Features » December 26, 2003
Iraq: Quicksand & Blood
The key counterinsurgency lesson from Central America was that the U.S. government can defeat guerrilla movements if it is willing to back a local power structure, no matter how repulsive, and if Washington is ready to tolerate gross human rights abuses. In Central America in the ‘80s, those tactics included genocide against hundreds of Mayan villages in Guatemala’s highlands and the torture, rape and murder of thousands of young political activists throughout the region. (More on this below)
The body dumps that have been unearthed across Central America are thus little different from the mass graves blamed on Saddam Hussein in Iraq, except in Central America they represented the dark side of U.S. foreign policy and received far less U.S. press scrutiny. Another lesson learned from the ‘80s was the importance of shielding the American people from the ugly realities of a U.S.-backed “dirty war” by using P.R. techniques, which became known inside the Reagan administration as “perception management.”
The temptation to recycle these counterinsurgency strategies from Central America to Iraq is explained by the number of Reagan-era officials now back in prominent roles in George W. Bush’s administration.
They include Elliot Abrams, who served as assistant secretary of state for Latin America in the ‘80s and is a National Security Council adviser to Bush on the Middle East; John Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the ‘80s and now Bush’s U.N. Ambassador; Paul Bremer a counter-terrorism specialist in the ‘80s and Iraq’s civilian administrator today; Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was the senior military adviser to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger in the ‘80s; and Vice President Dick Cheney, who was a Republican foreign-policy stalwart in Congress two decades ago.
One important difference between Iraq and Central America, however, is that to date, the Bush administration has had trouble finding, arming and unleashing an Iraqi proxy force that compares to the paramilitary killers who butchered suspected leftists in Central America. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, well-established “security forces” already existed. Plus, in Nicaragua, Ronald Reagan could turn to the remnants of ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza’s National Guard to fashion a contra rebel force.
In Iraq, however, U.S. policymakers chose to disband—rather than redirect—Saddam Hussein’s army and intelligence services, leaving the burden of counterinsurgency heavily on U.S. occupying troops who are unfamiliar with Iraq’s language, history and terrain.
Now, with U.S. casualties mounting, the Bush administration is scrambling to build an Iraqi paramilitary force to serve under the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council’s interior minister. The core of this force would be drawn from the security and intelligence wings of five political organizations, including Ahmad Chalabi’s formerly exile-based Iraqi National Congress.
Bush’s national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said on November 10 that the administration’s No. 1 strategy in Iraq is to build an Iraqi security force, which she claims already numbers about 118,000 people, roughly the size of the U.S. military contingent in Iraq. Many of these Iraqis have received speeded-up training with the goal of using them to pacify the so-called Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad.
Earlier, some U.S. officials, including civilian administrator Bremer, balked at a paramilitary force out of fear it would become a tool of repression. “The unit that the Governing Council wants to create would be the most powerful domestic security force in Iraq, fueling concern among some U.S. officials that it could be used for undemocratic purposes, such as stifling political dissent, as such forces do in other Arab nations,” the Washington Post wrote.
But faced with the rising U.S. death toll, Bremer no longer has “any objection in principle” to this concept, a senior U.S. official told the Post. (Washington Post, November 5, 2003) With all the missteps that have plagued the U.S. occupation, Bremer appears to understand that the Iraqi security situation needs to be bolstered—and quickly.
In much of the Sunni Triangle, U.S. control now is intermittent at best, existing only during heavily armed U.S. forays into resistance strongholds. “American troops patrol less frequently, townspeople openly threaten Iraqi security personnel who cooperate with U.S. forces, and the night belongs to the guerrillas,” the Washington Post reported from Thuluiya about 60 miles north of Baghdad. (November. 8, 2003).
One U.S. senator who has visited the region told me that the struggle for Iraq may take 30 years before a new generation accepts the American presence. But even taking the long view does not guarantee success. Israel has been battling to break the back of Palestinian resistance for more than three decades with no sign that younger Palestinians are less hostile to the Israeli occupation. The Iraqi insurgency already has spread too far and penetrated too deeply to be easily uprooted, military experts say.
Having lurched into this Iraqi quicksand, the Bush administration is now searching for lessons that can be gleaned from the most recent U.S. counterinsurgency experience, the region-wide wars in Central America that began as uprisings against ruling oligarchies and their military henchmen but came to be viewed by the Reagan administration as an all-too-close front in the Cold War.
