Power for Capital’s Sake
The 1984 Kissinger Commission shows that American intervention is a bipartisan project.
Nearly two decades before George W. Bush appointed Henry Kissinger to lead the 9/11 commission — a post from which he resigned following complaints about his conflicts of interest — the former secretary of state chaired another group investigating important national security issues: The National Bipartisan Commission on Central America.
Formed in 1983 under President Ronald Reagan, the twelve-member gang issued its report in early 1984 on the “profound crisis” gripping the neighboring region, where right-wing governments and paramilitaries were waging war on leftist movements, indigenous people, and anyone else in their way.
Kissinger certainly possessed the qualifications to spearhead this operation, which Foreign Affairs described as “attempt[ing] to create a bipartisan consensus for what is basically current Administration policy toward Central America — only more so.”
Never one to pass up a good war with the old red menace, Kissinger presumably welcomed the opportunity since the dirty war in Argentina — which he had personally green-lit — had just concluded, leaving tens of thousands of victims in its wake.
In their lengthy report, the commission members professed a moral obligation to help Central America wrest itself from its dire circumstances. But they based their recommendations on something besides altruism. While the commissioners acknowledged that, in many cases, legitimate and homegrown grievances — colonial and more recent forms of oppression, widespread denial of basic rights, and extreme socioeconomic disparity — fueled popular support for leftist insurgencies, the real threat came from outside: the Soviet-Cuban axis was “seek[ing] expansion of influence through exploitation of misery.”
The report paints the “hostile powers” and “aggressive external forces” infiltrating the hemisphere as an existential danger. “Outside forces have intervened to exacerbate the area’s troubles.” “Cuba and the Soviet Union are investing heavily in efforts to expand their footholds.” “The intrusion of aggressive outside powers . . . is a serious threat to the United States.” “The crisis is on our doorstep.”
Never mind that neither Cuba nor the Soviet Union mined Nicaragua’s harbors — the United States did that in 1983, following the Sandinista revolution — or that Cuba is already located not only within the hemisphere in question but also within Latin America. Anyway, the Soviets probably put it there.
Predictably, the report reveals Kissinger’s commitment to Washington’s golden rule: the United States is exempt from the category of foreign meddler, even when we meddle in foreign places. It’s our world, after all.
The report delivers snippets of history so haphazardly that readers cannot connect the dots. Its authors present every piece of evidence to bolster the claim that THE COMMUNISTS ARE COMING.
For example, on page twenty-five, the authors note, “In the early years, the major Cuban effort to export the revolution to Central America occurred in Guatemala. There, [Fidel] Castro gave support to an armed insurgency that began in 1960.” But this rebellion erupted six years after a certain key moment, which the commissioners happened to mention just four pages earlier: “In Guatemala, after the United States helped bring about the fall of the [Jacobo] Arbenz government in 1954, politics became more divisive, violent and polarized than in the neighboring states.”
The authors refrain from explicitly linking these two events, however, essentially absolving the United States of its role in destabilizing the nation and presenting Cuba as the primary cause of the preceding two decades of violence, during which US-backed Guatemalan forces committed acts of genocide, murdering or disappearing more than two hundred thousand people.
In circumstances like these, Kissinger’s special approach to history comes in handy. As historian Greg Grandin documents in his book Kissinger’s Shadow, “[f]or Kissinger, the past was nothing but a series of meaningless incidents.”
If the past is meaningless, then we needn’t reflect on how US actions propelled Central America into its current crisis before intensifying our presence in the region. “[T]he people of Central America are sorely beset and urgently need our help,” and the fact that, “[o]f all US private investment in the developing world, 62 percent is in Latin America and the Caribbean” certainly has nothing to do with our renewed intervention.
The report acknowledges the infamous machinations of the United Fruit Company, corporate sponsor of the 1954 Guatemalan coup, but announces that, “[w]hatever the mistakes of the past, private U.S. investment in the region now plays a vital and constructive role.” With plunder thus converted into charity, the commission then unleashes a barrage of prescriptions for increased privatization and economic policies that “encourage private enterprise [and] . . . create favorable investment climates.” It calls for the establishment of a “privately-owned venture capital company for Central America,” chaired by someone “from the United States[,] with an Executive Secretary” from the region itself.
How, then, to forge this economic wonderland? At the end of the barrel of a gun, of course.
Among the more blatantly nefarious recommendations by the Kissinger Commission were those entailing an immediate increase in military assistance to El Salvador’s government — even as the report admits that said government was “aid[ing] and abet[ting] violence against its own people.”
