As it has for the past four decades, the American-Soviet relationship will dominate the foreign policy of the next administration. This is as it should be. The Bush Administration takes office at a culminating point in American diplomatic history. If the Soviets are serious in the foreign policy proposals they have put forth during the second Reagan Administration, the next president could well negotiate the terms of the post cold-war era. Unfortunately, there are grave foreign political problems outside the East-West context that could derail the efforts of the new administration to explore the limits of a U.S.-Soviet rapprochement.

Time and again we have seen how an administration can be consumed by issues that have little if any connection with those central concerns of U.S. foreign policy that are embodied in the East-West axis. Two recent examples are the Carter Administration’s Iran hostage crisis and the Reagan Administration’s Iran-contra affair. There are, after all, a number of countries to which we are closely tied by historical experience and interests. At times because of domestic political considerations, at other times for security reasons, Americans cannot remain indifferent to what happens in those places. These countries and their problems are inescapable entanglements. If left unattended, they could engulf an administration.

Some trouble spots do not threaten consequences of this magnitude for U.S. policy. In the cases of South Africa, Haiti and Israel, for example, there are constituencies here at home that require Washington to pay the closest attention to internal political developments there. But while the United States should press for racial equality in South Africa, for democracy in Haiti and for a settlement that will satisfy the requirements both of Palestinian nationalism and of Israeli security, in none of these cases is it likely that American troops will be involved. No convincing case can be made that U.S. security is threatened.

A very different situation exists in South Korea, the Philippines, Panama and Central America. In recognition of the stakes involved, U.S. troops are stationed there—about 40,000 in South Korea, some 18,000 in the Philippines, about 10,000 in Panama, about 1,000 in Honduras and over 100 advisers in El Salvador. These are all inescapable entanglements.


In South Korea, American troops stand on the foreground of the U.S. security perimeter. Thirty-five years after hostilities ceased between North and South, there remains the danger of military action. Yet South Korea has prospered mightily in the 1980s. It is the 17th-largest economy in the noncommunist world. Though the Koreans have operated a fragile economy highly dependent on the successes of a few large conglomerates, the technocrats are beginning to diversify the economic bases of the state. At the same time, prospects for democracy are improving in South Korea. President Roh Tae Woo was elected in a free and open election in December 1987, the first direct presidential election in 16 years. He now insists he will further the democratic process, which in the first instance requires an even freer press and curbs on the vast internal security apparatus. In the aftermath of the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul, the trend toward full democracy has intensified. The role of the United States is to continue to press Roh in the direction of democratic reform, which is a far surer basis for stability than a military-dominated regime.

Already there is a warming trend in relations between the communist North and the capitalist South that may well lead to renewed efforts on the part of both countries to open up a dialogue on ways of reunifying the peninsula. In suggesting talks between the North and South this past summer, Pyongyang no longer insisted on any withdrawal of American forces as a condition for negotiations. North Korea, it appears, is paying the price of its isolation from its economically well-off neighbors, and it is coming under some pressure from its allies, China and the Soviet Union, to reduce tensions in the region. An erratic or intransigent North Korea would be detrimental to this effort. It is now likely that North Korea will pursue two approaches: to reduce military spending, and to seek an influx of advanced technology that might be facilitated by a China-style opening to the West.

For its part, South Korea is facing considerable domestic pressure to expand ties with the North. Students have attempted to march to the border to link up with their North Korean counterparts, an undertaking that was frustrated by massive police action. Nonetheless, President Roh, seemingly eager to ease tensions between North and South, suggested in October that the United Nations "use its good offices as a mediator." Specifically, he called for a six-nation conference, made up of the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Japan, as well as the two Koreas, "to create an international environment more conducive to peace in Korea and reunification of the peninsula."

