Latin America to Iraq:
Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop

— Samuel Farber

Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States and the Rise of the New Imperialism
by Greg Grandin
New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2006, 320 pages, $25

THE DECADE OF the ’70s was not good for U.S. imperialism. The American defeat in Southeast Asia led to the development of the “Vietnam syndrome” and with it the reluctance to use U.S. troops in wars abroad.

Congress also made some concessions to the new antiwar mood in the country by approving a series of measures restricting the power of the President to send troops abroad, monitoring the CIA and forbidding domestic covert operations, prohibiting the peacetime assassination of foreign leaders, and restricting military aid to dictatorships such as those in Turkey, South Korea, Chile, and Indonesia, and to anti-Communist rebels in Angola.

The collapse of Portuguese colonialism in the mid-’70s weakened U.S. imperialism in Southern Africa. There were further setbacks at the end of the decade with revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Domestically, the end of the postwar boom in the early ’70s created new problems for the government and corporate America. It was no longer possible to pursue the “guns and butter” policies that Lyndon Johnson had put into effect at the height of the Vietnam War in the middle and late ’60s.

The success of the American right wing in reversing this state of affairs by carrying out a dramatic change in U.S. policy towards a much more aggressive imperialism abroad, and domestic reaction at home, is the subject of an excellent and richly detailed book by Greg Grandin, a historian of Latin America at New York University.

Gradin’s main point is to show how foreign policy functioned as a unifying agent for the U.S. right wing, and how U.S. policy in Central America became the crucible where the North American conservatives began to implement their new hard line. For Grandin, at the heart of U.S policy in Central America lies the paradox that it was the very unimportance of the region — geopolitically marginal and with few resources and consequential allies — that allowed the Reagan administration to match its actions with its radical right rhetoric.

“Central America’s very insignificance,” writes Grandin, “in fact, made it the perfect antidote to Vietnam.” In this context, Grandin cites Secretary of State Alexander Haig assuring Reagan that “this is one you can win.” (72)

From El Salvador to 9/11

Grandin draws some suggestive similarities between U.S. policies in the Central America of the eighties and post-9/11 foreign policies. The American management of what was called “low intensity conflict” in El Salvador was closely related to the U.S. “going primitive” with the outsourcing of the most vicious kind of violence to local groups trained by the American military. This, Grandin writes, included the application of practices recommended in torture manuals distributed by the United States to Central and South American security forces in the 1970s and 1980s.

The balance sheet of this new line included hundreds of thousands of Central Americans killed, tortured and driven into exile. Massacres such as the one that occurred at El Mozote in El Salvador bore witness to the enormity of the atrocities that were carried out to enforce the will of the U.S. Grandin cites American journalist Robert Kaplan claiming that “fifty-five Special Forces trainers in El Salvador accomplished more than did 550,000 soldiers in Vietnam.” (224)

This kind of repressive outsourcing is carried out today by Afghani warlords and Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite militias working on behalf of U.S. interests in their respective regions. Obviously, the U.S. government would rather resort to the use of proxies provided that it could prevail under those conditions.

One of Grandin’s greatest contributions is to establish a number of concrete links between contemporary U.S. foreign and domestic policies, and between the turn to the right of the U.S. foreign policy of the eighties and the invasion of Iraq and its other foreign adventures since September 11, 2001.

Along these lines, Grandin details how a newly aggressive imperialist policy abroad was accompanied by aggressive measures at home — with, for example, the executive branch of the U.S. government engaging in military actions in Central America while bypassing congressional oversight and sometimes even violating the expressed will of Congress.

There was also repression at home as in the case of the FBI campaign of harassment against CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador) in the 1980s.

Create the News

Grandin shows that the American executive was also determined to manage and, if necessary, create the news. For this purpose, Reagan created the Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean under the direction of right-wing Cuban émigré Otto Reich in 1983.

The job of this office was to create propaganda at home for the conservative foreign policy agenda, coordinating the work of the National Security Council with PR firms, psychological warfare specialists, and New Right activists, intellectuals and pressure groups (124).

But it is important to indicate that the job of Reich and his agency was not simply, in “positive” terms, to develop a body of public opinion sympathetic to its agenda, but in negative terms was also aimed at preventing the development of oppositional currents. This included the intimidation of journalists and politicians to prevent them from publicly disagreeing with administration policy.

Two decades later, the preparations for the invasion of Iraq after September 11 entailed the tactic of controlling and centralizing the government’s political message.