Though U.S.-backed armies and paramilitary forces eventually quelled the leftist peasant rebellions, the cost in blood was staggering. The death toll in El Salvador was estimated at about 70,000 people. In Guatemala, the number of dead reached about 200,000, including what a truth commission concluded was a genocide against the Mayan populations in Guatemala’s highlands.
The muted press coverage that the U.S. news media has given these atrocities as they have come to light over the years also showed the residual strength of the “perception management” employed by the Reagan administration. For instance, even when the atrocities of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt are mentioned, as they were in the context of his defeat in Guatemala’s November 9 presidential elections, the history of Reagan’s warm support for Rios Montt is rarely, if ever, noted by the U.S. press.
While the slaughter of the Mayans was underway in the ‘80s, Reagan portrayed Gen. Rios Montt and the Guatemalan army as victims of disinformation spread by human rights groups and journalists. Reagan huffily discounted reports that Rios Montt’s army was eradicating hundreds of Mayan villages.
On December 4, 1982, after meeting with Rios Montt, Reagan hailed the general as “totally dedicated to democracy” and declared that Rios Montt’s government had been “getting a bum rap.” Reagan also reversed President Jimmy Carter’s policy of embargoing military equipment to Guatemala over its human rights abuses. Carter’s human rights embargoes represented one of the few times during the Cold War when Washington objected to the repression that pervaded Central American society.
Though many U.S.-backed regimes in Latin America practiced the dark arts of “disappearances” and “death squads,” the history of Guatemala’s security operations is perhaps the best documented because the Clinton administration declassified scores of the secret U.S. documents in the late ‘90s to assist a Guatemalan truth commission. The Guatemala experience also may be the most instructive today in illuminating a possible course of the counterinsurgency in Iraq.
The original Guatemalan death squads took shape in the mid-’60s under anti-terrorist training provided by a U.S. public safety adviser named John Longon, the declassified documents show. In January 1966, Longon reported to his superiors about both overt and covert components of his anti-terrorist strategies.
On the covert side, Longon pressed for “a safe house [to] be immediately set up” for coordination of security intelligence. “A room was immediately prepared in the [Presidential] Palace for this purpose and … Guatemalans were immediately designated to put this operation into effect,” according to Longon’s report. Longon’s operation within the presidential compound became the starting point for the infamous “Archivos” intelligence unit that evolved into a clearinghouse for Guatemala’s most notorious political assassinations.
Just two months after Longon’s report, a secret CIA cable noted the clandestine execution of several Guatemalan “communists and terrorists” on the night of March 6, 1966. By the end of the year, the Guatemalan government was bold enough to request U.S. help in establishing special kidnapping squads, according to a cable from the U.S. Southern Command that was forwarded to Washington on Dec. 3, 1966.
By 1967, the Guatemalan counterinsurgency terror had gained a fierce momentum. On October, 23, 1967, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research noted the “accumulating evidence that the [Guatemalan] counterinsurgency machine is out of control.” The report noted that Guatemalan “counter-terror” units were carrying out abductions, bombings, torture and summary executions “of real and alleged communists.”
The mounting death toll in Guatemala disturbed some American officials assigned to the country. The embassy’s deputy chief of mission, Viron Vaky, expressed his concerns in a remarkably candid report that he submitted on March 29, 1968, after returning to Washington. Vaky framed his arguments in pragmatic terms, but his moral anguish broke through. “The official squads are guilty of atrocities. Interrogations are brutal, torture is used and bodies are mutilated,” Vaky wrote. “In the minds of many in Latin America, and, tragically, especially in the sensitive, articulate youth, we are believed to have condoned these tactics, if not actually encouraged them. Therefore our image is being tarnished and the credibility of our claims to want a better and more just world are increasingly placed in doubt.”
Vaky also noted the deceptions within the U.S. government that resulted from its complicity in state-sponsored terror. “This leads to an aspect I personally find the most disturbing of all — that we have not been honest with ourselves,” Vaky said. “We have condoned counter-terror; we may even in effect have encouraged or blessed it. We have been so obsessed with the fear of insurgency that we have rationalized away our qualms and uneasiness.