There is no compelling reason for U.S. troops to be withdrawn at this time, but the eventual aim of the South Korean government should be to defend itself. Roh himself has declared he wants South Korea to be militarily self-sufficient by the mid-1990s. Washington could further this process by letting a Korean rather than an American head the ground force component of the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command, which includes mostly South Korean units. Nevertheless, the United States should not phase out any troops without getting something in return from North Korea. Washington should key any troop withdrawal to progress in North-South relations and to testing North Korea on its offer, made in July 1988, linking force reductions in the North and South to a gradual U.S. withdrawal from the peninsula.

Although South Korea is clearly of signal concern to any U.S. administration as Washington seeks a stable balance of power in Northeast Asia, it is also a promising land that is not likely to embroil the next administration in a foreign policy disaster that could shake its confidence. North Korea, on the other hand, is still the least rational of all potential enemies of the United States. However, the situation there has been stable for more than three decades and the likelihood of hostilities in that region is diminishing.

In the Philippines, Panama and Central America, on the other hand, our armed forces risk being directly engaged in a fluid and unpredictable conflict. Even those who discount any serious threat to American security from those countries must be aware of the domestic uproar that could engulf any administration should U.S. troops take part in military action there.


"While I have never varied in my feeling that we had to hold the Philippines," Theodore Roosevelt said in 1901, "I have varied very much in my feelings whether we were to be considered fortunate or unfortunate in having to hold them." The United States finally concluded that it could not and should not hold the Philippines as a colony forever, and independence was granted to the archipelago after the Second World War.

Even after granting independence, however, the United States has remained intimately involved in the Philippines—an involvement that has time and again proved to be a mixed blessing. Our Pacific naval strategy continues to revolve around our splendid deep-water naval base at Subic Bay and the military airbase at Clark Field. But our lease on those bases ends in 1991, and there is widespread opposition within the Philippines to its renewal. We have also continued to play a central role in Philippine politics—both by our support for the regime of Ferdinand Marcos and by our belated, but now heartfelt, support for his democratically elected successor, Corazon Aquino. Her government, and thus U.S. policy, is now under challenge, both economically and from a persistent communist insurgency.

There are endless arguments from the Filipinos as to why we should leave the bases. At bottom, the argument comes down to one essential refrain: the U.S. bases are an obtrusive manifestation of the Philippine dependence on the United States. Ridding themselves of the bases is seen by the Filipinos as one way—both real and symbolic—of ridding themselves of the plague of dependency.

The bases do provide valuable revenue—the United States has recently agreed to provide an increased level of $481 million a year for 1990 and 1991 in economic, military and development assistance (what the Filipinos like to call "rent"); the American armed forces spend more than $350 million in the Philippines, which includes about $100 million for "rest and recreation" by the 18,000 American personnel and their 19,500 dependents. In one form or another, the bases give work to almost 60,000 Filipinos. The paradox of the bases dilemma was well put by a former minister of agriculture: "I want the bases to go because most Filipinos rely on the Americans for everything."

Those who oppose the bases cite their key role in U.S. defense strategy that thereby makes them a target for nuclear attack. The foreign minister, Raul Manglapus, has notably made this point. The Philippines also has a constitution that calls for "a policy of freedom from nuclear weapons in its territory." Moreover, the bases promote a number of serious social ills, such as prostitution and the spread of the AIDS virus (75 percent of all known cases are found in the cities surrounding Clark Field and Subic Bay). Most important of all, the bases have created an economy that remains crucial to Philippine well-being and in this respect preserves Philippine dependency on the United States.

Are the bases necessary to U.S. naval deployments in the Pacific? Although on balance retaining the bases would best fit U.S. military needs, the bases are not absolutely necessary to U.S. deployments. There are basically three options for the United States: to relocate the facilities to other existing U.S. bases in the Pacific; to relocate to an expanded base structure in Micronesia; or—the least desirable—to find host countries that would permit new bases to be constructed near the South China Sea.