If history means nothing to the commission, logic perhaps means even less. Consider the twists and turns in its argument for sending aid to the Salvadoran regime. The commissioners admit that “many of the excesses” committed by right-wing regimes in El Salvador and elsewhere “would be present even if there were no guerrilla war supported by outside forces,” acknowledging that much of the “violence has in fact nothing to do with insurgency at all,” being instead “designed to terrorize opponents, fight democracy, protect entrenched interests, and restore reactionary regimes.”
Nevertheless, they argue that “the security situation must be improved dramatically” — that is, the insurgents must be defeated — if political, economic, and social “reforms are to be effective.” In other words, the left-wing rebels are preventing the folks commanding death squads and authorizing torture from implementing cheery democratic reforms. Therefore, the Salvadoran government should receive assistance tout suite, because reductions in aid “make more difficult the pursuit of an enlightened counter-insurgency effort.”
As Arthur Schlesinger Jr wrote in a 1984 New York Times op-ed, the commission’s idea that providing aid to the Salvadoran regime would encourage reforms failed to account for the fact that “regimes requiring military shields against their own people are under siege precisely because they don’t give a damn about poverty and exploitation.”
Of course the Kissinger Commission — itself a microcosm of the United States’ political establishment — doesn’t give a damn about economic inequality or abusive working conditions either. The report repeatedly denounces wide socioeconomic gaps and the “callous proposition that some groups will be ‘have-nots’ forever,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the economic system to which the United States pledges allegiance eternally condemns a majority of the world’s population to crippling poverty.
To be fair, the report did recommend making military assistance to El Salvador conditional on the regime’s effort to reign in death squads. On this point, however, not all commissioners agreed. In the final section, “Notes by individual Commissioners,” Kissinger and two colleagues felt it necessary “to record [their] strong view that neither the Congress nor the Executive Branch interpret conditionality in a manner that leads to a Marxist-Leninist victory in El Salvador.”
The report also advised increasing military assistance to Honduras — launchpad for the US-funded contra war on the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua and home to the CIA-trained death squad Battalion 316 — as well as to Guatemala, “under suitable conditions.” In the latter, indiscriminate slaughter apparently qualified as “suitable.” As for the former, a Council on Hemispheric Affairs report describes the contra period thusly:
The alleged “communist threat” posed by the Sandinistas eventually cost 30,000 lives and caused economic ruin in both Nicaragua and Honduras, in what soon became a U.S.-induced civil war.
A 1998 Atlantic article came accompanied by this summary: “The success of US policy in El Salvador — preventing a guerrilla victory — was based on 40,000 political murders.” A Central American crisis indeed.
Kissinger buffs can detect the chairman’s hand at work throughout the report, but this explanation of the United States’ alleged stakes in the conflict clearly displays his signature style: “[O]ur credibility worldwide is engaged. The triumph of hostile forces in what the Soviets call the ‘strategic rear’ of the United States would be read as a sign of US impotence.”
This rationale aligns with Kissinger’s pursuit of “power for power’s sake,” as Grandin puts it in Kissinger’s Shadow. His approach to foreign policy sees war as necessary to “show that action is possible” and to thereby maintain American power; power, in turn, “create[s] American purpose.” Given how well the whole purpose-power arrangement worked in Vietnam and other locations on the receiving end of Kissinger-sanctioned escapades, impotence might have simplified matters.
Kissinger’s leading role in a host of punitive military and economic forays has made him a lightning rod for criticism, but the often-singular vilification of this former statesman can distract from the American political structure’s thoroughly putrid nature.
In the introductory letter to President Reagan that precedes the commission’s findings, Kissinger marvels that “[t]welve [commission] members, of both political parties and of widely disparate views . . . reached a degree of consensus at the end that I think few of us expected at the beginning.” Indeed, the report reflects few substantial disagreements aside from quibbles over how much the United States should worry about Salvadoran death squad activity.
While Kissinger and company may have professed surprise at this bipartisan harmony, there’s nothing shocking about their shared commitment to making the planet safe for capital. In its ongoing display of virility, the United States has continued to inflict bipartisan intervention on Central America, albeit in a slightly less obviously bloody fashion. Honduras 2009 comes to mind, when a Hillary Clinton–assisted coup d’état ushered in an era of right-wing repression and impunity, not to mention a skyrocketing homicide rate.
And it’s a safe bet that, long after Kissinger is gone, we’ll still be waging a worldwide war on impotence — deploying military might to preserve economic interests. After all, the past is present.