The Report of the President's National Bipartisan Commission on Central America

In This Review

The Report of the President's National Bipartisan Commission on Central America

By Foreword by: Henry A. Kissinger
Macmillan, 1984
158 pp. $7.95
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This is a singularly ambitious undertaking by a dozen thoughtful men. Under the guidance of chairman Henry Kissinger, the report attempts to create a bipartisan consensus for what is basically current Administration policy toward Central America-only more so. Its strongest recommendations center on scale: more economic aid, more military aid, bigger programs to confront the fact of a Marxist regime in Nicaragua and the threat of one in El Salvador. "There might be an argument for doing nothing to help the government of El Salvador. There might be an argument for doing a great deal more," contends the report. "There is, however, no logical argument for giving some aid but not enough."

Innovations come in the details. After an exceptionally full and thoughtful discussion of Central America's economic problems, the report's comprehensive and large-scale development proposal calls for the creation of several regional organizations to facilitate much-needed economic integration. It is not above lifting a page from Fidel Castro's programs by advocating the creation of a literacy corps to do what Cuban teachers have long done in developing nations.

But the report never successfully resolves the tension between U.S. security interests in the area and the admitted need for radical change in many Central American societies. It affirms that the United States is not threatened by "indigenous revolution" but that it "must be concerned by the intrusion into Central America of aggressive external powers." As policy is currently conceived, in order to fight that intrusion the United States must depend on precisely those forces that have always stood in the way of significant indigenous revolution, thus eventually forcing the advocates of radical change to rely for support on Cuban or Soviet backing. The debate within the commission came to a head over the question of "conditionality," the legislated linkage between improvements in the Salvadoran government's execrable human rights record and continued or increased U.S. assistance there. The commission as a whole recommended such a link. But Kissinger and two other members averred in a footnote that while the objectives of "conditionality" are laudable, neither the Congress nor the executive branch should interpret this "in a manner that leads to a Marxist-Leninist victory in El Salvador." Since the armed forces there are almost entirely dependent on U.S. support for their survival against a burgeoning army of communist-led guerrillas, such a judgment would preclude any effective linkage at all.

In the introduction to their report, the commission members described themselves as "well-informed laymen" who took a six-month "odyssey" into the "terra incognita" of Central America's political, economic and social problems. What they discovered, perhaps inevitably, is that these problems are a Gordian knot for any policymaker. The report pulls at a few loose ends, but fails to unravel it.