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This page is where David provides periodic commentary on issues he considers important, and on which he pretends to have more than a passing knowledge.

December 15, 2008

Will the Obama Administration Close Down WHINSEC (formerly the School of the Americas)?

Every year around November 16th—the anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her sixteen-year-old daughter by members of the U.S.—trained Salvadoran armed forces—thousands of protestors visit the site of what was once known as the School of the Americas (SOA), now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

These protests have been guided for some time by Jesuit Father Ray Bourgeois, the founder of School of Americas Watch (SOAW). Through extensive lobbying, SOAW was able to get within six votes of passage in the House of Representatives a defunding bill for WHINSEC. Father Bourgeois and his supporters hope, with the incoming Obama administration, they may finally be able to achieve their goal: the closing of a military training facility which, they contend, has had a hand in some of the worst human rights violations in Latin America.

Often, those who seek the closure of WHINSEC also seek the closure of the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in El Salvador, on much the same grounds: that U.S. police trainers are educating Latin American law enforcement personnel in anti-terrorist tactics that amount to torture and constitute other threats to civil and human liberties. (I have a friend in the FBI who has taught at the academy; he is a good man, a man I trust. He has assured me that this view is, to be brief, mistaken. What is taught is actually fundamental law enforcement procedure: how to make valid arrests, how to interview witnesses, how to collect and maintain evidence. But I doubt this would convince those who have been targets of FBI investigations for supporting social justice in Latin America—as members of CISPES were during the Reagan administration due to their support of the Marxist FMLN in El Salvador.)

This political position, which I think of as antiwar progressive, views U.S. actions as implicitly imperialistic, motivated by a desire for economic and military domination, and serving the interests of multinational corporations, either by direct design or as a desired side-effect. In contrast, the antiwar progressives seek to defend the interests of the region's poor and indigenous peoples. Their view is explicitly anti-corporate, pacifist, and egalitarian. Although not explicitly socialist, it views the redistribution of wealth championed by socialism as a desired end. However, it normally embraces democracy, not authoritarianism, though left-leaning autocracies, in particular those that redistribute wealth, are normally not judged as harshly as right-leaning ones. (Some elements of the movement, for example, consider Human Rights Watch an instrument of U.S. foreign policy for its criticism of the human rights record of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.) The movement's focus is on social justice and welfare, with an instinctive mistrust of U.S. motives and a fundamental antipathy to the military as an arm of U.S. policy.

However, it may be unfair to think of this as a political movement at all. It is far more a moral movement, with a number of Jesuits at the forefront who have been inspired by Liberation Theology. This year's protest at WHINSEC, for example, honored Father Jon Sobrino, who teaches at Central American University in San Salvador and survived the Salvadoran military's assassination effort only because he was out of the country at the time. Father Sobrino has written extensively on Liberation Theology and has argued that salvation can only be obtained by embracing the plight of the poor. He believes Christ demands we resist war absolutely: Turning the other cheek, loving one's enemies, these are not sophisms, they are the core of the Christian calling. Terrorism cannot be fought by warfare because warfare is itself terrorism. He was heartened to see nearly twenty thousand people at the protest—it encouraged him to see that so many North Americans took the plight of Latin America's poor and downtrodden so seriously.

But will the Obama administration see things the same way?

I don't doubt that the president-elect would be moved by Father Bourgeois' and Father Sobrino's and their allies' passion for justice and their focus on the plight of the poor. I also don't doubt he would find their intentions moral and honest. But I don't believe he will gratify their call to close WHINSEC.

First, the foreign policy team Obama relied upon during his campaign and is now assembling for his cabinet—combined with the naming of Sen. Diane Feinstein to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee—reveals a far more "pragmatic" than progressive bent.

In particular, as Eli Lake pointed out in a New Republic article titled Contra Expectations, Obama leaned heavily on the foreign policy advice of Richard Clarke and Rand Beers, two "lifelong national security bureaucrats who left the Bush administration in protest of the Iraq war."
But, during their careers, they have never expressed much hesitation about working with proxy armies with less than admirable human rights records. During the Clinton administration, Beers served as the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, a bureau known as "drugs and thugs." In that post, he helped conceive Plan Colombia, which has, over the last eight years, funneled about $5.5 billion to the country's military. Much of that has been spent combating the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has funded its Marxist-Leninist rebellion by presiding over a vast drug empire.