In this instance, conservative PR firms virtually created the Iraqi National Congress (headed by the now-infamous Ahmed Chalabi — ed.), coached Iraqi dissidents how to sound good on television, and coordinated the message of right-wing think tanks with that of the White House. All of this was carried out in such a tight and centralized manner that not even Dick Cheney would have been allowed to “freelance” on Iraq.

Some of the new government measures were clearly a reaction to the war in Vietnam, when U.S. and other foreign reporters had relatively free access to find and publicize the bad news that the LBJ and Nixon administrations so greatly detested.

Grandin points out that during the Salvadorean insurgency, the U.S. military began to develop the tactic of granting privileged access to certain reporters — the tactic later much extended and perfected by actually incorporating or “embedding” reporters into military units in the war in Iraq (where the press has not been allowed to photograph the dead bodies of American service people being returned home.)

What’s New?

Some people will argue that the viciousness of the policies and tactics of the New Imperialism are completely unprecedented, and on that basis construct at least part of the justification for the present day electoral politics of Anybody But Bush. Yet if we review the tactics outlined by Grandin that began to be implemented in the eighties, we will find that many of them had roots that had long preceded that decade.

Thus, for example, the FBI campaign against CISPES hardly constituted an innovation in the annals of twentieth century political repression in the United States. In terms of the policy of controlling and centralizing the government’s political message, we can find a similar approach in the Kennedy White House’s efforts at secretly creating and managing a right-wing Cuban invasion force and government in exile while, at the same time, disciplining Congress, intellectuals and the press to prevent them from criticizing its aggressive imperialist policy towards the island republic.

Similarly, the practice of the executive branch of the U.S. government to engage in military actions in Central America while bypassing congressional oversight — and sometimes even violating the expressed will of Congress — might be new, but it is nevertheless an expression of a long-standing tendency of the U.S. executive power to exert itself at the expense of Congress (when was the last time that Congress formally declared war on another country?)

In broader terms, it is the general tendency and dynamic of empires to undermine democracy in the metropolis (well described in the recent work of Chalmers Johnson among others) that best explains this phenomenon. This is a much better explanation than the view commonly expressed in the liberal press that interprets these trends as the work of evil (if not fascist) Republicans who are described as qualitatively different from the moderate and benign Democrats.

Politicizing Piety

Grandin points out that the display of U.S. hard power in the Central America of the eighties also allowed for another innovation: the active entry of North American evangelicals into the field of foreign policy. The beginning of this trend can be traced back to the 1960s with the activities of Billy Graham in the Third World.

At about the same time, the evangelical movement became politicized in order to fight the “culture wars” against the domestic legacy of the ’60s — the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion and gay rights. Starting in the mid-’70s, however, conservative evangelicals expanded their political activity and became involved in opposing disarmament, defending the white government in Rhodesia, and establishing close ties with the governments of Taiwan and the then recently elected right-wing Begin government in Israel.

Grandin shows in some detail how this evangelical activity reached a new high point in support of right-wing forces in Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, thus becoming a significant political player in U.S. foreign policy in the area. (143–45)

Old Criminals, Same Crimes

As Grandin shows, given the continuity of political strategy and ideology between then and now, it is therefore hardly surprising that we also find a continuity of personnel between the two epochs. This link goes as far back as the Gerald Ford administration (1974–1976) when Dick Cheney was Ford’s chief of staff and Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense. Reagan’s election in 1980 brought in Paul Wolfowitz as head of the State Department’s policy planning staff who in turn replaced almost all of the staff’s 25 members with neoconservative stalwarts such as Francis Fukuyama, Alan Keyes and Lewis “Scooter” Libby.

A number of military officers who had served in Vietnam such as Oliver North, Richard Secord, John Singlaub and Richard Armitage (who played a role in the CIA’s infamous Phoenix program in Vietnam, accused of the execution of tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians) joined and supported the civilian imperialists.

Grandin singles out for special attention those worthies in the imperialist rogue gallery that achieved their earliest notoriety in connection with U.S. policy in Central America. These include Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte, Otto Reich, Robert Kagan, John Poindexter and John Bolton.

U.S. policies since the eighties devastated Central America and did great damage to Latin America as a whole. In this context, Grandin’s excellent chapter on the economics of the New Imperialism in Latin America deserves special attention. Central to this New Imperialist economics was the imposition of the neoliberal Washington consensus over a continent that as an immediate result experienced what has been called the lost decade of the ’80s.

