tortures and murders -- then-political commentator
Reagan joshed that she should walk a mile in the moccasins of the
Argentine generals before criticizing them. [For details, see Martin
Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]
After his election in 1980, Reagan pushed to overturn an arms embargo
imposed on Guatemala by Carter. Yet as Reagan was moving to loosen up
the military aid ban, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were
confirming new Guatemalan government massacres.
April 1981, a secret CIA cable described a massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj
in the Ixil Indian territory. On April 17, 1981, government troops
attacked the area believed to support leftist guerrillas, the cable
said. According to a CIA source, "the social population appeared to
fully support the guerrillas" and "the soldiers were forced to fire at
anything that moved." The CIA cable added that "the Guatemalan
authorities admitted that 'many civilians' were killed in Cocob, many of
whom undoubtedly were non-combatants."
Despite the CIA account and other similar reports, Reagan permitted
Guatemala's army to buy $3.2 million in military trucks and jeeps in
June 1981. To permit the sale, Reagan removed the vehicles from a list
of military equipment that was covered by the human rights embargo.
confident of Reagans sympathies, the Guatemalan government continued
its political repression without apology.
According to a
State Department cable on Oct. 5, 1981, Guatemalan leaders met with
Reagan's roving ambassador, retired Gen. Vernon Walters, and left no
doubt about their plans. Guatemala's military leader, Gen. Fernando
Romeo Lucas Garcia, "made clear that his government will continue as
before -- that the repression will continue."
groups saw the same picture. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission
released a report on Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government
for "thousands of illegal executions." [Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1981]
But the Reagan
administration was set on whitewashing the ugly scene. A State
Department "white paper," released in December 1981, blamed the violence
on leftist "extremist groups" and their "terrorist methods," inspired
and supported by Cubas Fidel Castro. Yet, even as these
rationalizations were pitched to the American people, U.S. ntelligence
agencies in Guatemala continued to learn of government-sponsored
One CIA report
in February 1982 described an army sweep through the so-called Ixil
Triangle in central El Quiche province. "The commanding officers of the
units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages
which are cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the
EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance," the report stated. "Since
the operation began, several villages have been burned to the ground,
and a large number of guerrillas and collaborators have been killed."
The CIA report
explained the army's modus operandi: "When an army patrol meets
resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the
entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed." When the army
encountered an empty village, it was "assumed to have been supporting
the EGP, and it is destroyed. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of
refugees in the hills with no homes to return to.
belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has
created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter
to combatants and non-combatants alike."
In March 1982,
Gen. Rios Montt seized power in a coup detat. An avowed fundamentalist
Christian, he immediately impressed official Washington, where Reagan
hailed Rios Montt as "a man of great personal integrity."
By July 1982,
however, Rios Montt had begun a new scorched-earth campaign called his
"rifles and beans" policy. The slogan meant that pacified Indians would
get "beans," while all others could expect to be the target of army
"rifles." In October, he secretly gave carte blanche to the feared
Archivos intelligence unit to expand death squad operations.
The U.S. embassy
was soon hearing more accounts of the army conducting Indian massacres.
On Oct, 21, 1982, one cable described how three embassy officers tried
to check out some of these reports but ran into bad weather and canceled
the inspection. Still, the cable put a positive spin on the situation.
Though unable to check out the massacre reports, the embassy officials
did "reach the conclusion that the army is completely up front about
allowing us to check alleged massacre sites and to speak with whomever
The next day,
the embassy fired off an analysis that the Guatemalan government was the
victim of a communist-inspired "disinformation campaign," a claim
embraced by Reagan with his "bum rap" comment after he met with Rios
Montt in December 1982.
On Jan. 7, 1983,
Reagan lifted the ban on military aid to Guatemala and authorized the
sale of $6 million in military hardware. Approval covered spare parts
for UH-1H helicopters and A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency
operations. State Department spokesman John Hughes said political
violence in the cities had "declined dramatically" and that rural
conditions had improved too.
1983, however, a secret CIA cable noted a rise in "suspect right-wing
violence" with kidnappings of students and teachers. Bodies of victims
were appearing in ditches and gullies. CIA sources traced these
political murders to Rios Montt's order to the "Archivos" in October to
"apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as
they saw fit."
grisly facts on the ground, the annual State Department human rights
survey sugarcoated the facts for the American public and praised the
supposedly improved human rights situation in Guatemala. "The overall
conduct of the armed forces had improved by late in the year" 1982, the
picture -- far closer to the secret information held by the U.S.
government -- was coming from independent human rights investigators. On
March 17, 1983, Americas Watch representatives condemned the Guatemalan
army for human rights atrocities against the Indian population.
