Doing Evil to Do Good in Latin America

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Can one ethically do evil in the service of a greater good? The rough treatment of the State Department envoy for Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, by Representative Ilhan Omar last week raised this classic moral question. In a hearing on U.S. policy toward Venezuela, Omar questioned Abrams’s credibility on grounds that he misled Congress about U.S. policy in Central America during the 1980s. She also accused him of supporting and even celebrating the murderous counterinsurgency carried out in El Salvador during this period.

It is hard to take Omar’s “questioning” of Abrams seriously, given her sometimes tendentious reading of history and the fact that she was clearly performing for an audience rather than sincerely seeking to elicit information. She called Abrams “Mr. Adams” and repeatedly cut him off while he tried to answer her questions. Yet the imbroglio raised some worthwhile issues regarding what happened in Central America during the 1980s and the role of illiberal policies in sustaining the liberal international order.

Contrary to what some critics claimed at the time and after, the problem with U.S. policy in Central America was not that Washington was on the wrong side of the civil wars that convulsed the region. In El Salvador, the Reagan administration sought to midwife an imperfect democracy that was being assailed by Cuban-backed rebels on the left and reactionary elites on the right. In Nicaragua, the administration aimed to overthrow an authoritarian, Marxist-Leninist government that was serving as a bridgehead for Soviet and Cuban influence. The trouble, rather, was that the pursuit of worthy ends led to the use of deeply problematic means.

In El Salvador, staving off a guerilla victory meant supporting a brutal, repressive military that worked closely with right-wing death squads. In Nicaragua, destabilizing the Sandinista regime meant aiding the Contras — anti-communist rebels who sometimes committed atrocities. It also involved exerting severe economic, diplomatic and military pressure on a broken country, and a civilian population, that had never fully recovered from the 1979 revolution.

Because these policies were highly controversial at home, especially with Democrats in Congress, the Reagan administration too often played fast and loose with the truth. Officials downplayed abuses committed by the Salvadoran military, such as when U.S.-trained soldiers massacred hundreds of civilians at El Mozoté in 1981. When Congress cut off funding for the Contras in Nicaragua, U.S. officials illegally sold arms to Iran, diverted the proceeds to the Nicaraguan rebels, and deceived the legislative branch and the American public about it. This led to the Iran-Contra scandal, the country’s most serious political crisis since Watergate.

Abrams, who pled guilty to two misdemeanors, later argued that his subsequent prosecution for misleading Congress as part of Iran-Contra was politically motivated. Even some former opponents of U.S. policy in Central America have conceded that the prosecution was flawed. And on the whole, the administration’s policies got results.

Had Congress terminated U.S. aid to El Salvador in the early 1980s, the guerillas would likely have won and the country would have become another communist dictatorship. Or, perhaps, the extreme right would have cast aside all restraint and perpetrated even greater repression. Instead, the administration (supported, ironically, by the threat that Congress might terminate aid) gradually made progress in reducing human rights abuses, strengthening a moderate civilian government, and creating a democracy that persists to this day. Similarly, had the U.S. not applied such intense pressure in Nicaragua, the left-wing Sandinista government would not ultimately have agreed to hold elections, which it lost.

Yet there were vast amounts of collateral damage inflicted on both El Salvador and Nicaragua — and also on democratic procedures and accountability in the U.S. Put simply, those who support democracy and oppose authoritarianism should probably applaud the outcomes in Central America during the 1980s, but they can be forgiven for being appalled at the methods.

The reason this history matters today is that it bears on broader debates about U.S. conduct in the world. The U.S. foreign policy elite often argues that American power is a force for global good as well as national advantage — that the liberal international order is more just and virtuous than any previous international order. Critics respond that America’s liberal order has often been sustained through profoundly illiberal expedients. Both sides have a point.

The global system America created has resulted in the unprecedented spread of democracy and respect for basic human rights. During World War II, there were perhaps a dozen democracies around the globe; today there are well over 100. U.S. leadership promoted broad prosperity that has lifted countries worldwide. It has restrained the might-makes-right tendencies that characterized earlier eras. Whereas conquest and annexation of small countries used to be a fact of life, only a single country — South Vietnam — has disappeared due to foreign aggression since 1945. What moral progress there has been in global affairs in recent generations is tied closely to the power and policies of the U.S.

Yet that power has sometimes been used in very nasty ways. The U.S. helped overthrow hostile governments — a few of them democratically elected — in Latin America and other third-world regions. It supported bloodthirsty autocrats who victimized their own populations in the name of anti-communism. America inflicted devastating violence on civilian populations during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and U.S. officials have frequently operated outside of international law and international institutions when they deem that the country’s interests so require. The U.S. has pursued the liberal international order as a way of advancing its national interests, so it has often been perfectly willing to get rough with those who stand in the way.

On balance, the moral scorecard remains favorable to America’s global project. The world is a messy place where the alternative to one evil is often another evil. Any country that plays purely by Marquess of Queensbury rules will not achieve much, either morally or geopolitically. And for all its sins, the U.S. has behaved better than its rivals. It is hard to imagine that the world would have been more just and virtuous had the U.S. not worked so hard to contain Soviet influence, or that it would become a better place if China and Russia get the upper hand today.

This is not to argue for moral complacency or to excuse the moral compromises the U.S. has made. A key selling point of America’s international order is that the U.S. holds itself to a higher standard than its rivals, past or present. Moreover, there is no project so pure that it cannot be sullied by perverse methods. America, then, must continually struggle to remain true to the better angels of its nature, even as it understands that global affairs can sometimes be a devil’s game.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."

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