The redeployment of base facilities to Japan (including Okinawa), Guam and Hawaii is really the only choice readily available if a sudden relocation from the Philippines becomes necessary. It would also probably mean overloading the capacity of existing bases; over the longer term, because of reduced times on station, this option would doubtless require new naval forces to defend U.S. interests in guarding the sea and air routes of Southeast Asia. Expanding the base structure in Micronesia would mean that such replacement bases would be smaller and more dispersed. Perhaps the least attractive option would be to find new bases in the South China Sea; Taiwan would seem the obvious choice, but any such arrangement would seriously damage relations with the People’s Republic of China.

The bases dilemma, in short, forces the United States into a Hobson’s choice. The inconvenience, costliness and strategic distortion of relocation have to be weighed against the political costs of prolonging Philippine dependency. Upping the rent would certainly seem a reasonable approach. Trying to duplicate elsewhere the facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Field would cost up to $10 billion.

If the Filipinos really want us out, however, it would not be a strategic Waterloo. The bases, let us recall, were maintained after World War II to contain the Chinese. They are still strategically useful—but not indispensable—for keeping guard over the sea-lanes to Northeast Asia, and for supporting operations in the Indian Ocean. Their most important function in the future, however, would be to provide a considerable U.S. presence in the southern Pacific at a time when negotiations with the Soviet Union may be in the offing to reduce the number of naval battle groups that both superpowers now deploy in the region. Should such negotiations prove successful, then some reduction of forces in the Philippines might logically follow.

Nor are the Asian powers, both large and small, eager for the United States to withdraw to its own shores. The stability of Asia in the 21st century rests on a balance of power among the four great Asian powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Japan. A unilateral withdrawal by the United States would surely endanger that equilibrium. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said only three things could disturb the optimistic course of Asian development: Japanese rearmament, protectionism in the United States or an American withdrawal from the Philippines.

The preferred solution is, as might be expected, not necessarily the ideal one—to continue the current higher level of aid but start planning to relocate. It is vital for the United States to maintain a significant naval presence in the Pacific, but the Philippine bases are not irreplaceable. Moving them to facilities in Guam, Okinawa and Hawaii may be cumbersome but would provide for a continued and significant American naval presence. With the bases out, the Philippines, with U.S. and other foreign assistance, might at last right its economy and strengthen the roots of democratic governance.

The bases dilemma is only the most visible problem facing the United States in its relations with the Philippines. A guerrilla war threatens the stability of the government and also poses a threat to the U.S. military installations that could yet provoke an American military response. The New People’s Army now numbers about 25,000 and while it is not winning the war, it is not losing it either. To equip the Armed Forces of the Philippines, President Aquino proposes to spend ten percent of the budget in 1989, a 43-percent increase over the previous year. Not only does this strengthen the influence and power of the military, but it drains the deeply troubled Philippine economy.

In only three decades, a country that was probably the richest in Asia after Japan has become as poor as Indonesia. Neither democracy nor economic progress is served by the mounting costs of poor planning, a landless peasantry and a rich oligarchy. In a country of some 56 million, roughly 60 percent of the population live below the poverty line, which is officially set at about $120 a month for a family of six. Corruption—so-called crony capitalism—an underdeveloped agricultural sector, a poor export-oriented industrial base and a crushing debt burden, all contribute to the economic disaster that nurtures the insurgency. Total foreign debt approaches $30 billion. Moreover, the Aquino government’s efforts to take on the private sector’s external debt payments while neglecting the country’s overall economic development has meant that in the budget for 1989 no less than 44 percent of spending has been set aside for debt servicing.

While there is talk of a new "Marshall Plan" for the Philippines that could total $5 billion to $10 billion in U.S. aid and contributions by Japan, other Asian nations and Western European countries, economic aid is no solution. There is little assurance that it would not find its way into external bank accounts and simply prove a windfall for the corrupt crony capitalists. Instead, a substantial portion of the external debt must be written off by the lenders; a genuine land reform program must be gotten under way; and the infrastructure of the country must be upgraded. The starting points of internal development must be farming and the expansion of the domestic market. In this regard, as two development economists have pointed out: "Two undertakings are central to increasing buying power in the countryside: redistributing wealth and raising productivity." Rather than emphasizing exports and seeking to compete with the South Koreas and Taiwans in the foreign marketplace, domestic needs should shape trading patterns.