Grandin’s contrast between what went on before and after the neoliberal offensive is truly dramatic. Taking Latin America as a whole, between 1947 and 1973 — the high point of government sponsored developmental strategies — per capita income rose 73% in real wages. Between 1980 and 1998 — the high point of neoliberalism — median per capita income stagnated at zero percent. By the end of the 1960s, 11% of Latin Ameicans were destitute, but by 1996 this proportion had grown to a full third of the population. As of 2005, 221 million lived below the poverty level, an increase of over 20 million in just a decade. (198)

As we know, the greatest resistance to the neoliberal offensive has taken place in Latin America, as witnessed in the critical role that the opposition to the privatization of water played in the ongoing upsurge in Bolivia. Whether in Bolivia, Venezuela or elsewhere in Latin America, the story of resistance to neoliberalism and capitalism is far from over.

The Meaning of Imperialism

Though Grandin is not fully explicit, he tends to refer to U.S. imperialism as the hard-line, military interventionist policy that has characterized administrations such as those of Johnson, Reagan and the younger Bush. Measured by this standard, the non-interventionism of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy virtually escapes the imperialist categorization. Indeed, Grandin sees Roosevelt’s policy, “despite its many lapses in practice” as containing “not only tolerance but pragmatic pluralism.” (38)

It is true that on the whole the FDR administration stayed away from using the Marines in Latin America. However, that does not mean that U.S. imperialism ceased to operate in the continent.

The case of Cuba is instructive in this regard. In 1934, in exchange for the abolition of the Platt Amendment that legally authorized direct U.S. intervention in the island, the Roosevelt administration imposed a very unfavorable Reciprocity Treaty that prevented Cuba from restricting U.S. industrial imports, thereby condemning the country to sugar monoculture.

In addition, Cuba was forced to allow the United States to retain the Guantanamo Naval Base in perpetuity, and to endure indirect political intervention from the United States. The FDR administration also became a mainstay of support for the rule of Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Somoza in Nicaragua, and the ruling princes in Saudi Arabia. These and the cynical imperialist wheeling and dealing at the 1945 Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt joined Stalin and Churchill to divide up the world, are specific expressions of the imperialist character of FDR’s administration.

At the root of Grandin’s approaches to imperialism in this book is the view of imperialism as a set of hard-line policies. I believe that it is more useful to view imperialism as a structural relationship based on economic and political factors that under varying times and circumstances may be implemented by “harder” or “softer” policies. Nevertheless, it is not at all difficult to identify a continuity in the kind of interests that both kinds of policies are intended to protect. [See Sam Farber’s The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidereded.]

Uses of Ideology

At times, Grandin seems to accept at face value the “idealistic” pretensions of U.S. foreign policy (such as the claim to export democracy abroad) even though he unambiguously rejects, in a principled manner, the imperialist consequences of such “idealism.”

Thus, for example, Grandin seems unable to explain how the reactionary adventures and atrocities of the Nicaraguan Contras were “championed for such a sustained period of time in such idealistic terms” (117) by President Reagan and his supporters.

One could easily argue that rulers often cynically revert to the use of “democratic” slogans (even those who are usually characterized as idealistic “Wilsonians”). But suppose that the rulers are sincere. In response to such a possibility, liberals will typically argue that good intentions may often lead to disastrous results. But then the problem is explained away in terms of human fallibility and weakness while the social and institutional mechanisms by which apparently good intentions (at least rhetorically) are transformed into evil consequences is sidelined.

I think that the concept of “ideology” found in the classical Marxist tradition offers a more useful approach to this issue. For classical Marxism, the purpose of a ruling ideology is to justify and rationalize the set of controlling interests that are inevitably involved in a class stratified social order. This ruling ideology is not necessarily based on conscious lies, but rather on a view of reality systematically distorted by the need to defend the ruling group’s interests.

For a ruling ideology to be effective it must meet certain requirements such as being dynamic so it can continually answer, as effectively and persuasively as possible, the arguments made by the rulers’ critics and opponents.

Most of all, those benefiting from the ruling ideology must sincerely believe in it. But sincerely believing in a ruling ideology does not prevent it from being selective, flexible and adaptable, thus allowing the rulers to bend and transform it in order to sincerely justify every and all atrocities that they may feel necessary to carry out in defense of their ruling class interests.

ATC 125, November–December 2006