Bringing It All Back Home

excerpted from the book

Empire's Workshop

Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism

by Greg Grandin

Metropolitan/Owl, 2006, paper

Making little distinction between foreign enemies and domestic opponents, the Reagan administration put in place what one government official described as a "psychological operation of the kind the military conducts to influence a population in denied or enemy territory. The operation unfolded on three fronts.

First, to confront an adversarial press, tame a presumptuous Congress, and make inroads on college campuses, the administration orchestrated a sophisticated and centralized "public diplomacy" campaign that deployed techniques drawn from both the PR world and the intelligence community. Second, the White House either loosened or circumvented restrictions placed on domestic law-and-order surveillance operations against political dissidents, reviving tactics that the FBI and other intelligence agencies had used to intimidate the antiwar movement in the 1960s, tactics that were thought to have been repudiated by the Rockefeller Committee and other congressional investigations into domestic covert actions in the mid-1970s. Finally, and most consequentially, the administration built countervailing grassroots support to counter what seemed a permanently entrenched anti-imperialist opposition, mobilizing militarists and evangelicals on behalf of a hard-line foreign policy. Such a campaign allowed the White House to go forward with its Central American program. More critically, it also helped create the ideas and infrastructure that turned the Republican Party into a mass movement and transformed the New Right into the dominant political force in America today.

In January 1983, Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 77, creating a domestic interagency task force "designed to generate support for our national security objectives." Five months later, the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean was born under the direction of Cuban émigré Otto Reich.

Public Diplomacy was officially charged with implementing a "new, nontraditional" approach to "defining the terms of the public discussion on Central American policy" and with "unshackl[ing] public perception of policy from myths and cant. In reality, it was the homeland branch of [William] Casey and [Oliver] North's "Enterprise" ...

Revolution in the name of democracy became a marketing device. Office of Public Diplomacy memos stressed the need to refer to the insurgents not as "Contras" but as either "new revolutionaries" or "freedom fighters fighting in the American tradition." The war against the Sandinistas was to be called Nicaragua's "New Revolution.

By flooding the media with questionable facts and allegations, the Office of Public Diplomacy forced Reagan's opponents to dissipate their energies disproving allegations rather than making their own positive case for nonintervention. Confronted by government spokespeople and sympathetic experts ready to rebut unfavorable coverage, no matter how slight the criticism or how marginal the source, reporters came to dread the amount of fact checking it took to cover Central America."

... By offering alternative interpretations, no mater how farfetched, to discredit charges of atrocities committed by U.S. allies, Public Diplomacy muddied the waters and made it difficult, if not impossible, for human rights organizations to establish the facts of a case.

Public Diplomacy combined the power of psych ops and PR tactics to blunt the distinction between foreign and domestic policy. The White House even timed Contra military operations to coincide with congressional votes on funding. When its actions came to light, the office was condemned by both the Congress and the General Accounting Office as, in the words of an excised part of Congress's Iran-Contra report, "what a covert CIA operation in a foreign country might do. Nonetheless, the administration considered the Office of Public Diplomacy such a stunning success that it "initiated" similar "methodologies" and "operations," as Elliott Abrams put it in 1986, "for Southern Africa and for terrorism issues."

But the White House found that it could also control the press and Congress with less aggressive measures, for neither institution was quite as untamed as their reputations suggested. Aside from a few intrepid reporters in the mainstream and alternative press, such as Raymond Bonner and Robert Parry, the media cut the popular Reagan considerable slack. Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post describes a "return to deference" on the part of the press corps: "We were dealing with someone this time who really, really, really disapproved of us, disliked us, distrusted us, and that [we thought] we ought not give him any opportunities to see he was right." Bradlee and his colleagues also responded to a perceived public fatigue with journalists "trying to make a Watergate out of everything." They "ease[d] off" the president, allowing him, and his reputation, to survive the Iran-Contra scandal, which by any sober account has to be ranked as one of the most egregious presidential violations of the public trust of the twentieth century.

it was on the front line of the Central American conflicts that the Pentagon learned how to finesse the news at home by controlling reporters at the source. Defense strategists had analyzed the relationship between the press and the military after Vietnam and concluded that the problem in Southeast Asia was that journalists had become too independent in developing their own channels of information. In response, the Pentagon and the CIA granted privileged access to certain reporters in Central America, laying the groundwork for protocols that would be developed further in Grenada, Panama, and Iraq.

