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The Reagan Regime, Part 2: Response from Congress and America's Allies ("I wish to God presidents would read a few books.")
August 20, 2007

As noted last week, The Reagan Administration, with Secretary of State Al Haig leading the charge, dedicated itself to an aggressive anticommunist agenda in Latin America—and El Salvador specifically—despite the fact that its assumptions regarding the Soviet menace at work in the region were demonstrably overblown. In fact, Haig's best evidence, the "captured documents" used to support his highly controversial White Paper justifying the administration's new policy tack, actually undermined his case.

Demoralized Democrats vs. the Reagan Revolution

The Democrats, however, were deeply rattled by the degree of their defeat in the November 1980 elections. Although they'd held on to the House of Representatives, the Senate was now in Republican hands as well as the White House. Reagan had carried forty-four states, and had won 50.7 percent of the popular vote, to Carter's 41.0 percent. The loss of the Senate was a particularly fierce blow, because the Democrats had gone into the election with what seemed like an unassailable margin: 59 seats. But they lost 22 of 34 races, and this Republican landslide effectively launched the Reagan Revolution.

The Democrats as yet lacked enough evidence to challenge Haig's White Paper on factual grounds—for all they knew, the Salvadoran rebels were indeed receiving outside aid—but they were deeply suspicious of Haig's conclusion that the conflict had been transformed into an East-West battleground. This seemed chiefly a ruse for creating the grounds for a military escalation, which the Democrats opposed across the board.

But there was little the Democrats could do to stop the rush to war. First, their losses had not merely decimated their ranks, it had undermined their confidence and will. They were simply weary in the face of the Republican juggernaut that had so savagely overrun them. Even the most left-leaning among them had little stomach for confronting Reagan over foreign policy, especially as Carter's foreign policy problems (Iran, Afghanistan, Panama) were largely credited with his crushing defeat.

Compounding the problem was that the Minority Leader in the Senate, Robert C. Byrd, was a moderate in foreign policy and largely conceded the points raised in the White Paper—i.e., he agreed that El Salvador was a staging ground for Soviet aggression, and that America needed to shake off the Vietnam hangover. In the House, Tip O'Neill refused to challenge the administration on El Salvador, biding his time for the budget battles to come. Legislation introduced to stop military aid to El Salvador failed to garner even liberal support, on the grounds the time was not yet ripe for confronting the new president.

Also, as George W. Bush would do twenty years later with respect to Iraq, Reagan used his power as commander in chief to direct foreign policy as much as possible outside the constraints of Congressional oversight.

The best Democrats could do in this atmosphere was hold hearings on the issue and challenge administration representatives on their justifications for all the saber rattling. Their most vocal advocate was former ambassador Robert White, who urged Congress not to further militarize the situation and thus give a green light to rightist forces who would gladly walk away from the reforms the Carter administration had encouraged, and instead proceed to a "dirty war" in an effort to exterminate the left. Challenging a Republican congressman, White said:
Do you want to associate yourself with this kind of killing? Are we really going to send military advisers to be part of that kind of machinery?
The Republicans countered the charges of grotesque human rights abuses by either minimizing them or blaming them on the guerrillas. Reagan's acting Assistant Secretary of State, John Bushnell, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that killings by the security services were "certainly not as great" as those caused by the "forces of the left." He offered no evidence on this point, and in fact the argument was contradicted by all three human rights organizations acting inside El Salvador (including the Catholic Archdiocese), as well as Americas Watch, Amnesty International, the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the UN Human Rights Commission. Confronted with the fact that his account was contradicted by the Salvadoran Catholic Church, Bushnell responded that the church had been infiltrated by Communists (again with no evidence).

The administration also claimed that increased military aid would help the human rights issue (to the extent they'd admit it was a problem at all) by "professionalizing" the armed forces and by reducing the counterinsurgency role of the security services (such as the National Guard and the Treasury Police), which were acknowledged to be the main source of the atrocities. This same argument had been used for years to justify military aid to repressive regimes, with little evidence any of the subject militaries had improved their human rights records after being "professionalized." Since the 1940s, almost 2,000 Salvadoran officers had been trained by the U.S., and the country still had one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere.