In many ways, the program was a great success. Today, the FARC is nearly defeated, and the civil war in that country is over. But Plan Colombia worked in part because Beers was prepared to assist a national army that worked closely with pro-government death squads—and, for that reason, Plan Colombia provoked the ire of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy and the left wing of the Democratic Party. Beers takes criticism of this brand of alliance seriously but considers it surmountable. He told me that such alliances require that the United States conditions its assistance: "We are prepared to work with you, but you are going to have to change your stripes. You are going to have to operate in a fashion where that kind of behavior stops." Indeed, in the Colombian instance, there's strong evidence that Beers' plan also helped curb the worst excesses of America's military partners.

Colombia is the recipient of by far the greatest proportion of regional military assistance and training provided by the U.S. The Uribe regime is popular at home for having reduced horrendous levels of crime-related violence that racked major cities like Medellin, Cali and even Bogotá. However, it has also been tied to the right-wing paramilitaries that were notorious for human rights atrocities and were also deeply involved in the cocaine trade. Although there has been an nominal effort to disband the paras, as they are called, many human rights activists claim these groups have reconstituted themselves as private armies still inked to crime.

Meanwhile, the Colombian military continues to face harsh accusations of human rights abuses. Recently Uribe was forced to cashier 27 officers for allegations linked to the recruitment of young men from poor communities under the guise of providing them work, only to kill them and dress their bodies in guerilla uniforms to inflate their kill rates, hoping to enhance their prestige and hopes of career advancement. During a recent U.N. Universal Periodic Review of the situation in Colombia:
  • Denmark complained that the number of indigenous people who have been killed in Colombia is alarming; several indigenous communities are on the verge of disappearing. Denmark's delegate also mentioned the widespread use of torture by the Colombian security forces, and called on Bogotá to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
  • Canada stressed the gravity of the violations committed in Colombia, highlighting the problem of extrajudicial executions.
  • Ireland referred to the same abuses and expressed concern that the murders are attributed to the Colombian armed forces.
  • Australia, in turn, reported that members of the armed forces maintain links with paramilitary groups or condone their actions.
  • Belgium expressed concern over Colombian government statements that cast doubt on the independence of the Supreme Court.
  • Spain recommended that the Colombian government engage in dialogue with major sectors of civil society, with "both sides dropping stigmatizing talk and unfounded accusations."
  • Uruguay recommended that the Colombian government give strict orders to the security forces to avoid designating as "terrorists" human rights activists and members of non-governmental organizations. The misrepresentation of activists as terrorists has been encouraged from high levels of power, with tragic results.

It should be added that a widespread indigenous movement, in particular among Afro-Colombian sugar cane workers and Nasa Indians and other tribes from Cauca department, is currently protesting against the Uribe regime, asking for among other things the discontinuation of Plan Colombia and rejection of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States (which the New York Times editorial page recently urged Congress to pass).

Clearly, Colombia is a textbook for what has gone well and what has gone wrong in U.S. policy in the region. Depending on one's perspective, either one must be patient and see that real reforms are taking place, albeit not it a linear fashion and not as quickly as we would like; or one must admit that the government's claims of reform are dishonest and merely cosmetic, with power in the hands of a privileged few who denounce any civil opposition as an act of terrorism.

My guess is, Obama will embrace, albeit tentatively, the former view—despite his refusal to sign onto the Colombia Free Trade Agreement until real progress is made in the reduction of violence against union organizers and representatives and other civil opponents of the government.

I also suspect that his advisors will argue that closing WHINSEC would not do much if anything to improve human rights in Latin America. Engagement is the key to influence in their view, and we cannot remain meaningfully engaged with Latin American militaries if we close the school.

I also doubt the Obama team believes that past human rights violations, some of which were undeniably committed by military men who had attended SOA, can be attributed to training these men received by U.S. trainers. For example, the Salvadoran military wiped out anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 campesinos in the 1930s during a counterinsurgency effort nicknamed La Matanza: The Massacre. This long predated any training involvement by the U.S. In the 1970s, as the Salvadoran military increasingly relied upon death squads, torture, extra-judicial executions and other abusive measure to suppress protest, they often invoked the example of La Matanza, saying these methods had provided 40 years of peace. If they provided another 40, what was the problem?