It was [journalist Raymond] Bonner who broke the story of the El Mozote massacre, which Washington vigorously denied for over a decade. Bonner's reporting met with a firestorm of criticism from the State Department and the Wall Street Journal, leading the New York Times to pull him out of El Salvador. "We finally got rid of that sonuvabitch," said one officer delighted to see him go.

The fallout from the [Iran-Contra] scandal itself had largely been contained, as the Senate refused to investigate the assumptions driving the policy and instead focused on procedural violations. The special prosecutor's inquiry dragged on for years with little result, stonewalled by the Department of Justice-with John Bolton taking the lead in playing defense-and increasingly ignored by a press unwilling to bring down another president. Not only were those convicted or indicted pardoned, but many of the key players in the affairs-Abrams, Negroponte, Weinberger, and Reich-went on to take jobs in George W Bush's administration. The anti-imperial moment was over.

In August 1979, an intelligence subcommittee of the Republican National Committee comprised of a group of ex-CIA and Pentagon officials and headed by Reagan's future NSC chief, Richard Allen, produced a twelve-page plan that called for the consolidation of the diverse intelligence agencies into a single apparatus that would "mobilize" the entire government on behalf of national security. The plan advocated diluting the Freedom of Information Act and weakening constitutional protections extended by the Warren Court. It also sought the removal of prohibitions against the sharing of information between the FBI and the CIA and for the creation of "joint teams of officers from both the domestic and foreign intelligence services." The 1980 Republican platform followed up by criticizing the "ill-considered restrictions sponsored by Democrats, which have debilitated U.S. intelligence capabilities." Shortly after Reagan's victory, the Heritage Foundation likewise issued an agenda for a conservative government that would abolish the "new restrictions" that had resulted in "fragmentation of the mission between several [intelligence] agencies and technical disciplines, as well as division of jurisdiction between foreign and domestic matters."

Much of this agenda, while today largely fulfilled in the Patriot Act and subsequent restructuring of intelligence services, was at the time considered too radical to implement. But the Heritage Foundation also specifically called for the surveillance of solidarity organizations that lobbied in support of the "Sandinistas and other Latin American... terrorists." Here the FBI obliged, launching in early 1981 an investigation of the newly formed Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

The impetus for the CISPES investigation came from the synergy created by the right-wing public/private network that revolved around the NSC, CIA, and Office of Public Diplomacy.

The bureau found no evidence that CISPES was "acting on behalf" of the Salvadoran rebels or "any other foreign principle," leading it not to call off but to expand its hunt, now under the rubric of "international terrorism." The investigation lasted for five years, involved all fifty-nine of the FBI's field offices, and collected information on over two thousand individuals and over one thousand groups. It generated 178 spin-off inquiries that reached into all branches of the anti-interventionist movement, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Inter-Religious Task Force on Central America, the Maryknoll Sisters, the United Auto Workers, and the congressional offices of Pat Schroeder, Christopher Dodd, Jim Wright, John Kerry, Lee Hamilton, and David Durenberger.

The FBI defined its mission less as a criminal investigation than as a battle campaign. It set out to, as one internal memo put it, "formulate some plan of attack against CISPES and specifically against individuals who definitely display their contempt for the U.S. government by making speeches and propagandizing their cause." Agents observed rallies and churches, shadowed individuals, and intimidated activists. Designating CISPES a Soviet-front organization, the bureau forwarded the names and addresses of its members to the 'White House, the Secret Service, the Justice Department, and the State Department-not an insignificant act considering that Oliver North had drawn up plans to arrest and detain Central American activists indefinitely in the event of an American invasion of Nicaragua.

