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January 17, 2005

The Salvador Option

David Adesnik tries to keep at least a foothold in the moral universe. It's not clear that he succeeds. What do people think?

OxBlog: Newsweek presumed that a "Salvador option" entailed the training of something similar to death squads, or at least abduction squads, yet David H.'s careful review of military publications suggests that the Pentagon has a very different understanding of the lessons of El Salvador. Rather than emphasizing the role of death squads in counter-insurgency operations, the Pentagon's interpretation of El Salvador focuses on how best to train the entire armed forces of a developing nation. As David H. points out, military papers on this subject tend to avoid discussion of the horrific human rights violations that the Salvadoran armed forces committed while under the tutelage of the Pentagon. While I find David's general argument about the Pentagon's thought processes persuasive, it is still impossible to know whether it is correct in this specific instance since Newsweek provided so little concrete information to substantiate its suggestion that the Pentagon has nefarious plans for Iraq....

Let me say that I don't: just because military papers written avoid discussion of the horrific human rights violations of the Salvadorian armed forces does not mean that their writers and readers are unaware of them. To claim that American officers calling for a "Salvador option" are unaware that they are calling for Death Squads is as incredible as claiming that Plantagenets calling for a "Canterbury option" are unaware of murder in the cathedral.

Next, I would like to address the concerns of AS, who writes that my initial post "Repeated some false and misleading notions.... There were undoubtedly those who supported any measure that would kill communists. Outside the Oliver North school of Latin American politics (and the naive Reaganites who followed along) however, you'd behard-pressed to find any." While the "naive Reaganites" may have constituted a small minority, they counted among their number the President, the director of the CIA and certain other high-ranking officials. Thus, their influence far outstripped their strength in numbers.

Nonetheless, AS is right to emphasize -- as I failed to do in my initial post -- how fiercely many of the Americans involved with the situation in El Salvador opposed the mindless brutality of the Salvadoran anti-communists. At the height of the brutality, all of our ambassadors and the overwhelming majority of embassy officials opposed the violence....

It is not clear to me that that statement is correct as applied to Ambassador Negroponte.

At this point, I'd like to address Matt Yglesias' observation that

I'm not sure the distinction between America supporting a government that supports death squads while tolerating the existence of the death squads and America supporting death squads can really bear as much weight as David [Adesnik, not Holiday] wants to put on it. Being clear on the historical record is worthwhile, but it sort of doesn't make a great deal of difference morally.

...I think there is an important point to be made about the moral status of President Reagan's ability to persuade himself of the virtuous nature of the Salvadoran armed forces. Even Reagan's harshest critics seem to recognize that the President's ignorance on this subject was sincere. Should some historian discover evidence which clearly indicates that Reagan understood the true nature of the Salvadoran armed forces and intentionally lied in order to defend their conduct, we will all have to revise our assessments of the 40th President. Although ideologically-motivated negligence is damnable enough, it is a far cry from intentional and explicit support for mass murder....

Holding constant the number of civilians killed and the number of archbishops murdered at the altar, is there really a big difference? Does Papal Legate Arnaud-Amalric get moral credit for his belief that he was doing God's will when he commanded, "Kill them all! God will recognize his own"? If not--as I think he does not--then why does Reagan get moral credit for his invincible ignorance?

Posted by DeLong at January 17, 2005 01:37 PM


I'm sure the anti-death squad voices in this administration will have as much influence as the anti-torture voices did. And unlike Reagan, I'm sure Bush won't make the Free Iraqi Army paragons of virture even though his entire Iraqi plan is based upon them being so.

Posted by: Rob at January 17, 2005 02:30 PM


I find Mr Adesnik's excuse of ignorance on Mr Reagan's part extremely disturbing. Ignorance is not an acceptable defence for a person in Mr Reagan's position. It is rather like the Pope claiming ignorance of the pogroms unleashed by the Nazis during the second world war. Also, given the
fact that Central America is the U.S's backyard, and what goes on there is of great interest to every US government, such an excuse is not even credible.

Furthermore, it is not at all hard to believe that the highest levels in the USG supported anyone who was anti-communist. In the case of Salvador, I remember that the junta who created the death squads did receive at least implicit diplomatic support from the government. More generally, after all, the US did go to Vietnam to fight communism, and had Allende deposed and killed to be replaced by Pinochet all in the name of freedom. It is not hard, therefore, to believe that the highest levels of govt during Reagan's time believed in this policy.

