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The Carter Doctrine, Part III: Searching for the Center in El Salvador
May 21, 2007

With the triumph of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in July, 1979, the Carter Administration soon split into two antagonistic camps.

On the one had were the hard-liners, especially those who emphasized security issues at the Department of Defense and on the National Security Council, who envisioned toppling dominoes in Central America (now Nicaragua, next El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala—ultimately Mexico), and therefore saw Carter's human rights emphasis as wrong-headed, ineffective, and dangerous. They favored elevating U.S. security to the top of priority concerns, with renewed support for friendly, if unsavory, regimes—in essence, a return to Kissingerian Realpolitik.

Opposing this view were the human rights advocates who believed that military aid could not buy stability, that continuing support of repressive regimes and the elites they protected was counter-productive (because the tide of popular sentiment, if not history itself, was against them), and that change was inevitable. Therefore, it was far wiser to attempt to manage the change, so that it became evolutionary instead of revolutionary, peaceful rather than violent.

The latter strategy, to the extent it remained viable, required an attempt to find the political center in each of these countries, and champion it as the only viable alternative to the repressive right and the radical left. The problem with this strategy as it concerned El Salvador was that by the time the Carter Administration even had the country on its foreign policy radar (having been focused primarily on explosive events in the Middle East—e.g., the deposing of the Shah in Iran), the political center had been exiled, exterminated, or radicalized precisely because of the increasingly unjust and murderous repression from the right. (See my Weekly commentary for 2-26-07) Not only that, but the policy was in fact little different from JFK's Alliance for Progress in the 1960s (see my Weekly commentary for 2-19-07), and suffered from the same dilemma: by supporting existing regimes in the name of reform, Washington ended up arming the very elites it sought to replace with reformers. Once armed, the incumbents saw little reason to compromise.

The incident that lifted El Salvador into high-alert focus for Carter was the June 1977 threat by Roberto D'Aubuisson's White Warriors Union to exterminate the Jesuit priests who were preaching to the campesinos that they had intrinsic dignity and need not suffer silently their poverty and oppression. These priests, as well as the catechists and other religious who helped form the Christian Base Communities, provided an inspirational organizational force, and thus were seen as dangerously subversive by Salvadoran elites and the military. When the White Warriors Union generated pamphlets reading, "Be a patriot! Kill a priest!" the Carter Administration stepped in. Washington threatened a wholesale termination of assistance (military assistance had already been curtailed, due to El Salvador's rejections of the human rights conditions on which it was premised) if the extermination of priests went forward. The massacre was averted (though half a dozen priests were murdered in the next two years), strongly suggesting that, as suspected, the regime was behind the threats in the first place.

As opposition to the government escalated in 1977—including an increased number of political assassinations and kidnappings, bombings, occupations of government buildings, and mass demonstrations—the government passed a draconian Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order. Ambassador Frank J. Devine, no fan of Carter's human rights emphasis (he was reportedly increasingly fearful for his personal security), told a gathering of the Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce that they needed to do whatever was necessary to assure law and order, and he petitioned Washington for a resumption of military aid.

The 1977 law did not assure order, however, but rather instigated an ever-increasing downward spiral into political violence. The radical left had by and large fled the cities, and was thus outside the government's easy reach, so the major thrust of the regime's counteroffensive fell against the more accessible moderates. This in turn further radicalized the population and invited international condemnation.

By mid-1979, El Salvador had moved to the top of Carter's foreign policy agenda. The administration was pledged not to repeat the mistakes of Nicaragua (see my Weekly commentaries of 5-7-07 and 5-14-07), i.e., they were determined not to wait until too late to embrace the political center as a viable opposition to the regime. Carter advised President Romero that support would wither unless a political solution was achieved, involving the inclusion of Social and Christian Democrats into the political process. Romero promised reform, but refused to schedule another presidential election until 1982, when it was due by law. Carter did not believe the country could hold together that long, and Salvadoran moderates refused to confer with the regime until the repressive violence stopped, something Romero could not or would not do.

The issue was forced when reformist officers staged a bloodless coup in October 1979 (see my Weekly commentary for 3-5-07), and formed a transitional junta of three civilian leaders, all from the moderate center, plus two colonels. Members of the cabinet were also almost entirely recruited from the centrist parties. The Carter Administration, committed to embracing the political center, saw in the coup leaders its last best chance to achieve a non-violent resolution to the Salvadoran crisis. However, the coup leaders not only embraced the center, but invited elements of the radical left into the policy-making process as well—something decidedly contrary to Carter's aims. Ambassador Devine warned the reformers that they risked alienating senior members of the military staff by this move, and feared this would wholly forestall the reform process.

The left itself was skeptical, unable to convince itself that the government would ever be able to wean the regime away from the interests of the elite and the military's repressive tactics. Two of the three guerilla armies responded with renewed calls for insurrection, but within a few weeks they backed away, seeing in the coup's reform efforts enough sincerity to prompt at least guarded optimism, justifying some breathing room to at least succeed.

Unfortunately, the coup leaders used this time badly. Senior military leaders began reassigning reformist officers, to minimize their influence, and the death squads and other repressive organs continued their work unabated. At the heart of the stasis, however, was the allegiance of the reformist officers to the military. Officers who graduated from the Salvadoran military academy swore an oath of loyalty to their tanda, or graduating class, and officers invariably considered their duty to their fellow officers to be every bit as great if not greater than the duty they owed the country. Reform therefore always foundered when it inevitably threatened to divide the officer corps between those seeking change and those committed to defending the oligarchy—and ultimately, it was always the reformers who backed down, since the senior officers were invariably aligned with the country's elites.

Despite the gradual erosion of any chance of success on the part of the junta, the Carter Administration continued to portray it as the best chance for successful reform, a bastion of centrism embattled by radical forces on both the right and the left. Once again, however, just as in Nicaragua, the forces of the right had so badly decimated, fragmented, or radicalized the center that it existed more as a hope than a fact, and Carter's policy clung on desperately, even though Salvadorans themselves were less than enthusiastic. In fact, when the right unsuccessfully staged coup attempts in February and May of 1980, no significant social or political group in El Salvador protested, and the government stayed in power only because of the staunch support from Washington.

Note: The foregoing relies heavily on William LeoGrande's Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992, the seminal historical analysis of America's involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the late twentieth century.

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