The Central American conflict breathed new life into policy lobby groups, bringing right-wing nationalists together with liberal anti-Communists-often referred to today as "neoconservatives" in common cause. Already by the late 1970s, the first generation of neocons had begun to join with the nationalist right through ad hoc and standing organizations such as the Committee on the Present Danger ... They derailed SALT II, raised the alarm over America's abandonment of Taiwan to embrace China, and demanded that Washington support Israel and respond forcefully to third-world revolutionary nationalism.

Retired general John Singlaub raised millions of dollars for the rebels, creating a funding network that brought Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and South Korea together with conservative financiers in the United States such as Bert Hurlbut, president of the First Texas Royalty and Exploration Company, and Joseph Coors, the beer magnate and financial patron of much of the right-wing activism that emerged in the 1970s.68 Singlaub organizing work largely drew on his connections in the Unification Church-affiliated World Anti-Communist League, of which he was the president. Made up of "fascists, militarists, [and] right wing terrorists," the league dates from the beginning of the Cold War and represented, according to one of its own members, a "world of ideological fanaticism, racialism, ignorance and fear which is almost beyond the comprehension of the average American." One reporter observed that death squads in Latin America were essentially local franchises of the league, a characterization at though exaggerated is not far off the mark.

... preachers like Billy Graham increasingly drew connections between the crisis at home and the crisis abroad, particularly in the third world. As did secular neoconservative declinists, evangelical theologians such as john Price and Jerry Falwell interpreted defeat in Vietnam as a signal moment of world history in which the United States stood at the precipice of spiritual collapse. They pushed the evangelical movement not only to fight what would become known as the culture wars-the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, gay rights, and so forth-but to get more involved in foreign affairs as well.

From the mid-1970s, Christian organizations would begin to play a more prominent role in international politics, supporting causes associated with America's resurgent nationalist right. Some worked with the American Security Council to oppose disarmament treaties and defend Ian Smith's white government in Rhodesia. Jerry Falwell and other ministers traveled to Taiwan and Israel, developing close ties with Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But it was in Central America, which brought together a hodgepodge of improbable sects such as Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and Pat Robertson's 700 Club, where the New Christian Right would receive its first sustained international apprenticeship.

At the request of the White House, Pat Robertson used his Christian Broadcasting Network to raise money for EfraIn Rios Montt, the evangelical Christian who presided over the Guatemala genocide.

The fact that both the Central American left and their supporters in the United States drew inspiration from Christianity provided an ideological challenge to conservatives. In Central America, the socialism of the revolutionary movements was motivated by liberation theology-a current in Catholicism that challenged Latin American militarism and sought to achieve social justice through a redistribution of wealth-as much as it was by Marxism. Many high-ranking members of the Sandinista party were avowed Catholics and even ordained priests. At home, the solidarity movement that opposed Reagan's foreign policy was largely Christian.

... when Jeane Kirkpatrick remarked that the three U.S. nuns and one lay worker who were raped, mutilated, and murdered by Salvadoran security forces in 1980 were "not just nuns, they were political activists," she was being more than cruel-she was signaling her disapproval of a particular kind of peace Christianity.

The power of liberation theology, along with other variants of peace Christianity, resided not just in its political analysis of global poverty but in its ethical imperative that to be a good Christian one had to do more than dispense charity; one had to transform the structural causes of inequality and violence. In Latin America, nuns, priests, and lay Christians were not only presenting democracy and capitalism as antithetical values but turning to revolution as a way to bring about social justice on earth.

Liberation theology threatened to undermine the New Right's long struggle to affirm unbridled capitalism's inextricable relationship to human freedom." It was not enough, therefore, for mainstream Christian conservatives and fundamentalists simply to discredit liberal religious organizations. They had to go on the offensive and make the case that corporate capitalism "mirrors God's presence" on earth, as Catholic theologian Michael Novak put it.

In other words, well before "political Islam" became the paramount spiritual enemy for the New Right, it singled out Christian humanism for attack.