“This is not only because we have concluded we cannot do anything about it, for we never really tried. Rather we suspected that maybe it is a good tactic, and that as long as Communists are being killed it is alright. Murder, torture and mutilation are alright if our side is doing it and the victims are Communists. After all hasn’t man been a savage from the beginning of time so let us not be too queasy about terror. I have literally heard these arguments from our people.”
Though kept secret from the American public for three decades, the Vaky memo obliterated any claim that Washington simply didn’t know the reality in Guatemala. Still, with Vaky’s memo squirreled away in State Department files, the killing went on. The repression was noted almost routinely in reports from the field.
On January 12, 1971, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that Guatemalan forces had “quietly eliminated” hundreds of “terrorists and bandits” in the countryside. On February 4, 1974, a State Department cable reported resumption of “death squad” activities.
On December 17, 1974, a DIA biography of one U.S.-trained Guatemalan officer gave an insight into how U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine had imbued the Guatemalan strategies. According to the biography, Lt. Col. Elias Osmundo Ramirez Cervantes, chief of security section for Guatemala’s president, had trained at the U.S. Army School of Intelligence at Fort Holabird in Maryland. Back in Guatemala, Ramirez Cervantes was put in charge of plotting raids on suspected subversives as well as their interrogations.
As brutal as the Guatemalan security forces were in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the worst was yet to come. In the 1980s, the Guatemalan army escalated its slaughter of political dissidents and their suspected supporters to unprecedented levels.
Ronald Reagan’s election in November 1980 set off celebrations in the well-to-do communities of Central America. After four years of Jimmy Carter’s human rights nagging, the region’s hard-liners were thrilled that they had someone in the White House who understood their problems.
The oligarchs and the generals had good reason for optimism. For years, Reagan had been a staunch defender of right-wing regimes that engaged in bloody counterinsurgency against leftist enemies. In the late ‘70s, when Carter’s human rights coordinator, Pat Derian, criticized the Argentine military for its “dirty war”—tens of thousands of “disappearances,” tortures and murders—then-political commentator Reagan joshed that she should “walk a mile in the moccasins” of the Argentine generals before criticizing them. (For more details, see Martin Edwin Andersen’s Dossier Secreto.)
After his election in 1980, Reagan pushed to overturn an arms embargo imposed on Guatemala by Carter. Yet as Reagan was moving to loosen up the military aid ban, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies were confirming new Guatemalan government massacres.
In April 1981, a secret CIA cable described a massacre at Cocob, near Nebaj in the Ixil Indian territory. On April 17, 1981, government troops attacked the area believed to support leftist guerrillas, the cable said. According to a CIA source, “the social population appeared to fully support the guerrillas” and “the soldiers were forced to fire at anything that moved.” The CIA cable added that “the Guatemalan authorities admitted that ‘many civilians’ were killed in Cocob, many of whom undoubtedly were non-combatants.”
Despite the CIA account and other similar reports, Reagan permitted Guatemala’s army to buy $3.2 million in military trucks and jeeps in June 1981. To permit the sale, Reagan removed the vehicles from a list of military equipment that was covered by the human rights embargo.
Apparently confident of Reagan’s sympathies, the Guatemalan government continued its political repression without apology.
According to a State Department cable on October 5, 1981, Guatemalan leaders met with Reagan’s roving ambassador, retired Gen. Vernon Walters, and left no doubt about their plans. Guatemala’s military leader, Gen. Fernando Romeo Lucas Garcia, “made clear that his government will continue as before—that the repression will continue.”
Human rights groups saw the same picture. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission released a report on Oct. 15, 1981, blaming the Guatemalan government for “thousands of illegal executions.” (Washington Post, October 16, 1981).
But the Reagan administration was set on whitewashing the ugly scene. A State Department “white paper,” released in December 1981, blamed the violence on leftist “extremist groups” and their “terrorist methods,” inspired and supported by Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Yet, even as these rationalizations were pitched to the American people, U.S. ntelligence agencies in Guatemala continued to learn of government-sponsored massacres.
One CIA report in February 1982 described an army sweep through the so-called Ixil Triangle in central El Quiche province. “The commanding officers of the units involved have been instructed to destroy all towns and villages which are cooperating with the Guerrilla Army of the Poor [known as the EGP] and eliminate all sources of resistance,” the report stated. “Since the operation began, several villages have been burned to the ground, and a large number of guerrillas and collaborators have been killed.”
