Choosing sides

Powers, Thomas

Of several minds: Thomas Powers CHOOSING SIDES IT'S NOT MILITARY MIGHT WE LACK THERE IS A CURIOUS claim in the second volume of Henry Kissinger's memoirs. It is that the world is all of a piece....

...How can outsiders hope to judge whether the marriage should endure...
...We have faced it repeatedly since 1945 - in Greece, in the Philippines, in Vietnam, in Cuba, in Angola, in Nicaragua and El Salvador...
...Their idea of interrogation technique is a bullet behind the ear...
...As a practical matter, it is hard to see how the United States (or the Soviet Union, which is faced with the identical task) can keep so many lids on at once, more or less forever...
...El Salvador has three million people in a territory the size of Massachusetts...
...I realize I have been using the word "we" pretty freely here...
...it is the great rule of Munich, carried one step further than it is normally considered polite to go...
...Haig may talk about progress, evolution, the growth of democracy in Central America, but what does he actually get...
...We can argue about El Salvador but we can't agree about it...
...There is a sweeping quality to Kissinger's claim which is quite breathtaking - especially the part about purely internal challenges...
...Nixon once said he feared the United States would becomea pitiful, helpless giant, if it shrank from war in the defense of its friends...
...Could Honduras or Panama be far behind...
...This means only that smaller states do not so much choose sides, as try to calculate which of their neighbors is best positioned to force a choice...
...It is hardly likely the new regime would be any friendlier to the U.S...
...The Soviet Union claims a right, in the interest of world peace, to suppress any challenge to the status quo in the socialist bloc of Central Europe - a claim which seems indefensible on its face - but Kissinger goes Moscow one better...
...Great Powers have always divided the world in two...
...But we are not helpless, just undecided, and we shall remain undecided until officials in Washington have got something better to suggest than sending in the bombers and the Green Berets whenever the oligarchs tremble before the peasants...
...This is one of the constants of history...
...The forces of law and order are illiterate teen-aged soldiers with American M-16s, or national police in sunglasses and short-sleeved shirts which hang loose at the waist...
...What will happen then...
...We are human...
...THOMAS POWERS...
...It does not occur to Haig now that the people of El Salvador are thinking of their own country first, not the balance of power...
...On some subjects Kissinger is an uncommonly honest man, and this is one of them...
...Every nation has its place in the balance of power...
...Sympathy is about the best outsiders can offer...
...Back in 1961 J. William Fulbright, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Kennedy he thought Cuba was a thorn in the side, not a dagger in the heart...
...What we lack is a consensus - agreement on what threatens us, and what we ought to do about it...
...than Nicaragua...
...Officials in Washington have bulled through a policy of material support for the authorities in San Salvador - Haig has autonomy enough for that - but it is quite possible the guerrillas will win their revolution...
...But I don't mean to say "we" are solidly lined up against Haig, only that it's obvious we aren't solidly behind him...
...It is increasingly apparent that Haig's power of persuasion is not up to the task...
...The broad American public cannot make up its mind...
...It never occurred to Eisenhower or John Foster Dulles that the Indochinese ought to have first say about who ruled Indochina...
...Their difficulty is suggested by the fact Salvadorans have abandoned argument for war...
...If it appears the guerrillas are going to win, we won't intervene to stop them...
...We could invade and conquer Cuba in short order, if we decided to do so, and Russia was unwilling to resort to nuclear weapons to stop us.We have power enough to decide matters in Angola...
...Thus the rise of a leftist government anywhere - even in tiny El Salvador, for Example - represents a direct threat to the security of the United States...
...We're divided, as a people and as a country...
...we can feel for the victims...
...Who wept for Somoza...
...We don't like the regime waiting in the wings, and we don't want to fight to preserve the status quo...
...Whichever side wins, the people of El Salvador will go on being poor...
...A challenge to the status quo in the remotest corner of the globe, even a purely internal challenge, is a challenge to the two great powers...
...Is it any wonder Haig finds it an uphill job to persuade Americans we may have to send in our own soldiers, in the event the oligarchs' policy of murder fails to sustain their power...
...But this is very far from being the case with the rest of us...
...As a matter of statecraft it is complex and demanding enough to occupy the whole of the time between wars...
...The strategic significance of the outcome is not so clear...
...Most of it is conducted by the side Haig asks us to support - the side with condominiums in Miami and bank accounts in the Bahamas...
...But the pattern is a clear one, and the choice is not pleasant - brutal oligarchs defending privilege and cheap domestic help on one side, a repressive one-party state aborning on the other...