[Novak] dedicated much of his work to refuting liberation theology's insistence that third-world poverty could be blamed on exploitation by the first world. Instead of examining economic and political relations, he contended that Latin America's failure to modernize must be blamed on indigenous cultural factors dating back to the Spanish Crown's seventeenth-century counterreformation, which placed strictures on capitalist development"

As did their mainstream coreligionists, fundamentalists formulated their free-market moralism as a quarrel with liberation theology-which they described as a "theology of mass murder" and the "the single most critical problem that Christianity has faced in all of its 2000-year history." They of course dismissed Novak's liberalism but like him saw capitalism as an ethical system, one that corresponded to God's gift of free will. Man lives in a "fundamentally scarce world," Christian economist John Cooper argued, not an abundant one only in need of more equitable distribution, as the liberation theologians would have it. The profit motive, rather than being an amoral economic mechanism, is part of a divine plan to discipline fallen man and make him produce. Where Christian humanists contended that people were fundamentally good and that "evil" was a condition of class exploitation, Christian capitalists such as Amway's Richard DeVos, head of the Christian Freedom Foundation, insisted that evil is found in the heart of man. Where liberation theology held that humans could fully realize their potential here on earth, fundamentalist economists argued that attempts to distribute wealth and regulate production were based on an incorrect understanding of society-an understanding that incited disobedience to proper authority and, by focusing on economic inequality, generated guilt, envy, and conflict. God's Kingdom, they insisted, would be established not by a war between the classes but by a struggle between the wicked and the just.

Like Novak, evangelicals sought to rebut liberation theology's critique of the global political economy. Third-world poverty, according to evangelical economist Ronald Nash, has a "cultural, moral, and even religious dimension" that reveals itself in a "lack of respect for any private property," "lack of initiative," and "high leisure preference." Some took this argument to its logical conclusion. Gary North, another influential Christian economist, insisted that the "Third World's problems are religious: moral perversity, a long history of demonism, and outright paganism." "The citizens of the Third World," he wrote, "ought to feel guilt, to fall on their knees and repent from their Godless, rebellious, socialistic ways. They should feel guilty because they are guilty, both individually and corporately."

Evangelical Christianity's elaboration of a theological justification for free-market capitalism, along with its view of an immoral third world, resonated with other ideological currents within the New Right, laying the groundwork for today's embrace of empire as America's national purpose. In a universe of free will where good work is rewarded and bad works are punished, the fact of American prosperity was a self-evident confirmation of God's blessing of U.S. power in the world. Third-world misery, in contrast, was proof of "God's curse." David Chilton, of the Institute for Christian Economics, a think tank affiliated with the Reconstructionist branch of the evangelical movement, wrote that poverty is how "God controls heathen cultures: they must spend so much time surviving that they are unable to exercise ungodly dominion over the earth."

Mainstream theologians like Novak would not use such stark terms, yet the sentiment is not far removed from their logic. "God has made no special covenant with America as such," conceded the Institute on Religion and Democracy's mission statement, written by Richard Neuhaus. Nonetheless, "because America is a large and influential part of his creation, because America is the home of most of the heirs of Israel of old, and because this is a land in which his church is vibrantly free to live and proclaim the gospel to the world, we believe that America has a peculiar place in God's promises and purposes." The IRD therefore anointed America the "primary bearer of the democratic possibility in the world today." Such an opinion nestled comfortably with evangelical notions of America as a "redeemer nation."

The ties between the White House and conservative groups focused on Central America were tight and grew tighter still as a result of their work. Reagan's assistant Faith Ryan Whittlesey presided over a White House Outreach Working Group on Central America, which coordinated the efforts of the NSC and CIA with those of more than fifty private organizations, including Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Pat Robertson's Freedom Council, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, and the Heritage Foundation.

Christian businessmen funded the myriad organizations that worked closely with the NSC and the Office of Public Diplomacy to sway public opinion and congressional votes in favor of Reagan's policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua. They raised money for arms and humanitarian work and joined with Opus Dei and other conservative Catholics to form a broad front to counter peace Christianity.