Can the United States cure corruption and make the Philippines safe for democracy? Surely it cannot. But neither can the United States ignore the fate of the islands that we conquered and ruled for half a century. The communist insurgents could easily stage a provocation that would engage U.S. military forces. The negotiations over the bases have to be resolved, in an atmosphere of diplomatic movement by the Soviet Union, which is seeking to repair its ties with mainland China. The Soviet Union has already suggested trade-offs between its bases in Indochina and the U.S. bases in the Philippines. Under these circumstances the mismanagement of our diplomacy in the Philippines could pose an even graver risk for our diplomacy toward the other powers of the region.

The democratically elected president, Corazon Aquino, is under great pressure. There have already been a number of attempted coups against her government. Even her vice-president, Salvador Laurel, publicly stated in August 1988 that she should step down because of the incompetence of her administration. Any return to authoritarianism would surely strengthen the communist insurgency, and the risk of U.S. military involvement would grow. Should this happen, the new Soviet diplomacy in Asia, calling for a reduction of navies in the Pacific Ocean, the reduction of armed forces and conventional arms in Asia and "confidence-building measures" for the security of the Pacific sea-lanes, would likely put the United States on the diplomatic defensive. Washington might well find itself stripped of the agility to explore these Soviet initiatives to the fullest and to set forth its own proposals that could lead to an overall reduction of military and naval forces in the region.

A growing communist insurgency that might lead to direct U.S. military intervention, accompanied by the collapse of Philippine democracy, could produce domestic consequences in the United States that would most certainly distort the foreign policy agenda of the next administration.


The American involvement in Panama parallels our interest in the Philippines. While the United States has never occupied Panama, it certainly created it. Without the U.S. gunship off the Atlantic coast in 1903, Panama would have doubtless remained an appendage of Colombia. But Theodore Roosevelt wanted a canal across the isthmus. When the first canal treaty was signed between Secretary of State John Hay and the French engineer, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, no Panamanian signature was thought necessary. Later, when Roosevelt sought to find a legal defense for his behavior, his attorney general is said to have remarked: "Oh, Mr. President, do not let so great an achievement suffer from any taint of legality."

Under the terms of the treaty, the United States was granted control "in perpetuity" over the canal and the Canal Zone. Under the Panama Canal treaties signed between Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos in 1977, the canal is to come under Panamanian control on December 31, 1999. Yet the United States is permitted to act unilaterally in defense of the canal forever. The United States has the right to station forces and retain bases in Panama until the year 2000. The treaties give Washington no right to interfere in the internal affairs of Panama, and their signing generally defused the anti-Americanism that had been raging during the 1960s over the American presence.

What is generally overlooked in discussing this timetable is the enabling legislation that permits the United States to carry out the provisions of the treaties. At the end of 1989 a Panamanian must be named as chief administrator of the canal. This appointment must be approved by the president of the United States "by and with the advice and consent of the [U.S.] Senate." There is little likelihood that any Panamanian named by the current head of the armed forces, General Manuel Antonio Noriega, will be approved by the next U.S. president or the Senate. Should Noriega’s appointee—or that of his successor—be turned down, the canal treaties themselves will be put in question. Should Congress then seek to revise or abrogate the treaties, our relations with the other countries of Latin America—Mexico, in particular—will sharply deteriorate.

Panama has been a political and diplomatic disaster for the Reagan Administration. In early March 1988 the Administration supported the attempt of President Eric Arturo Delvalle to fire Noriega as head of the Panama Defense Forces (PDF) by allowing Delvalle’s agents to freeze all Panamanian assets in the United States, withholding the $6.5 million the United States pays each month for use of the canal and suspending trade preferences on Panamanian imports. This followed a Miami grand jury’s indictment of Noriega in February 1988 for participating in a criminal enterprise in violation of U.S. drug and racketeering laws.