...A claim of universal interest is only another way of saying that peace is indivisible...
...We need not belabor the point...
...The American press is quick to describe the offhand crimes of rich oligarchs who murder their opponents...
...The thing we agree on least is the question of military intervention...
...We sent an expedition ary force of half a million men to Vietnam, and could have sent many more...
...This tiny country has suffered tens of thousands of political killings...
...Perhaps you are not in confusion about this at all, but clearly see the Soviet-Cuban-Nicaraguan hand and marvel 'I can be so blind...
...These are supremely difficult matters...
...We have never been eager to intervene militarily, and are so reluctant to do so now that not even Haig seems willing to propose it outright...
...But the really distressing...
...Murder is the nation's only modern industry...
...There is nothing new or unfamiliar about the situation...
...He claims a similar right even with neutral nations, in the event one of them threatens to ally itself with the other side...
...Our strategic capacity is unequaled, despite gloomy remarks of late in Washington, but our conventional capacity is very great too - a navy of 450 ships, armored divisions, transport aircraft, and so on...
...War in El Salvador is bad enough...
...Some think one way, some another...
...aspect of the war for us is the fact we are being asked to take sides, to judge the rights and wrongs, to accept a theory - well-expressed by Kissinger, but hardly original with him - of what constitutes acceptable change...
...Thucydides says somewhere that states do what they can and suffer what they must...
...Secret murder squads, bombings, bodies in the roads and the garbage dumps...
...No one can believe such a victory would discourage other rebel groups in Guatemala...
...It is not military might we lack, despite claims in Washington we need to spend nearly two trillion dollars in the next five years to build up our strength...
...This sort of geo-realpolitik is hard to swallow for an ordinary citizen, educated in the ideals of self-determination, fair play, the redress of grievances, freedom of conscience, the absolute sovereignty of the people, and so on...
...It never occurred to Kissinger that the election of Allende was a matter for Chileans to decide...
...This is Haig's nightmare, as it was Kissinger's before him - a kind of leftist infection, bringing down one hard-to-defend rightist regime after another...
...Since it is the balance of power which maintains world peace, the United States not only has the right but is positively obligated to resist any attempt to change the balance...
...Kissinger and Haig certainly do...
...Presumably the Soviet Union has a similar right, recently exercised in a veiled way in Poland, but Kissinger naturally does not emphasize this corollary of his theory of international relations...
...It takes a strong stomach to rush to the aid of these brutal ruling cliques whenever they are threatened by a peasant union...
...We might argue, in fact, that the Munich rule is so ancient it's not a rule at all, but rather a kind of instinct...
...We have got power enough now to defeat the guerrillas in El Salvador, who are few, poorly armed, indifferently led, denied a sanctuary, and far from sources of supply...
...But this only suggests how distant we are from the customary practices of government...
...If history is any guide, the new populist regime will postpone elections indefinitely, arrest leading figures in the army and the national police, restrict the purchase of newsprint by the right-wing press, nationalize the banks, prohibit the export of capital, encourage peasants to expropriate large landholdings, exchange ambassadors with the Soviet Union, tell reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post the new government plans on a mixed economy, officially denounce continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank, deny the existence of political prisoners, reach an agreement for the export of coffee to the Soviet Union at a favorable price, issue thirty-year bonds at three percent interest to owners of nationalized property, send fifty young men to Bulgaria for pilot training, instruct El Salvador's delegate to the UN to support recognition of the new regime in Kampuchea, elect the widow of a political moderate to the ruling junta, send birthday greetings to Fidel Castro, blame Washington for the deterioration of relations, and invite the Soviet Union to help reorganize El Salvador's security services...
...Kennedy apparently disagreed...
...If anyone can be said to deserve his fate, he certainly deserved his...
...As a mental exercise it takes only minutes...
...Now Haig is asking us to do the same thing, and the reason he has been asking obliquely, searching for a minimum assent - the weary okay which might allow intervention - is that we are so visibly reluctant to go down this road again...
...As a theoretical matter, it is hard to square a claim of universal interest with our own pride of independence - much less the Charter of the UN...
...The United States has spent a couple of trillion dollars on defense since the end of World War II...
...A revolution, like a divorce, is the most personal of ques- tions...
...We might argue about the details late into the night...

Vol. 109 • May 1982 • No. 9


 
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