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The Salvador Option in Iraq
June 4, 2007

Given that I've spent the past several weeks discussing the Carter Doctrine as applied to Nicaragua and El Salvador, I had expected to move on this week to the drastic rightward turn American policy took in the region with the election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980.

It may be time, however, to pause for a moment and once again remark that the reason I am bothering to go into such depth about our foreign policy in Central America is because that policy, especially as it applies to counterinsurgency, has been frequently invoked by Bush Administration policymakers—most recently, Paul Wolfowitz on The Charlie Rose Show just this past week—as an apt template for our efforts in Iraq. As I argue in "From Troy to Baghdad," the essay that concludes Blood of Paradise, I consider this attempt to analogize El Salvador and Iraq hopelessly flawed. As it turns out, I'm not alone in that assessment, and it's a member of the U.S. military calling the comparison into question.

In the November-December issue of Military Review, Lieutenant Manuel A. Orellana, Jr., of the U.S. Naval Reserve, wrote an article titled "American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador," in which he encouraged his fellow officers to consider the lessons learned in El Salvador for possible use in Iraq. His point, however, was that it was precisely because our counterinsurgency efforts failed in El Salvador that our experience in that country might provide guidance in Iraq.

Lt. Orellana made repeated reference to a RAND-sponsored study titled American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador, written by Benjamin C. Schwarz in 1991 (before the peace accords ending the Salvadoran civil war were concluded).
The goals of our strategy in El Salvador were:
  • Fortify the Salvadoran armed forces
  • Wear down the rebels in combat
  • Bolster democracy to weaken the rebels' claims concerning social, economic and political injustice
Schwarz noted that American policy had failed, in that a clearcut victory over the rebels had not been achieved, despite billions of dollars in military and non-lethal aid, considerable efforts trying to train and reform the Salvadoran military, and extensive efforts to promote democracy in that country. The reason for the failure was:
[T]he United States perhaps did not consider sufficiently that human character, history, culture, and social structure are highly resistant to outside influence.
First and foremost, we were unable to fundamentally alter El Salvador's undemocratic culture. Simply put, the Salvadoran elites never saw any need or benefit in changing because they saw no benefit in reforming. They had always relied on systematic abuse to assert their power, and saw nothing wrong with that.
It is one thing to have the key; it is entirely a different matter to force another to use it to unlock a door through which he does not wish to enter.
Schwarz concluded that it was ideological blindness that kept us from understanding the nature of the problem in our strategy. The Salvadoran government and military were content with a polarized authoritarian society, and knew that as long as America was devoted to "drawing a line in the sand" to prevent further Communist gains in Central America, it would always balk when it came time to revoke aid because of a failure by the Salvadorans to reform. Frankly, the Salvadoran elites didn't care about justice; they wanted order, and an obedient work force.

Lt. Orellana concludes:
In his analysis and assessments, Schwarz claims it is still vital that those living in threatened societies willingly accept U.S. assistance and conform to democratic criteria. In Vietnam and El Salvador, the United States mistakenly tied U.S. interests in the region to fledgling, uncooperative governments. Fourteen years after the publication of Schwarz's report, we must heed his assessment and review current COIN [counterintelligence] policy to ensure we have learned from our mistakes.
If we're going to take lessons from our experience in El Salvador for use in Iraq, it might be wise then to realize what lessons, exactly, we should be drawing. Claims that El Salvador was a grand policy success, and thus an excellent example of how we will achieve victory in Iraq, are hopelessly mistaken because they fundamentally misstate what our Salvadoran experience taught us. And "ideological blindness" is a good place to start in trying to analyze how and why the Bush Administration so fundamentally misunderstood the Salvadoran example.

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