With a legacy going back to Hapsburg Spain and the Inquisition, with a series of revolutions that deliberately excluded indigenous peoples, and a modern military model that looked to Franco's Spain for inspiration—and thus to fascist Italy and Germany—Latin American militaries hardly needed U.S. help in devising abusive forms of repression. That does not excuse our aiding and abetting repressive governments, which we clearly did, and knowingly so. But that is a political issue, not a military one. If Americans want a more enlightened foreign policy, they need to elect leaders who will enact one.

Also, the U.S. Southern Command is the only Pentagon command center with a human rights policy—it is inexcusable that CENTCOM and PACCOM do not also have human rights policies, and this should definitely be something the Obama administration should correct. WHINSEC itself has human rights training that has been lauded by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International—though both groups also call for a full vetting of possible past involvement by SOA instructors in teaching tactics that could be deemed torture or which otherwise constitute human rights violations. (I have met with MAJOR Tony Raimondo, the Chief of the Human Rights and International Law Division at WHINSEC, and I found him to be an impassioned believer in training soldiers the improper uses of force—precisely so they can be effective in the proper use of force. Paralyzing soldiers can be as disastrous as letting them run amok.)

Another point worth noting: For twenty years, there has not been a single rightwing military coup in Latin America. This would have been unheard of prior to 1990. If WHINSEC is to be faulted for all of the vices of Latin American militaries, can it also take credit for this remarkable, historic sea change in the relationship between those militaries and the civil governments they serve? This transformation is not accidental. WHINSEC has emphasized military deference to civilian rule. Traditionally, Latin American militaries have accepted a "messianic" view of their role in society, believing they need to protect society even from itself—which granted them the right, they believed, to step in and return "order" to their societies when they believed democratically elected leaders (normally leftist) were generating "chaos." These militaries often saw allegiance to the institution itself as paramount, and loyalty to the country and the people as secondary, believing that if the military failed, the country would fail. This emphasis has changed dramatically, with regional militaries often now seeing their role as supportive of and answering to civilian leadership. The current leftward swing in virtually all of Latin America would not have been possible without this change—a change for which WHINSEC can arguably claim at least partial credit.

Finally, the current commander of SOUTHCOM, Admiral James Stavridis, believes firmly in WHINSEC's mission and is an articulate advocate for its preservation. And he is a convincing proponent of partnership in the region, not hegemony.

In a speech marking the launching of the 2nd issue of Americas Quarterly journal last year, Admiral Stavridis argued:
U.S. Southern Command, as a traditional military jurisdiction, has a focus area that is notable by its current lack of conventional military threats; but the region's persistent conditions of poverty, unequal wealth distribution, social exclusion, and corruption provide fertile soil in which international criminals and terrorists can flourish.

Throughout our assigned area—45 countries and territories, 500 million people, 15 million square miles—security threats most often take forms that we more readily associate with crime than war. In the region's growing gang activity, we see criminals and the disenfranchised band together and combine traditional criminal activities in ways that threaten our regional partners as well our own national security. Kidnapping, counterfeiting, human trafficking, and drug trafficking—which leads to over 10,000 cocaine-related deaths annually in the USA—combine with extremist ideologies to create a dangerous blend.

All of these conditions can undermine fragile democracies. Not to mention the devastating and destabilizing affects of ecological natural disasters.

These new threats—while ultimately not susceptible to traditional military operations—tend to operate at our intellectual seams, and thrive in our bureaucratic and cultural blind spots. Our system of legal, political, moral and conceptual boundaries defining what constitutes combat versus criminal activity; domestic vs. international jurisdiction; and governmental versus private interests all provide operational space for lethal opponents with no such boundaries to respect.

I know the antiwar left would find much to be alarmed by in this. The conflation of law enforcement and military functions in particular led to grave abuses during the Cold War. In El Salvador, one of the conditions of the peace agreement mandated the demilitarization of domestic law enforcement due to a long history of the government considering domestic political movements as threats to the state, and thus viable military targets. The antiwar left sees this same paradigm returning with the "war on terror." Indeed, political violence is on the rise in El Salvador, and as noted above, it is viewed as a grave threat in Colombia by a number of our allies: Canada, Australia, Ireland, Belgium, Spain, etc. El Salvador and Colombia are generally viewed as our two greatest allies in the region. Their human rights records reflect on us as well as them.