It was a point of no return. Later efforts by two senior State Department officials who went to Panama in mid-March to arrange for Noriega’s exit were rebuffed. By applying only incremental economic pressure, the U.S. Administration helped make it possible for Noriega to survive. As Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, put it, "Our experience with Marcos and Duvalier had led us to believe [U.S. economic pressure] would work." Neither Marcos nor Duvalier, however, was a military dictator.

Noriega, in the meantime, blocked a military coup on March 16 and later replaced a number of officers whom he believed might be disloyal. He also appointed about 20 younger officers as a "strategic military council" that he doubtless hopes will serve as a further safeguard against any attempts—either from within the military or stimulated by the United States—to overthrow him. Out of fear for what might befall it, the council may also try to prevent Noriega from accepting a deal with Washington that would let him leave Panama in exchange for having the indictments dropped. In this sense Noriega may have become a hostage to the very mechanism he created to protect him. In May, for example, the State Department sent Michael Kozak to try to arrange for the general’s departure; the proposal was that if Noriega were to leave Panama in August 1988, he could return after the country’s 1989 presidential elections. In addition, Washington offered $90 million in aid and said it would drop all drug charges. Noriega may well have been tempted to accept Washington’s virtual surrender, but the strategic military council would have none of it.

By autumn the Reagan Administration had no declared policy other than to continue the economic squeeze, even though this meant continued hardship for the Panamanian people, whose unemployment was running to about 20 percent. Even before the U.S. economic restrictions, Panama was suffering under the burden of the highest per capita external debt in the western hemisphere. Yet the size of the public sector has remained about the same, and the Panamanian armed forces are still being paid. Reports surfaced in mid-July that the U.S. Administration was prepared to use covert action and still hoped for an internal military coup against the general. Such a coup might have an even greater chance of success after the strategic military council has consolidated its forces and no longer fears Noriega’s departure.

Should Noriega hang on into next year and place his own man in the presidency in the May 1989 elections, then the whole drug-running, money-laundering operation will remain in place. There is also likely to be a growing Cuban presence in Panama. Havana has already stored arms throughout the countryside, and Fidel Castro has been steadfast in his support for Noriega. With the pending withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, Castro may very well be seeking new foreign policy triumphs.

What is the next administration to do? Aside from hoping that something will turn up, the new president would be well advised to seek multilateral support in getting rid of the general. The most obvious candidate to head this effort is Venezuela. Former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez claims he had an agreement pending with the general last February that would have guaranteed free elections in Panama and had Noriega go into exile in Spain. Negotiations broke down when the United States applied economic pressure unilaterally.

Another option is for Washington to apply a full economic embargo—which would include a ban on all exports and imports, a revocation of Panamanian landing rights in this country and a full ban on Americans traveling to Panama.

Neither of these approaches may work, and there is a continuing risk that anti-Noriega Panamanians may carry out guerrilla strikes against the Panama Canal in order to force American military intervention. Alternatively, Noriega himself may step up his harassment of U.S. armed forces stationed in Panama, move to prevent ships from entering the waterway or otherwise violate the integrity of the canal. Should the general take any of these courses, the likelihood of U.S. military intervention is high.

The last thing the Defense Department wants is to have to take direct military action against Noriega—for example, an attack on the PDF’s headquarters in downtown Panama City. General Paul Gorman, the former chief of the Southern Command, has urged the United States to move the 10,000 troops of the command back to the continental United States precisely because of the vulnerability of Southcom to a cutoff of water, sewage and electricity. It would seem weak of the United States to do so as long as Noriega is in power, but if a democratic government were to be elected, General Gorman’s recommendations should be followed well ahead of the year 2000, the deadline set for removal of the Southern Command. Forces needed for the region could easily be deployed from a far more secure setting in Florida or Texas.