The one bit of leverage the Democrats possessed was the killing of the four churchwomen and the two AIFLD labor advisers just prior to Reagan's takeover in Washington. If the Salvadoran regime can kill Americans with impunity, how can anyone expect them to build a genuine democracy? The Reagan administration countered that the Salvadoran regime was doing everything in its power to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice. In fact, the government had conducted an extensive cover-up to protect the killers, to the point the officer appointed to investigate the killing of the four churchwomen was actually in charge of the cover-up.

In February 1981 the U.S. embassy acquired a highly classified source inside the Salvadoran regime who identified the killers of the six Americans and provided details of the cover-up efforts. The killers were arrested only after the embassy provided their names to the Salvadoran authorities. The Reagan administration, however, was "less than forthcoming to Congress about the discovery of a cover-up by the same armed forces that were slated for big increases in U.S. military assistance." (Quotation taken from In Our Own Backyard, by William LeoGrande, from which much of this account has been derived.)

The main weapon in the Republican arsenal, however, remained their contention that the El Salvador situation had transformed from an internal conflict into a super-power confrontation. Gearing policy to protect human rights would only permit the Communists to win a victory a few hundred miles from America's southern border.

Not that the Reagan administration was incapable of nuance. Lower ranking State Department officials tried to counter the effects of Haig's bellicose rhetoric by assuring Congress that they recognized the domestic causes of the Salvadoran conflict and intended to continue working for reform. Events would reveal this commitment was lukewarm at best, and was constantly undermined or overruled by higher-ups in the administration.

The Crucial Issue of Military Aid

No issue spawned more contention than that of sending U.S. military advisors, since it conjured memories of Vietnam. In response, the Reagan administration:
  • Referred to the military men as "trainers" instead of "advisors" (in much the same way the Bush II administration would create the term "enemy combatant" to avoid having to provide detainees with the protections guaranteed to prisoners of war or criminal defendants).
  • Constructed the advisors' rules of engagement in such a way that they would supposedly never be in harm's way or be "equipped for combat," which would trigger the War Powers Resolution, with its provisions for Congressional oversight. (Despite this, the Defense Department provided the advisors with "hostile fire" pay, which they only deserved if they were within firing range of combat.)
  • Denied the applicability of the Arms Export Control Act, which required a report to Congress if "significant hostilities" erupted in a country hosting U.S. advisors, and subsequently refused to issue any such reports.

All of these countering efforts from the administration evidenced its hostility toward any congressional oversight role in the formulation or conduct of foreign policy. (This would be seen again with the Bush II administration; for more parallels between the Reagan and Bush II administrations on its conduct or war and foreign policy, see last week's commentary.)

One Particularly Articulate Voice in Opposition

The House Subcommittee for Appropriations on Foreign Operations was chaired by Clarence "Doc" Long, an outspoken and somewhat eccentric seventy-two-year-old Democrat from Baltimore with a Ph.D. in economics (thus the nickname). When Haig announced that El Salvador would be a "test case" for Reagan's new foreign policy, Long decided to visit the country. The only congressman with a son who had been wounded in Vietnam, he was adamantly opposed to a repeat misadventure. When his subcommittee refused to fund the trip on the grounds Long wouldn't be safe, he went on his own, paying his own way.

Long returned with a decidedly jaundiced view of the new policy, referring to it as "gunboat diplomacy all over again."
I wish to God presidents would read a few books. If Johnson had read some, we wouldn't have been in Vietnam. If Reagan had read some, we wouldn't be here now.
[Note: Reagan was in fact a better reader than Long avowed, but it's doubtful his choices would have pleased the Baltimore congressman. For example, Reagan was so enamored with Whittaker Chambers' biography, Witness, that he could quote passages from memory, often to the astonishment of his staff. Of course, Reagan never seemed to accept the fact that Chambers not only renounced his earlier Communist leanings but his subsequent conservative ones as well, settling into a late life advocacy of centrist liberalism—but I digress.]

