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The Carter Doctrine, Part IV: Conclusions
May 28, 2007

I began my assessment of the Carter Doctrine in Central America three weeks ago, with a brief note that the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the American military adminstration for Latin America, has committed itself under Adm. James Stavridis to a renewed focus on human rights, and that it was therefore worthwhile to look back at the Carter years to see how that administration fared in the region, given its avowed emphasis on human rights in its foreign policy.

The record is mixed, as I've tried to point out. (To read my three previous entries on this subject, see my Weekly commentaries for May 7, 14, and 21).

With respect to Nicaragua, the Carter administration delayed too long in withdrawing full support from the repressive Somoza regime, driving the business community into an alliance of necessity with the Marxist Sandinistas. However, it recovered by extending a guarded hand of friendship to the alliance that took over power in the wake of the revolution. Although serious tensions and rivalries afflicted the alliance between the more conservative business sector and the more radical elements of the Sandinistas, who eyed each other across a perhaps irreconcilable divide of suspicion and resentment and ideological antagonism, by obliging the two sides to work in concert for the guarantee of no military intervention combined with continued financial aid, the Carter administration managed over an eighteen month period to manage exactly the kind of evolutionary change it had stated as its strategic intent in the region, with hope of a social democratic form of government, rather than a radical Marxist one, despite the avowals of hard line elements among the Sandinistas for a full Cuban-style transformation of Nicaraguan society.

In El Salvador, however, the Carter administration's failure to realize that the political center had been decimated or radicalized by repressive elements in the military tied to the right-wing oligarchy led it to pursue a policy that again suffered from a lack of timeliness, if not boldness. Its embrace of the reformist coup of October 1979 was a necessary but not sufficient step in achieving its stated goal of reforming the government without radical revolutionary change. The officers who sparked the coup needed support in not just opposing their more reactionary (and repressive) superiors in the military, but in removing them from their positions of power. Without that, the colonels' allegiance to the officer corps ultimately trumped their allegiance to the coup (or the country), an all too common problem in El Salvador. Also, the Carter administration's resistance to the coup leaders' invitation to the radical left in power sharing failed to appreciate the true state of political affairs in the country, instead perpetuating the illusion that Washington was defending a viable political center against radicals on both the right and left—a palatable argument for political support at home, but blind to the reality in El Salvador.

Of course, given the political reality in the U.S., all of this became largely moot. Ronald Reagan's victory in the election of November 1980 ended for the time being the American flirtation with a foreign policy guided by a dedication to human rights, and instead turned back to a more Kissingerian realism, with an added commitment to rollback of communist gains in the Third World, which the American right saw as signs of a renewed devotion by the Soviets to world domination. Given this perceived threat, the Reagan administration, acting in accordance with Jeanne Kirkpatrick's policy analyses in her seminal essay, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," would consider support of loyal allies and a dedication to anti-communism as superior policy considerations to human rights concerns.

What is interesting is that a return to a human rights emphasis started as early as 1990, and not in the White House or even Congress, but SOUTHCOM. Gen. Maxwell Thurman issued a policy defining the human rights responsibilities of all U.S. Department of Defense personnel in the region, and stated unequivocally:

[O]ne of our most important and universal foreign policy objectives is to promote the increased observance of internationally recognized human rights by all countries.

Gen. Thurman's memorandum required all military personnel to record and report any instance of suspected human rights abuse, and instituted mandatory human rights training for all personnel deploying in SOUTHCOM's areas of operation.

The timing of this directive is interesting. Only a year before, Salvadoran officers of the Atlactl Battalion (often referred to in the press as "the American-trained" Atlacatl Battalion, for many of its officers had received training at the School of the Americas at Fort Bragg) murdered six Jesuit priests, including the internationally renowned theologian Ignacio Ellacuría, plus their housekeeper and her fifteen-year-old daughter. This atrocity (in addition to a renewal of death squad activity, abduction and torture of journalists and other suspected opponents of the regime, and the strafing of civilian neighborhoods—all in response to a nearly successful guerilla offensive), brought international condemnation of the Salvadoran regime, and in guilt by association tainted its American sponsors. A year earlier, four American colonels, including Andrew Bacevich (who would go on to be a trenchant analyst of American foreign and military policy), issued a stinging rebuke to the Salvadoran military in their analysis of the counterinsurgency, which they saw as a hopeless stalemate due to the corruption and sadism of the officer corps. Add to this the fall of the Berlin Wall and the seeming collapse of international Communism, one might be able to see why the military saw the need for a return to a more legitimate emphasis on human rights.

Adm. Stavridis, in an article for Military Review titled, "Partnership for the Americas: The Human Rights Initiative," noted:

The command was acutely aware that failure to improve respect for human rights in the region would ultimately jeopardize the success of its missions and undermine public and Congressional support for essential military-to-military programs. Consequently, shortly after initiating the internal training program, USSOUTHCOM also made human rights instruction an element of all training provided to partner-nation military forces.

Over the following decade, SOUTHCOM would further institutionalize its human rights focus, moving the oversight of such issues form the command judge advocate to a dedicated human rights office. And SOUTHCOM held two conferences with members of the civilian human rights community, in conjunction with the Inter-Americas Institute for Human Rights, to propose interaction between civilian and military actors in the emphasis on human rights in Latin America.

There are those who might claim this emphasis is mere lip service, and would cite in particular continued aid to Colombia, perhaps one of the worst human rights abusers in the region, as proof. I personally believe the commitment is real, but not unproblematic. I'll flesh that out a little more next week, specifically with respect to the major current challenges in the region: Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba.

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