Even if Noriega were to leave, the Panama Defense Forces must be reformed. Only under these conditions could the transfer of the canal to the Panamanians and the withdrawal of the U.S. armed forces proceed peacefully. There is no way for the Bush Administration to put aside the issue of democracy in Panama. What is at stake is the inviolability of the canal which, even in an age of supertankers, remains a vital international waterway, with tolls and revenues reaching $330 million (in the fiscal year ending September 1987). The gradual transfer of the operations of the canal to Panamanians will only be accomplished if the chief administrator and the canal board members are individuals of integrity who can be approved by the White House and U.S. Senate.

If Noriega’s henchmen remain in control of Panama, then the provisions of the treaty are not likely to be carried out. This could mean using U.S. military forces to keep the canal under American protection in a Panama closely aligned with Cuba and Nicaragua. With the treaties imperiled and U.S. armed forces engaged, U.S. policy toward the rest of Latin America will be crippled in the wake of both a regional and a domestic fracas. Under these conditions, the United States would jeopardize a great deal more than Panama.


For the past ten years events in Central America have bedeviled and obsessed the Carter and Reagan Administrations. First came the success of the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979 that brought the Sandinistas to power, and soon thereafter a conflict in El Salvador between the Marxist guerrillas and a military-dominated government erupted into what has become an endless war. Despite the Reagan Administration’s funding of the anti-Sandinista rebels or contras, despite the $2.7 billion in military and economic aid poured into El Salvador, the Administration has succeeded neither in ridding Nicaragua of the Sandinistas nor in decisively denying territory to the Salvadoran guerrillas. Yet the legacy in El Salvador is graver than the uncertain political situation that prevails in Nicaragua.

Since August 5, 1987, the peace plan drafted by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez has provided a mechanism for negotiation among the three forces contending for power in Nicaragua—the contras, the internal opposition political parties and the ruling Sandinistas. Signed by the five presidents of the Central American nations, the Arias plan dealt with the need for democratic reform in the region rather than with external security. Although the plan was supposed to apply to all countries of the region, it was designed primarily to promote a settlement in Nicaragua. It did also lead, however, to resumed contacts between the Salvadoran government and the guerrillas, and to the decision of the political leaders of the rebel front to return to El Salvador.

In the 15 months following the signing of the Arias plan, there has been a cease-fire and a number of meetings between the contra leaders and the Sandinistas. Press censorship has been lifted (it was slapped on again for 15 days in July), and Radio Católica was also allowed to rebroadcast—though it too was shut down again in July, then allowed to reopen at the end of August. Since then, Radio Católica has discontinued the news segment of its programming. Opposition groups have held frequent rallies to denounce the Sandinista regime, whose economic policies, coupled with the U.S. economic embargo, have led the country to the brink of bankruptcy and made it deeply dependent on the Soviet bloc for economic and military aid. At times the authorities have allowed these gatherings to take place without interference; at other times, such as last July at Nandaime, the internal security forces have responded by using tear gas and truncheons to break up a rally, and by arresting some of the demonstrators.

By the fall of 1988 negotiations with the contras had broken down. Nonetheless, the fragile cease-fire prevailed. The contra leadership split and was reconstituted after Enrique Bermúdez, the rebels’ military commander, was elected to the contra directorate. Yet it is likely that negotiations will resume: the Sandinistas are not indifferent to pressure from within the country, especially from the Roman Catholic Church, whose archbishop had mediated between the rebels and the regime at the Sandinistas’ request, as well as from Costa Rica and Guatemala, whose leaders appear most eager to advance the peace process.

With their state security apparatus in place, the Sandinistas will almost certainly do what they can to consolidate the state along Leninist lines. Unless they openly repudiate the Arias accords, which is unlikely, the Sandinistas will have to accept a far greater degree of political pluralism than they may have ever intended. Under these circumstances the outlook for Nicaragua is a long-term struggle for power, continued internal tensions, and a sad and impoverished country.