attorney Stephen L. Kass said these findings included proof that the
government carried out "virtually indiscriminate murder of men, women
and children of any farm regarded by the army as possibly supportive of
suspected of guerrilla sympathies were raped before execution, Kass
said. Children were "thrown into burning homes. They are thrown in the
air and speared with bayonets. We heard many, many stories of children
being picked up by the ankles and swung against poles so their heads are
destroyed." [AP, March 17, 1983]
however, senior Reagan officials continued to put on a happy face. On
June 12, 1983, special envoy Richard B. Stone praised "positive changes"
in Rios Montt's government. But Rios Montts vengeful Christian
fundamentalism was hurtling out of control, even by Guatemalan
standards. In August 1983, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in
power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued to kill those who were
deemed subversives or terrorists. When three Guatemalans working for the
U.S. Agency for International Development were slain in November 1983,
U.S. Ambassador Frederic Chapin suspected that Archivos hit squads
were sending a message to the United States to back off even the mild
pressure for human rights improvements.
November, in a brief show of displeasure, the administration postponed
the sale of $2 million in helicopter spare parts. The next month,
however, Reagan sent the spare parts. In 1984, Reagan succeeded, too, in
pressuring Congress to approve $300,000 in military training for the
Chapin, who had grown bitter about the armys stubborn brutality, was
gone, replaced by a far-right political appointee named Alberto Piedra,
who was all for increased military assistance to Guatemala.
In January 1985,
Americas Watch issued a report observing that Reagan's State Department
"is apparently more concerned with improving Guatemala's image than in
improving its human rights."
of Guatemalas death squad strategy came to light later. For example,
a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency cable in 1994 reported that the
Guatemalan military had used an air base in Retalhuleu during the
mid-1980s as a center for coordinating the counterinsurgency campaign in
southwest Guatemala and for torturing and burying prisoners.
At the base,
pits were filled with water to hold captured suspects. "Reportedly there
were cages over the pits and the water level was such that the
individuals held within them were forced to hold on to the bars in order
to keep their heads above water and avoid drowning," the DIA report
military used the Pacific Ocean as another dumping spot for political
victims, according to the DIA report. Bodies of insurgents tortured to
death and live prisoners marked for disappearance were loaded onto
planes that flew out over the ocean where the soldiers would shove the
victims into the water to drown, a tactic that had been a favorite
disposal technique of the Argentine military in the 1970s.
The history of
the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by accident in the early 1990s
when a Guatemalan officer wanted to let soldiers cultivate their own
vegetables on a corner of the base. But the officer was taken aside and
told to drop the request "because the locations he had wanted to
cultivate were burial sites that had been used by the D-2 [military
intelligence] during the mid-eighties," the DIA report said. [To see the
Guatemalan documents, go to the National Security Archive's
course, was not the only Central American country where Reagan and his
administration supported brutal counterinsurgency operations -- and then
sought to cover up the bloody facts. Deception of the American public
a strategy that the administration internally called perception
management was as much a part of the Central American story as the
Bush administrations lies and distortions about weapons of mass
destruction were to the lead-up to the war in Iraq.
falsification of the historical record became a hallmark of the
conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua as well as Guatemala. In one
case, Reagan personally lashed out at a human rights investigator named
Reed Brody, a New York lawyer who had collected affidavits from more
than 100 witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported
contras in Nicaragua.
Angered by the
revelations about his contra "freedom-fighters," Reagan denounced Brody
in a speech on April 15, 1985, calling him "one of dictator [Daniel]
Ortega's supporters, a sympathizer who has openly embraced Sandinismo."
Reagan had a far more accurate understanding of the true nature of the
contras. At one point in the contra war, Reagan turned to CIA official
Duane Clarridge and demanded that the contras be used to destroy some
Soviet-supplied helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua. In his
memoirs, Clarridge recalled that "President Reagan pulled me aside and
asked, 'Dewey, can't you get those vandals of yours to do this job.'"
[See Clarridge's A Spy for All Seasons.]
To manage U.S.
perceptions of the wars in Central America, Reagan also authorized a
systematic program of distorting information and intimidating American
journalists. Called "public diplomacy," the project was run by a CIA
propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who was assigned to the National
Security Council staff. The project's key operatives developed
propaganda themes, selected hot buttons to excite the American
people, cultivated pliable journalists who would cooperate and bullied
reporters who wouldn't go along.
attacks were directed against New York Times correspondent
Raymond Bonner for disclosing Salvadoran army massacres of civilians,
including the slaughter of some 800 men, women and children in El Mozote
in December 1981. But Bonner was not alone. Reagan's operatives
pressured scores of reporters and their editors in an ultimately
successful campaign to minimize information about these human rights
crimes reaching the American people. [For details, see Robert Parry's
reporters, in turn, gave the administration a far freer hand to pursue
counterinsurgency operations in Central America. Despite the tens of
thousands of civilian deaths and now-corroborated accounts of massacres
and genocide, not a single senior military officer in Central America
was held accountable for the bloodshed.
officials who sponsored and encouraged these war crimes not only escaped
legal judgment, but remain highly respected figures in Washington. Some
have returned to senior government posts under George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, Reagan has been honored as few recent presidents have with
major public facilities named after him, including National Airport in
On Feb. 25, 1999, a Guatemalan truth
commission issued a report on the staggering human rights crimes that
Reagan and his administration had aided, abetted and concealed.