The CIA report explained the army’s modus operandi: “When an army patrol meets resistance and takes fire from a town or village, it is assumed that the entire town is hostile and it is subsequently destroyed.” When the army encountered an empty village, it was “assumed to have been supporting the EGP, and it is destroyed. There are hundreds, possibly thousands of refugees in the hills with no homes to return to. … The well-documented belief by the army that the entire Ixil Indian population is pro-EGP has created a situation in which the army can be expected to give no quarter to combatants and non-combatants alike.”
In March 1982, Gen. Rios Montt seized power in a coup d’etat. An avowed fundamentalist Christian, he immediately impressed official Washington, where Reagan hailed Rios Montt as “a man of great personal integrity.”
By July 1982, however, Rios Montt had begun a new scorched-earth campaign called his “rifles and beans” policy. The slogan meant that pacified Indians would get “beans,” while all others could expect to be the target of army “rifles.” In October, he secretly gave carte blanche to the feared “Archivos” intelligence unit to expand “death squad” operations.
The U.S. embassy was soon hearing more accounts of the army conducting Indian massacres. On October 21, 1982, one cable described how three embassy officers tried to check out some of these reports but ran into bad weather and canceled the inspection. Still, the cable put a positive spin on the situation. Though unable to check out the massacre reports, the embassy officials did “reach the conclusion that the army is completely up front about allowing us to check alleged massacre sites and to speak with whomever we wish.”
The next day, the embassy fired off an analysis that the Guatemalan government was the victim of a communist-inspired “disinformation campaign,” a claim embraced by Reagan with his “bum rap” comment after he met with Rios Montt in December 1982.
On January 7, 1983, Reagan lifted the ban on military aid to Guatemala and authorized the sale of $6 million in military hardware. Approval covered spare parts for UH-1H helicopters and A-37 aircraft used in counterinsurgency operations. State Department spokesman John Hughes said political violence in the cities had “declined dramatically” and that rural conditions had improved too.
In February 1983, however, a secret CIA cable noted a rise in “suspect right-wing violence” with kidnappings of students and teachers. Bodies of victims were appearing in ditches and gullies. CIA sources traced these political murders to Rios Montt’s order to the “Archivos” in October to “apprehend, hold, interrogate and dispose of suspected guerrillas as they saw fit.”
Despite these grisly facts on the ground, the annual State Department human rights survey sugarcoated the facts for the American public and praised the supposedly improved human rights situation in Guatemala. “The overall conduct of the armed forces had improved by late in the year” 1982, the report stated.
A different picture—far closer to the secret information held by the U.S. government—was coming from independent human rights investigators. On March 17, 1983, Americas Watch representatives condemned the Guatemalan army for human rights atrocities against the Indian population.
New York attorney Stephen L. Kass said these findings included proof that the government carried out “virtually indiscriminate murder of men, women and children of any farm regarded by the army as possibly supportive of guerrilla insurgents.”
Rural women suspected of guerrilla sympathies were raped before execution, Kass said. Children were “thrown into burning homes. They are thrown in the air and speared with bayonets. We heard many, many stories of children being picked up by the ankles and swung against poles so their heads are destroyed.” (AP, March 17, 1983)
Publicly, however, senior Reagan officials continued to put on a happy face. On June 12, 1983, special envoy Richard B. Stone praised “positive changes” in Rios Montt’s government. But Rios Montt’s vengeful Christian fundamentalism was hurtling out of control, even by Guatemalan standards. In August 1983, Gen. Oscar Mejia Victores seized power in another coup.
Despite the power shift, Guatemalan security forces continued to kill those who were deemed subversives or terrorists. When three Guatemalans working for the U.S. Agency for International Development were slain in November 1983, U.S. Ambassador Frederic Chapin suspected that “Archivos” hit squads were sending a message to the United States to back off even the mild pressure for human rights improvements.
In late November, in a brief show of displeasure, the administration postponed the sale of $2 million in helicopter spare parts. The next month, however, Reagan sent the spare parts. In 1984, Reagan succeeded, too, in pressuring Congress to approve $300,000 in military training for the Guatemalan army.
By mid-1984, Chapin, who had grown bitter about the army’s stubborn brutality, was gone, replaced by a far-right political appointee named Alberto Piedra, who was all for increased military assistance to Guatemala.