The White House, through the offices of Oliver North, supervised much of the Christian mobilization. In 1984, the administration made it easier for evangelical groups to synchronize their activities with USAID. It pushed through Congress a law that allowed the Defense Department to use its planes and ships to transport privately raised humanitarian aid and established a "coordinator for humanitarian assistance." These measures effectively reversed a 1976 ban that prohibited the CIA from entering into contractual relations with missionaries. At the same time as the FBI was launching its "plan of attack" against CISPES, the Internal Revenue Service was granting tax-exempt status to Singlaub's Council for World Freedom and other New Right "humanitarian" organizations.

Central American policy, as well as the grassroots mobilization that supported it, became the linchpin that helped hold the Reagan coalition together. Contrary to the antigovernment rhetoric that accompanied Reagan's rise, all components of his political base believed in a strong government. The Christian right, propelled by victory in the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment, wanted to reorient the state away from promoting and protecting individualism and secularism to defend family morality, to overturn Roe v. Wade, and to stop the advance of gay rights. Neocons sold a vision of America as a world enforcer of liberal morals. And economic elites, while committed to free enterprise in the abstract, wanted the government to continue investing in technology and infrastructure, particularly through expanded defense spending, and to impose law and order. They all agreed on the need for a strong foreign policy, either to fight Bolshevism, to encourage open markets, or to protect overseas interests.

This coalition gave Reagan a tripartite mandate to pursue an anti-Communist foreign policy, restore traditional morality, and end the welfare state ...

... New Right activists took seriously the idea of world revolution, a revolution they saw themselves leading both at home and abroad. Throughout 1985 and 1986, conservatives, many of them grouped around the Heritage Foundation, pushed the White House to make good on its promise to support insurgencies from Cambodia to Laos, Libya to Angola, Ethiopia to Mozambique, Cuba to Yemen. When no action was forthcoming, they attacked the State Department and demanded Shultz's resignation.

They also took matters into their own hands. From the network built to support the Nicaraguan Contras, militarists, idealists, and religionists, together with hard-liners in the NSC, CIA, and Office of Public Diplomacy, moved to extend operations across three continents. As they did for Central America, evangelical activists raised money to ship clothes, Bibles, medical supplies, and guns." Beyond supplying aid and weapons, militants began to coordinate a "Democratic International" to fight the "Soviet Empire"-apparently modeled on the storied Third International of Communism's heyday. In June 1985, Contra supporter and head of Citizens for America Lewis Lehrman, heir to the Rite Aid pharmacy fortune, convened a "freedom fighter" summit in rebel-held Angola that brought together anti-Communist rebels from Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, and Laos (the Cambodians were invited but didn't show up) to sign a unity pact. At a mass rally in a soccer stadium, Lehrman (today a member of the Project for the New American Century) presented the rebel delegates with a copy of the Declaration of Independence and read aloud a letter from Reagan, praising the revolutionaries including the mujahedeen-as part of a worldwide revolution whose "goals are [America's] goals."

This transformation of conservative activists into world revolutionaries entailed adopting an ethics of absolutism, sacrificing any qualms they may have had about means at the altar of ends. The violence of counterinsurgent war stoked the fires of evangelical Manichaeanism, leading FaIwell, Robertson, and others to ally with the worst murderers and torturers in Central and Latin America. "For the Christian," wrote Rus 'Wakon, a fundamentalist activist, "there can be no neutrality in this battle: 'He that is not with Me is against Me' (Matthew 12:30)."boo Robertson befriended Guatemala's EfraIn RIos Montt and Salvador's Roberto D'Aubuisson-who was behind the murder of, among untold others, Archbishop Oscar Romero, celebrating both men on his Christian Broadcasting Network. And more than a dozen New Christian Right organizations, including the Moral Majority and the Pro-Life Action Committee, presented D'Aubuisson with a plaque in 1984, honoring his "continuing efforts for freedom."

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