Pentagon Wakes Up to Failure in Central America

Jeff<i> rson Morley is the Washington editor of the Nation magazine</i>

Two years ago a high-level Pentagon report warned that U.S. military strategy in Central America was beset with problems. No one in Washington noticed. Last spring, four U.S. Army colonels warned that U.S. strategy in El Salvador was failing; few congressmen paid attention. By late 1988, what is billed as “low-intensity conflict” is drawing the United States into a costly failure in Central America--and the next President, the Congress and the public could not be less prepared.

Neither George Bush nor Michael S. Dukakis seems to have realized that the U.S. position in Central America is eroding. It is clear that the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, while pauperized by the U.S.-sponsored Contra war, will not be overthrown short of U.S. invasion. Guatemala and Costa Rica, once staunch U.S. allies, support Managua and defy Washington in meetings about the Central American peace process. The foreign minister of Honduras, the most pliant U.S. ally in the region, recently denounced “U.S. hegemonism.”

El Salvador, once considered a bipartisan success story, is close to becoming a bipartisan nightmare. The Christian Democratic government has all but disintegrated in a haze of corruption and ineptitude, leaving the population polarized. The leftist opposition, civilian and military, is gaining in strength. The Salvadoran armed forces, advised by U.S. trainers, responds with death-squad killings.

The two Pentagon reports provide a compelling critique of U.S. ambitions in the region. The first report, “Analytical Review of Low-Intensity Conflict” (ARLIC), was released in August, 1986. The second, “American Military Policy in Small Wars: The Case of El Salvador,” was prepared last March. Both identified flaws in LIC doctrine, the updated version of Vietnam-era counterinsurgency. Both anticipated problems the United States now faces in winning Central American “hearts and minds.”


The authors of the two studies are hawks. They did not criticize LIC strategy because it condones death squads, dislocates rural populations and relys on mendacious “psychological operations.” These analysts aim to improve U.S. military strategy, not revise it. Nonetheless, their analysis is in some ways the ultimate criticism of bipartisan U.S. policy of the last decade--the cooly analytical indictment of disinterested sympathizers.

The two reports foresaw that the public would never support U.S. military efforts in the region. The “Small Wars” report noted, “Although most (Americans) are hesitant to say so outright, their world view assigns places like Latin America or Africa or Southern Asia to the outermost periphery of U.S. interests.” Authors of the ARLIC report urged Third World military commitments be made cautiously because “any real consensus on this issue is unlikely.”

Nonetheless, President Reagan and the Democratic Congress continued to send hundreds of millions of dollars to U.S. allies in the region. Now that the United States is more isolated than at any time in a decade, those commitments are being reassessed. Even Bush no longer promises to renew military aid to the Contras.

In Central America, the LIC analysts identified the contradictions that doomed U.S. policy. Winning “hearts and minds,” they noted, requires serious social reforms--yet U.S. allies, anchored by military and business elites, were not interested. The Pentagon hawks noted, “The government in such situations is often a narrow oligarchy more interested in protecting the special privileges of the elite than in the needs of society as a whole.”


Constantly facing the choice of “which groups to win over and which groups to coerce,” the United States would always be trying to square the circle. It had to address “the needs and demands of the less-incorporated groups without critically alienating groups that have traditionally supported and participated in the political process.” The ARLIC report predicted this would be difficult at best.

In the short run, the Reagan Administration was able to pull off its balancing act. From 1981 through 1986, U.S. policy-makers were fairly successful in winning over the military, the rich, some of the urban middle class and the unorganized peasantry. In return for not resisting U.S. policy, these groups were allowed to participate in elections and certain sectors received millions of dollars in U.S. aid.

Similarly, the United States’ coercion of the armed left, independent trade unions, human-rights groups and organized campesinos “succeeded” at appalling human cost. The “sticks” of U.S. policy were military death squads, modernized armies and efficient secret police. Observers estimate that 100,000 civilians have been killed in Central America over the last decade, the vast majority at the hands of U.S.-armed and -trained security forces.

However, a policy of coercion and limited reforms--"repression and institution-building,” in the words of the ARLIC report--was seen as unstable. It ran “the risk of the population becoming dissatisfied with having the form of participation without the substance.”

The LIC analysts understood that controlled, U.S.-sponsored elections might only contribute to popular discontent. This is what has happened in El Salvador and, to a lesser extent, in Honduras and Guatemala, over the past two years.

In fact, the hawks in the Pentagon came to the same conclusions as the leftist military strategists in Morazan and Managua: “Continued repression alienates the population, driving political activity underground and enabling insurgents to countermobilize broad elements of the population in opposition.”

As anticipated, the armed left is reaping the political benefits from the failure of U.S. strategy. The Salvadoran left now predicts victory within two to four years, a claim never ventured before.

If leftist opposition in Central America gains strength, pressure in Washington for withdrawal or deeper U.S. involvement will grow. The “Small Wars” report noted that “the years of American involvement have made that conflict in a political sense indelibly ‘our war.’ ”


The deteriorating situation will probably come as a surprise to official Washington. In the last eight years, a solid majority of Democrats and Republicans have come to believe that Nicaragua, or Cuba, or the Soviet Union is the heart of the problem in Central America. The ARLIC report warned, again without success, against this: “Attributing the problem of insurgency to outside sources is a much easier path to follow in terms of devising a response but such a concentration distracts from the real issues.”

The “real issues” in Central America for the next President are the dubious logic of trying to control the region’s “less incorporated groups” in the name of democracy, the arrogance of “repression and institution building” and the bloody failure of “low-intensity conflict.”