Long absolutely opposed the sending of advisors to El Salvador, due to the near certainty they would be harmed, providing the administration a kind of "Gulf of Tonkin resolution," i.e., an excuse to escalate the war.

In an attempt to sway Long, the administration promised the advisors would never exceed the current number of fifty-four already in-country, twelve would be returning shortly, and the rest would be home by September. (In truth, the advisors would still be there in 1989 when Reagan left office.)

The reprogramming request was approved by Long's subcommittee 8-7, providing the administration with a key victory. It was especially important for Haig, whose inflamed rhetoric had earned him considerable disapproval among White House insiders for the congressional opposition it had encouraged. But the narrowness of the vote indicated that the Reagan administration would still have to fight a reluctant Congress for everything it wanted in Central America.

The Response from Home and Abroad

It wasn't just Congress reacting poorly to Haig's bloviations. The American public was hotly opposed to the newly aggressive foreign policy, and mail to the White House ran ten-to-one against it. A poll revealed 38% opposed the policy, with only 30% supporting it. Opposition was particularly fierce on university campuses, something State Department apologists noted after their trips across the country to drum up support. Even conservative business associations were unwilling to back the policy. The Foreign Service Institute began providing special classes on how to defend the new policy to the public.

Meanwhile, America's allies were alarmed by Haig's tough talk. The gravest concerns were expressed by Mexico, which had a wide range of serious issues to resolve with Washington, from immigration to oil.

Mexico's policy toward Latin America revealed an assessment of the situation wholly at odds with that of the Reagan administration. Mexico, which had a far greater interest in regional stability than the U.S. had, was convinced that the military dictatorships of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras could not long survive the demands by the poor for social and political change. Regional stability demanded that these regimes be replaced with popular governments willing to dismantle the oligarchic land monopolies and effect a more equitable distribution of wealth. Central America needed to find its own solutions, even if it meant revolutions. Having lived through a revolution of its own, Mexico tended to see revolutionary change as positive, whereas the Reaganites regarded it with horror.

Mexico had no desire for pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist governments in Central America, but they had managed a peaceful coexistence with Cuba, and believed they could deal effectively with whatever governments emerged. Rather than fight the leftists tooth and nail as the Reagan administration was preparing to do, the Mexicans proposed supporting the social democrats among the various revolutionary coalitions. By holding back the forces of change, the Americans would only make the inevitable break with the past more violent and radical. Or, as one Mexican official put it:
The Americans will not make the Vietnam syndrome disappear by repeating it.
Mexico strongly urged the Reagan administration to forego military aid to the region and to instead embrace a strategy of regional negotiation. Their protests escalated as the war drums grew louder during the spring of 1981.

Mexico joined with Venezuela in launching a mediation effort of their own, which was quickly endorsed by the European Social Democrats. This wounded the Reagan administration, for up to that point Venezuela had been the Latin American country most supportive of its agenda. America was clearly isolating itself by continuing to pursue a war policy.

The policy met with similar resistance in Europe, even among conservative governments, which saw the attempt to make El Salvador into an East-West confrontation as hopelessly simplistic.

The Europeans were particularly resentful of having the Salvadoran conflict used as a test case for alliance solidarity. When they politely registered their disagreements, the Reagan administration either ignored them or berated them. NATO became involved when Social democrat governments opposed deployment of mid-range missiles in Europe because of Reagan's dangerously confrontational approach. Not that Reagan was swayed—he demanded "linkage," conditioning arms agreements with the Soviets on the termination of their "invasion" of El Salvador.

Meanwhile, the Europeans—including the Socialist International, the German Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, and at least ten different countries—were actively attempting to broker negotiations between the Salvadoran left and the Duarte regime.

This was not the response Reagan had wanted, and his administration reacted with hostility to all these diplomatic initiatives, claming the Europeans were afar too cavalier about the mounting military threat in the Caribbean.

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