For the United States, the most sensible course at this juncture would be to support without equivocation the Arias accords, which, however, means accepting the very high likelihood that the Sandinistas will remain in power. The next administration should also sit down with the Nicaraguan government to open negotiations on America’s legitimate security concerns. These would include agreements that would specify armed force levels, provide for the withdrawal of foreign military advisers and forbid the installation of foreign bases. A security agreement between Washington and Managua forbidding the import of advanced Soviet weaponry would at the very least establish the principle of accountability. Were the Sandinistas then to violate the agreement, there is every reason to believe that any U.S. administration could count on bipartisan support in Congress to use military force to compel the Sandinistas to remove the weapons. If these conditions were fulfilled, Washington might consider lifting its economic embargo. Doubtless Washington would also make clear to Moscow that any Soviet base, advanced weaponry or high-performance aircraft in Nicaragua would be intolerable. But Russia is hardly likely to challenge the United States so directly in America’s sphere of influence, especially at a time when Gorbachev is seeking a variety of arms and economic agreements with the West.

Negotiating successfully with Nicaragua is now possible because there is a stable, if hostile, government in place, a waning insurgency that has no chance of victory and the guidelines of a peace plan that other Latin American nations support. The result could be some protection for the Nicaraguan opposition, a diminished Soviet presence and the beginning of the demilitarization of the region. The test of U.S. statesmanship will be its willingness to accept a messy solution to an intractable problem.

El Salvador represents a far greater challenge to the next administration. Here there is no stable government, a Marxistled insurgency is alive and well, the prospects for political change are unpromising, and the United States has committed itself to military victory. When the Reagan Administration took office, however, things seemed even darker. The government had no legitimacy, the Salvadoran army was behind the death squads that terrorized the civilian population, and the guerrillas looked like winners. That much has changed.

Today, the government of Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte, albeit discredited and corrupt, is nonetheless freely elected. The elections, however, did not include the participation of the leftist forces supporting the rebels. Political killings still take place, but on a greatly reduced level, though over the past year the level of political violence has started to rise again. The Salvadoran army has been buttressed by enormous injections of American aid, and it cannot lose the war so long as that aid continues. But while the rebels cannot win, I was told by high U.S. military officers that they hold about one-third of the country, just as they did five years ago.

From the outset the Reagan Administration was convinced that the best way to prosecute the war was to "professionalize" the Salvadoran military. The 1980 Woerner Report laid down the basic lines for U.S. military assistance: it was not to become a war fought by American soldiers, but Washington would re-equip, expand and retrain the Salvadoran army. The Administration accepted a 55-man limit on U.S. military advisers, though by 1987 more than 100 advisers were in place. In 1983 a National Campaign Plan was devised by the U.S. military and accepted by the Salvadoran military. This plan was to involve the Salvadoran armed forces in winning the hearts and minds of the people aiding the guerrillas. It meant involving the army in civil action. It did not work.

In a devastating critique of the war, four field-grade U.S. officers have pointed out that after billions of dollars of U.S. economic and military aid, after years of training Salvadoran officers in U.S. camps, El Salvador’s dependence on the United States is "near total." Over 50 percent of the Salvadoran government’s budget now comes from the United States. The authors of this study said that those they interviewed "were unanimous in asserting that terminating American support for El Salvador with guerrillas still in the field will result in [the Salvadoran armed forces’] defeat and the collapse of [the government]."

The reasons for this state of affairs are many and varied, but, at bottom, they come down to three points: the use of the Salvadoran military as an engine of political reform, the use of conventional tactics in a guerrilla war, and the corruption of the Duarte government. Since at least the mid-1960s it has been characteristic of American policy in Latin America to use the military to bring about reform. This was tried in Panama when the Panamanian military under Torrijos was encouraged to engage in civic action projects, such as building schools and hospitals, with apparently little thought given to the corruption that these projects would inevitably produce.