However, I know Admiral Stavridis and know his judgment to be reasonable, and his commitment to real economic and social progress in the region to be genuine. In this same speech, he also said:
So much of the power of the United States to create successful partnerships in the Americas is found in the private sector. At the command, we are finding ways to work with non-governmental organizations, private charitable entities, international organizations, and the private sector.
He takes the human rights issue seriously, and has worked hard to forge alliances between SOUTHCOM and NGOs working in the human rights arena. These steps have often been tentative and a great deal of mistrust has needed to be overcome. But the alliances are being formed. The trust is being built.

The Left has a long-standing and understandable skepticism of U.S. counter-insurgency efforts and methods in the greater Americas. Often militaries we have helped train have acted abysmally. But were those actions the result of U.S. training or despite it, or a combination of both? SOAW and others on the Left believe the answer is obvious: the U.S. is responsible for training foreign militaries in torture and other human rights violations. The Right appears not to care, since it considers any criticism of the military unpatriotic, and views harsh methods as fundamental to war—and war is their guiding metaphor for virtually all U.S. involvement abroad.

Where will the Obama administration come down on this issue? The president-elect's stand on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is heartening, showing that possibly human rights violations will no longer merely earn lip service, but will once again have a place of prominence in foreign policy. However, the centrists in charge of foreign policy—Defense Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular—will never countenance closing WHINSEC, especially given Admiral Stavridis' staunch support and credibility.

Rather, the antiwar left might better serve its purposes by deferring its quixotic obsession with WHINSEC and instead focus on demanding that our foreign policy does not permit our allies to deem social protest an act of terrorism. Both Colombia and El Salvador have been accused of this and it undermines our credibility not to address the issue. There continue to be mass movements in the region seeking a greater voice for the poor, the disenfranchised, the indigenous. Challenging one's government must not be viewed as an attempt to destabilize it. But this has too often been the case in Latin America, and U.S. policy has too often enabled and supported it.

The epidemic rise in crime, however, especially from Colombia through the Central American isthmus and Mexico, is genuinely destabilizing. Even Costa Rica has seen a significant increase in crime, largely attributed to Colombian transplants. People in the region, seeking security, are losing faith in democratically elected governments to provide that security. Even as zero tolerance policies prove ineffective, the call for more repressive methods resonates throughout the region. Guatemala's recently elected Leftist-Centrist president is increasing the size of the military despite its horrendous human rights record—and elements of Mexico's military have demonstrably joined hands with the drug cartels. The involvement of current and former regional military leaders in the narcotics trade is a poorly kept secret.

The Obama administration needs to do a better job of curbing arms sales from the U.S. to Mexico and Central America, and needs to begin to rethink U.S. drug policy to realistically limit domestic demand. It also needs to create clarity in what it will and will not countenance as legitimate anticrime measures. Calling criminals terrorists will not do, just as calling protestors terrorists won't. It simply provides a smoke screen for government incursions into civil liberties and abusive human rights policies. But closing WHINSEC and ILEA won't help. Arguably, we should expand them but make them more transparent. For the real trick will be determining how to remain engaged in a region where corruption is endemic. Do you help such governments or let them fall—and if they fall, to whom? This appears to be the real issue. And it can't be addressed by symbolic measures. It will no doubt entail blunders and false moves and failures. But what it will certainly require is a return to the valuation of human rights as a prime foreign policy objective—otherwise our security interests will be seen as illegitimate not just by our enemies but our allies. In this the Bush Administration failed terribly. Obama can at least begin to repair the damage—indeed, many Latin Americans expect little more from the new administration than a non-interventionist policy, which in and of itself would be a vast relief. But I think we should demand more. I think the Obama administration must genuinely push Mexico and Central American countries to more transparent, more responsible and more accountable governance. We will aid such efforts. We will deny aid to those who revert to corruption, cronyism and repression. That is a policy I can genuinely see the Obama administration embracing. Let's hope it does.

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