Why is it that now, after almost 12 years of internecine bloodshed, the opposing sides in El Salvador appear on the verge of ending their war? Why, after 40,000 political murders, has the Salvadoran government for the first time allowed the prosecution and conviction of one of its agents? The answer to these questions reveals the great flaw in U.S. policy.
The United States should not congratulate itself if a negotiated resolution is reached to El Salvador's war, since such a settlement was anathema to the architects of U.S policy in the 1980s. Until 1990, that policy was to obtain a clear victory by pressing the Salvadoran regime to provide what the insurgents promised--a just and equitable society, which would deprive the guerrillas of their appeal.
The United States assumed that its almost $6 billion in support bought considerable leverage. America's help was welcome but its advice was spurned--and for very good reason. Democratizing reforms would dilute the prerogatives of those in power in El Salvador, and whenever they perceived the United States to be constrained by its own national interests, U.S. leverage declined precipitously.
U.S. policy-makers were caught in a trap. The position of American liberals and conservatives was identical concerning policy toward El Salvador; both were adamant, for domestic political and apparent geostrategic reasons, that El Salvador not fall to the FMLN, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. How, then, could the Salvadoran military and the far right be pressured to reform by threats to cease aid when Washington repeatedly affirmed its determination to "draw a line" against communism in El Salvador?
So, while the ruling Salvadorans made appropriate gestures in response to U.S. conditions--bowing to pressure to remove some human-rights abusers from command, initiating a U.S.-inspired and -funded land reform program--when the reforms threatened the status quo, they were emasculated.
In many instances, especially in the field of human rights, the Salvadoran far right and military remained remarkably immune to American blandishments. Washington often found itself forced to settle for less than it hoped, even less than the minimum improvement it thought absolutely necessary. Such capitulation left the United States supporting policies and practices that sustained the insurgency while committing America's prestige to its defeat.
In its unwavering support of the beleaguered Salvadoran regime, the U.S. policy succeeded only in prolonging the war. The ambitious goals of both the policy and the war never were realized. Meanwhile, the security concerns that impelled the U.S. policy have all but evaporated along with the East-West contest and El Salvador's perceived place in it. "Winning" in El Salvador no longer matters much. A negotiated solution, or even "losing," would not carry the ominous significance it would have had for the Reagan Administration.
If the contestants in El Salvador negotiate an end to the present conflict, let alone a permanent peace, they will have done so because they are too weary to continue fighting--and because America can for the first time influence the Salvadoran right and press the military into making meaningful concessions to the FMLN.
Paradoxically, U.S. leverage has vastly increased because the Salvadoran regime realizes that Washington no longer has pressing reasons to continue supporting it. Thus, the same U.S. pressure for progress in human rights that was so fruitless in the past proved successful three weeks ago. With the end of the Cold War, the regime finally saw some credibility in threats that U.S. aid would be withdrawn unless convictions were obtained in the military murder of the Jesuit priests and their employees almost two years ago.
That these conditions have proved necessary to bring murderers to justice and antagonists to the negotiating table sums up the history of America's involvement in El Salvador: First we devoted our political energy and national resources to prevent the defeat of our ally and to help institute reforms we deemed essential for democracy to triumph. We then endured a prolonged period of frustration at our ally's failure to defeat the insurgency or reform radically enough. Finally, when El Salvador lost its importance, we left the settling of differences to a U.N. mediator.
U.S. officials and policy planners have said that they look upon the "strategy" pursued by us in El Salvador as a model for future involvements in such places as Peru. But this is dubious. If that strategy proves most effective when vital U.S. national security issues are not at stake, it will work best in situations that matter least.
Looking back at the last decade of our involvement in El Salvador, it seems painfully clear that we have pursued a policy by means unsettling to ourselves, for ends humiliating to the Salvadorans, and at a cost disproportionate to any conventional conception of our national interest.