Posted by: anon at January 17, 2005 02:41 PM

This reminds me of the legal doctrine of "willful blindness," or what people in my line of work (clinical psychology) call "obtuse naivete" (the wife of the child molester who protests that she had NO IDEA that her husband was molesting her children). The point is, Reagan SHOULD have known what was going on. The fact that he chose to ignore unpleasant facts (a defense mechanism that he appeared to use frequently) doesn't excuse him of anything. His apologists' excusing him because of his ignorance has a lot of that "Little Father Czar" nonsense to it; the absurd belief that if the leader knew what his evil underlings were doing, he'd stop it. This level of naivete has no place in any intelligent political discourse.

Posted by: Rebecca Allen, PhD at January 17, 2005 02:50 PM

US ambassador to El Salvador William Walker is on record as describing a death squad's murder of 5 jesuit priests, their housekeeper & her daughter as a "management mistake" which seems to imply some knowledge of their management techniques.

Mr Walker subsequently served as a human rights investigater in Kosovo where he discovered the Racak massacre (blaming the Yugoslavs) which subsequently served as a pretext for Nato's attack. His testimony at the Milosevic trial of why his claims there differ from subsequent forensic tests included a claim of memory loss & of being unaware of what was there.

Posted by: Neil Craig at January 17, 2005 03:54 PM

This is the kind of crap gives specious reasoning a bad name.


"At the height of the brutality, all of our ambassadors and the overwhelming majority of embassy officials opposed the violence...."

So in other words, a small minority of U.S. embassy officials in Central America actively supported committing bestial atrocities in the name of fighting communism. And this is supposed to be the GOOD news???

I'm not sure what kind of point Adesnik was trying to make, but that sentence reads like some kind of hidden disclaimer - i.e. I'm pretty sure all the foreign service weenies were clean, but God knows what the CIA guys and those military attaches were up to.

You could probably have made the same argument about the average embassy of Nazi Germany.

The bit about senile old Uncle Ron, doddering around in the Oval Office, isn't worth commenting on, except to say it leaves me with the mental image of a sheepish Reagan in a German sergeant's overcoat, telling Bob Crane "I know notheeenk!"

The idea that any reasonably senior official in the U.S. government involved in Central American policy could NOT know exactly what was going on - and who was doing it, and who was behind it - is as ridiculous as it is obnoxious.

When I was in Guatemala in the mid-'80s, the death squads operated out of an annex to the presidential palace in downtown Guatemala City - the very same annex that housed the Guatemalan equivalent of the Secret Service. It was hardly a secret - everybody in town knew it. Sometimes in the morning you'd even see a few older men and women waiting patiently in the street outside the compound. I was told they came in hopes of learning something about the fate of a missing relative. I can't image what kind of courage that took - more than I have, anyway.

And yet all through that period, the official position of the U.S. government, from Reagan on down, was that they had NO idea who was behind the death squads - not a clue.

Adesnik doesn't just need to "revise" his assessment of the 40th president, he needs to rethink his entire approach to public morality. I suggest he start by boning up on the Nuremberg principles.

Posted by: Billmon at January 17, 2005 05:44 PM

"The President's ignorance on this subject was sincere . . . " Sincere ignorance: interesting concept.

What next? Unshakeably sincere ignorance? Utterly principled ignorance? Faith-based ignorance?

Posted by: SqueakyRat at January 17, 2005 08:31 PM

Reagan was said to posses the clearest spit according to his White House physician a clear and obvious sign of excellent health.
Clear spit and sincere ignorance went hand-in-glove to create a great, great man.

Posted by: Rich at January 17, 2005 10:47 PM

That willfull ignorance is the go-to excuse for anyone in the U. S. Lay at Enron is using it as his defense. Ebbers too is claiming he didn't know where the numbers were. Rumsfield is using a variation of I didn't know that stuff was going on even while claming one of the positives from our adventure in Iraq was closing down the torture chambers. Perhaps we should acknowledge that wink-wink-nudge-nudge I didn't know is who we are.

Posted by: christofay at January 17, 2005 10:50 PM

David is simply adopting the same defense that was adopted in the 1980's, and for good reason - it worked then. In a few years, he can write that (a) he didn't know what was going on *and* (b) it didn't happen *and* (c) it was a few bad apples *and* (d) Allawi kept it a secret from the saintly USA *and* (e) it worked so shut up you America-haters.

And probably get away with it.

Posted by: Barry at January 18, 2005 02:38 AM

You have to read the Dickey follow-up to the original Newsweek piece, where he clarifies what the original authors intended to write. The kind of counterinsurgency stuff they're writing about, he says, is already going on. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6814001/site/newsweek

Posted by: David Holiday at January 19, 2005 08:39 PM