The Historical Clarification Commission, an
independent human rights body, estimated that the Guatemalan conflict
claimed the lives of some 200,000 people with the most savage
bloodletting occurring in the 1980s. Based on a review of about 20
percent of the dead, the panel blamed the army for 93 percent of the
killings and leftist guerrillas for three percent. Four percent were
listed as unresolved.
The report documented that in the 1980s, the
army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. "The massacres that
eliminated entire Mayan villages
are neither perfidious allegations
nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala's
history," the commission concluded.
The army "completely exterminated Mayan
communities, destroyed their livestock and crops," the report said. In
the northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter a "genocide."
Besides carrying out murder and "disappearances," the army routinely
engaged in torture and rape. "The rape of women, during torture or
before being murdered, was a common practice" by the military and
paramilitary forces, the report found.
The report added that the "government of the
United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided
direct and indirect support for some [of these] state operations." The
report concluded that the U.S. government also gave money and training
to a Guatemalan military that committed "acts of genocide" against the
"Believing that the ends justified
everything, the military and the state security forces blindly pursued
the anticommunist struggle, without respect for any legal principles or
the most elemental ethical and religious values, and in this way,
completely lost any semblance of human morals," said the commission
chairman, Christian Tomuschat, a German jurist.
"Within the framework of the
counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, in
certain regions of the country agents of the Guatemalan state committed
acts of genocide against groups of the Mayan people, Tomuschat said.
[For more details on the commission's report, see the Washington Post or
New York Times, Feb. 26, 1999]
During a visit
to Central America, on March 10, 1999, President Clinton apologized for
the past U.S. support of right-wing regimes in Guatemala. "For the
United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for
military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and
widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat
that mistake," Clinton said.
Less than five
years later, however, the U.S. government is teetering on the edge of
another brutal counterinsurgency war in Iraq.
of Bushs invasion of Iraq in March are now advocating an iron fist to
quell the growing Iraqi resistance. In a debate in Berkeley, Calif., for
instance, ardent Bush supporter Christopher Hitchens declared that the
U.S. intervention in Iraq needed to be more thoroughgoing, more
thought-out and more, if necessary, ruthless. [See
Salon.com, Nov. 11, 2003]
Lt. Gen. Ricardo
Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told a news conference in Baghdad
on Nov. 11 that U.S. forces would follow a new get-tough strategy
against the Iraqi resistance. "We are taking the fight into the safe
havens of the enemy, in the heartland of the country," Sanchez said.
military commanders in Iraq and Bush enthusiasts at home are not alone
in encouraging a fierce counterinsurgency campaign to throttle the Iraqi
resistance. Though many war critics say the likelihood of a difficult
occupation should have been anticipated before the invasion, some now
agree that the U.S. government must fight and win in Iraq or the United
States will suffer a crippling loss of credibility in the Middle East
and throughout the world.
Wishing for a
result, however, can be far different from achieving a result. Wanting
the U.S. forces to prevail and asserting that they must prevail does not
mean that they will prevail. American troops could find themselves
trapped in a long painful conflict against a determined enemy fighting
on its home terrain.
As the United
States wades deeper into this Iraqi quicksand, the lessons of the bloody
counterinsurgency wars in Central America will be tempting to the
veterans of the Reagan administration. Those lessons certainly are the
most immediate antecedents to many of the architects of the Iraq
But the Central
American lessons may have limited applicability to Iraq. For one, the
Bush administration can't turn to well-entrenched power centers with
ideologically committed security forces as the Reagan administration
could in Guatemala and other Central American countries. Also, the
cultural divide and the physical distance between Iraq and the United
States are far greater than those between Central America and the United
So even if the
Bush administration can hastily set up an Iraqi security apparatus, it
may not be as committed to a joint cause with the Americans as the
Central American paramilitary forces were with the Reagan
administration. Without a reliable proxy force, the responsibility for
conducting a scorched-earth campaign in Iraq likely would fall to
American soldiers who themselves might question the wisdom and the
morality of such an undertaking.
Perhaps one of
the lessons of the current dilemma is that George W. Bush may have dug
such a deep hole for U.S. policy in Iraq that even Guatemalan-style
brutality applied to the Sunni Triangle would only deepen the well of
anti-Americanism that already exists in many parts of Iraq and across
much of the Islamic world.
In the 1980s,
as a correspondent for the Associated Press and Newsweek, Robert Parry
broke many of the stories now known as the Iran-Contra Affair. His
latest book is Lost History.