In January 1985, Americas Watch issued a report observing that Reagan’s State Department “is apparently more concerned with improving Guatemala’s image than in improving its human rights.”
Other examples of Guatemala’s “death squad” strategy came to light later. For example, a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency cable in 1994 reported that the Guatemalan military had used an air base in Retalhuleu during the mid-1980s as a center for coordinating the counterinsurgency campaign in southwest Guatemala—and for torturing and burying prisoners.
At the base, pits were filled with water to hold captured suspects. “Reportedly there were cages over the pits and the water level was such that the individuals held within them were forced to hold on to the bars in order to keep their heads above water and avoid drowning,” the DIA report stated.
The Guatemalan military used the Pacific Ocean as another dumping spot for political victims, according to the DIA report. Bodies of insurgents tortured to death and live prisoners marked for “disappearance” were loaded onto planes that flew out over the ocean where the soldiers would shove the victims into the water to drown, a tactic that had been a favorite disposal technique of the Argentine military in the ‘70s.
The history of the Retalhuleu death camp was uncovered by accident in the early ‘90s when a Guatemalan officer wanted to let soldiers cultivate their own vegetables on a corner of the base. But the officer was taken aside and told to drop the request “because the locations he had wanted to cultivate were burial sites that had been used by the D-2 [military intelligence] during the mid-eighties,” the DIA report said. (To see the Guatemalan documents, go to the National Security Archive’s Web site.)
Guatemala, of course, was not the only Central American country where Reagan and his administration supported brutal counterinsurgency operations-and-then sought to cover up the bloody facts. Deception of the American public—a strategy that the administration internally called “perception management”—was as much a part of the Central American story as the Bush administration’s lies and distortions about weapons of mass destruction were to the lead-up to the war in Iraq.
Reagan’s falsification of the historical record became a hallmark of the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua as well as Guatemala. In one case, Reagan personally lashed out at a human rights investigator named Reed Brody, a New York lawyer who had collected affidavits from more than 100 witnesses to atrocities carried out by the U.S.-supported contras in Nicaragua.
Angered by the revelations about his contra “freedom-fighters,” Reagan denounced Brody in a speech on April 15, 1985, calling him “one of dictator [Daniel] Ortega’s supporters, a sympathizer who has openly embraced Sandinismo.”
Privately, Reagan had a far more accurate understanding of the true nature of the contras. At one point in the contra war, Reagan turned to CIA official Duane Clarridge and demanded that the contras be used to destroy some Soviet-supplied helicopters that had arrived in Nicaragua. In his memoirs, Clarridge recalled that “President Reagan pulled me aside and asked, ‘Dewey, can’t you get those vandals of yours to do this job.’ “ (See Clarridge’s A Spy for All Seasons.)
To manage U.S. perceptions of the wars in Central America, Reagan also authorized a systematic program of distorting information and intimidating American journalists. Called “public diplomacy,” the project was run by a CIA propaganda veteran, Walter Raymond Jr., who was assigned to the National Security Council staff. The project’s key operatives developed propaganda “themes,” selected “hot buttons” to excite the American people, cultivated pliable journalists who would cooperate and bullied reporters who wouldn’t go along.
The best-known attacks were directed against New York Times correspondent Raymond Bonner for disclosing Salvadoran army massacres of civilians, including the slaughter of some 800 men, women and children in El Mozote in December 1981. But Bonner was not alone. Reagan’s operatives pressured scores of reporters and their editors in an ultimately successful campaign to minimize information about these human rights crimes reaching the American people. (For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.)
The tamed reporters, in turn, gave the administration a far freer hand to pursue counterinsurgency operations in Central America. Despite the tens of thousands of civilian deaths and now-corroborated accounts of massacres and genocide, not a single senior military officer in Central America was held accountable for the bloodshed.
The U.S. officials who sponsored and encouraged these war crimes not only escaped legal judgment, but remain highly respected figures in Washington. Some have returned to senior government posts under George W. Bush. Meanwhile, Reagan has been honored as few recent presidents have with major public facilities named after him, including National Airport in Washington.
On Feb. 25, 1999, a Guatemalan truth commission issued a report on the staggering human rights crimes that Reagan and his administration had aided, abetted and concealed.