In El Salvador, the Americans saw the armed forces as the "closest thing to an effective national institution." Security assistance was, moreover, controlled by the Salvadoran army, not the U.S. advisers, once Congress appropriated the money; it has been spent on high technology and heavy weaponry that are ill suited for a counterinsurgency operation. More and more was spent on helicopters, which meant keeping the men in the air above the people rather than on the ground where they might seize and hold territory.

As for the American effort to change the nature of the Salvadoran armed forces, that, too, was doomed. "Their vision stops where it begins to change their lifestyle," remarked one American officer. The U.S. task was to persuade those officers to respect civilian authority and human rights. In fact, American pressure in the area of human rights did prove effective, because it was linked to the dollars the Congress was providing for the war. Under pressure from the Reagan Administration, political murders on both sides dropped to 23 a month by 1987, after averaging 610 a month in 1980. The quality of military leadership was another matter. In the Salvadoran armed forces, whole classes from the military academy are promoted, irrespective of individual talent and initiative. The army fights a conventional war with heavy equipment at a time when the rebels have changed their tactics to emphasize smaller units and hit-and-run attacks. Salvadoran small-unit tactics have been described by some Americans as "search and avoid patrols."

The military situation has shown little improvement since the early 1980s. The political scene is equally dismal. With the ruling Christian Democrats in disarray, the presidential elections next year are likely to produce a victory by the rightist ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance). Rightist groups were often behind the death squads. Although the new leaders claim to be committed to the democratic process, the prospect of an ARENA-led government does not offer much hope for judicial reform, for economic redistribution such as land reform or for any lesser dependence on U.S. economic aid to keep the country afloat.

What would happen if the United States were to walk away? The likely consequences are either a victory by the Marxist guerrillas or a genocidal war waged by the army, as the Guatemalan army conducted in the early 1980s and as the Salvadoran army itself did in 1932. Yet a policy of protracted war is no policy at all. Significant guerrilla gains or a return to wholesale abuses of civil rights would almost certainly cause a furor in the United States. At this stage of the war then, the best approach for the United States is to work for the demilitarization of El Salvador—and indeed of all Central America—which in this case means pressing for further negotiations between the rebel forces and the government.

The war in El Salvador is not likely to lead to direct U.S. military intervention. To avoid this, Congress will be far more disposed to continue supplying military aid than to risk the lives of American soldiers. But Congress will also demand a government that does not flagrantly abuse human rights. Perhaps the only real leverage we possess is for Congress to withhold a certain percentage of military aid and cash transfers each year until the administration reports to Congress on U.S. and Salvadoran efforts to settle the war. Aid to police forces could be linked to judicial reform and economic aid allocated for basic needs, reversing Reagan Administration priorities that provided three times as much funding for waging war as for development and meaningful reforms.

Under these conditions, what incentives are there for the guerrillas to negotiate? In the upcoming elections the political arm of the guerrilla front will be allowed, and is planning, to participate. Although the guerrillas remain militarily strong, they are also politically weak, unable to lead a broad-based insurrection. The alternative to negotiations—for the guerrillas as for the United States—is a war without any end in sight.


South Korea, the Philippines, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador—these are all countries that are seen by others and by themselves, for good or for ill, as falling within an American sphere of influence. No administration at this moment in history, burdened with the legacy of the outgoing Administration, can long postpone the reckoning ahead. If these involvements are properly handled, the White House will be free to pursue overarching foreign policy goals with the Soviet Union and the other great powers. If they are bungled, the Bush Administration could emerge from its entanglements both dishonored and gravely weakened. And the American electorate will exact its penalty.

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  • James Chace is the Director of the Program on International Affairs and the Media at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and the co-author most recently of America Invulnerable. He is currently writing a study of U.S. policy toward Asia and a biography of Dean Acheson. Kate Doyle assisted in the research for this article.
  • More By James Chace