The Historical Clarification Commission, an independent human rights body, estimated that the Guatemalan conflict claimed the lives of some 200,000 people with the most savage bloodletting occurring in the 1980s. Based on a review of about 20 percent of the dead, the panel blamed the army for 93 percent of the killings and leftist guerrillas for three percent. Four percent were listed as unresolved.
The report documented that in the 1980s, the army committed 626 massacres against Mayan villages. “The massacres that eliminated entire Mayan villages … are neither perfidious allegations nor figments of the imagination, but an authentic chapter in Guatemala’s history,” the commission concluded.
The army “completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their livestock and crops,” the report said. In the northern highlands, the report termed the slaughter a “genocide.” Besides carrying out murder and “disappearances,” the army routinely engaged in torture and rape. “The rape of women, during torture or before being murdered, was a common practice” by the military and paramilitary forces, the report found.
The report added that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some [of these] state operations.” The report concluded that the U.S. government also gave money and training to a Guatemalan military that committed “acts of genocide” against the Mayans.
“Believing that the ends justified everything, the military and the state security forces blindly pursued the anticommunist struggle, without respect for any legal principles or the most elemental ethical and religious values, and in this way, completely lost any semblance of human morals,” said the commission chairman, Christian Tomuschat, a German jurist.
“Within the framework of the counterinsurgency operations carried out between 1981 and 1983, in certain regions of the country agents of the Guatemalan state committed acts of genocide against groups of the Mayan people,” Tomuschat said. (For more details on the commission’s report, see the Washington Post or New York Times, Feb. 26, 1999.)
During a visit to Central America, on March 10, 1999, President Clinton apologized for the past U.S. support of right-wing regimes in Guatemala. “For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake,” Clinton said.
Less than five years later, however, the U.S. government is teetering on the edge of another brutal counterinsurgency war in Iraq.
Some supporters of Bush’s invasion of Iraq in March are now advocating an iron fist to quell the growing Iraqi resistance. In a debate in Berkeley, California, for instance, ardent Bush supporter Christopher Hitchens declared that the U.S. intervention in Iraq needed to be “more thoroughgoing, more thought-out and more, if necessary, ruthless.” (See Salon.com, Nov. 11, 2003.)
Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told a news conference in Baghdad on November 11 that U.S. forces would follow a new get-tough strategy against the Iraqi resistance. “We are taking the fight into the safe havens of the enemy, in the heartland of the country,” Sanchez said.
But U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Bush enthusiasts at home are not alone in encouraging a fierce counterinsurgency campaign to throttle the Iraqi resistance. Though many war critics say the likelihood of a difficult occupation should have been anticipated before the invasion, some now agree that the U.S. government must fight and win in Iraq or the United States will suffer a crippling loss of credibility in the Middle East and throughout the world.
Wishing for a result, however, can be far different from achieving a result. Wanting the U.S. forces to prevail and asserting that they must prevail does not mean that they will prevail. American troops could find themselves trapped in a long painful conflict against a determined enemy fighting on its home terrain.
As the United States wades deeper into this Iraqi quicksand, the lessons of the bloody counterinsurgency wars in Central America will be tempting to the veterans of the Reagan administration. Those lessons certainly are the most immediate antecedents to many of the architects of the Iraq counterinsurgency.
But the Central American lessons may have limited applicability to Iraq. For one, the Bush administration can’t turn to well-entrenched power centers with ideologically committed security forces as the Reagan administration could in Guatemala and other Central American countries. Also, the cultural divide and the physical distance between Iraq and the United States are far greater than those between Central America and the United States.
So even if the Bush administration can hastily set up an Iraqi security apparatus, it may not be as committed to a joint cause with the Americans as the Central American paramilitary forces were with the Reagan administration. Without a reliable proxy force, the responsibility for conducting a scorched-earth campaign in Iraq likely would fall to American soldiers who themselves might question the wisdom and the morality of such an undertaking.
Perhaps one of the lessons of the current dilemma is that George W. Bush may have dug such a deep hole for U.S. policy in Iraq that even Guatemalan-style brutality applied to the Sunni Triangle would only deepen the well of anti-Americanism that already exists in many parts of Iraq and across much of the Islamic world.
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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the '80s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. He is the author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush and Secrecy and Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq. He is the editor of Consortium News.