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1989 and Beyond

The month of November 2009 was marked by the joyous twentieth-anniversary celebration of what British historian Timothy Garton Ash calls “the biggest year in world history since 1945.” That remarkable year “changed everything,” thanks primarily to Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms within Russia and his “breathtaking renunciation of the use of force…a luminous example of the importance of the individual in history,” leading to the partially open Russian elections of March 1989 and culminating in the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, which opened the way to liberation of Eastern Europe from Russian tyranny. The general mood was captured well by barrister Matthew Ryder, speaking for the “niners,” the generation that is now providing global leadership, with Barack Obama in the lead, their conception of history having been “shaped by a world changed without guns” in 1989, events that gave them confidence in the power of dedication to nonviolence and justice.1

The accolades for November 9 are deserved, and the events are indeed memorable. And the picture is compelling, as long as we keep rigorously to a dominant principle of imperial culture: focus laser-like on the crimes of enemies, and on our high-minded and courageous condemnation of their crimes. But crucially, make sure never to look at ourselves. The principles apply in the familiar way to the events of November 1989, and the memories that remain twenty years later. Some alternative perspectives may be instructive.

One was provided, unintentionally, by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who called on all of us to “use this invaluable gift of freedom…to overcome the walls of our time.”2 Excellent advice, and we can easily follow it. One good start would be to dismantle the massive wall, dwarfing the Berlin wall in scale and length, which is snaking its way through Palestinian territory in gross violation of international law. Like virtually every state action, the “annexation wall,” as it should be termed, is justified in terms of security. But as is commonly the case, the claim lacks any credibility. If security were the concern, it would be built along the border, and could be made impregnable. The purpose of this illegal monstrosity, constructed with decisive U.S. support and European complicity, is to allow Israel to take over valuable Palestinian land and the main water resources of the region, one part of a much broader annexation project, recognized from the start to be in direct violation of international law, an understanding since confirmed by the World Court.

The anniversary celebrations of the fall of the wall had barely subsided when it was announced that the second leading recipient of U.S. aid, the Egyptian dictatorship, had begun constructing a huge steel wall along its border with the Gaza Strip, six to seven miles long and eighteen meters deep, designed by American army engineers to be “impenetrable.”3 That completes the imprisonment of Gaza from land and sea, and cuts off the last lifeline to escape Israeli strangulation.

Those who wish to follow Merkel’s good advice need not limit their efforts to the two leading recipients of U.S. aid: they can turn to the United States itself, and the huge construction along the Mexican border to bar the flight of desperate people from the south, many of them victims of U.S. terror in Central America and of NAFTA.

Another perspective on the 2009 celebrations is provided by the work of the leading scholar/advocate of “democracy promotion,” neo-Reaganite Thomas Carothers, reviewed earlier. He ruefully concludes that all U.S. leaders have been “schizophrenic,” supporting democracy if and only if it conforms to strategic and economic objectives: hence in Soviet satellites but not U.S. client states.4

These judgments were once again confirmed by the events that reached their culmination in November 1989, and again on the twentieth anniversary. The fall of the Berlin wall was rightly celebrated in November 2009, but there was virtually no notice of what had happened one week later in El Salvador, on November 16, 1989: the brutal assassination of six prominent Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper Julia Elba and her daughter Celina, by the elite Atlacatl battalion, armed and trained by Washington. The battalion had just returned from a several-month refresher course at the JFK Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, and a few days before the murders underwent a further training exercise run by U.S. Special Forces flown to El Salvador. Heralded as “El Salvador’s best,” the cream of Washington’s terrorist army in El Salvador, the battalion had already left a bloody trail of the usual victims during the horrendous decade of the 1980s, which opened with the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the “voice for the voiceless,” by much the same hands. The story was similar throughout Central America, leaving hundreds of thousands of corpses and general misery during a reign of torture, murder, and destruction led by the Reagan administration under the guise of a war on terror.5

It was surmised at the time that the murder of the Jesuits was probably planned by the high command of the Salvadoran army. That was confirmed in November 2009 by publication in the Spanish press of a copy of the document ordering the murders and those of any witnesses, signed by the chief of staff and his associates, all of them so closely connected to the Pentagon and the embassy that it is hard to imagine that Washington was unaware.6 The revealing discoveries appear to have passed unreported in the United States.

One can easily understand why the consciousness of the “niners” was shaped by dedication to nonviolence and the power of idealism. That’s fair enough, if attention is rigorously guided by the culture of imperialism: focused on their crimes, with ours far removed from sight or memory.

The contrast through the 1980s between the liberation of Soviet satellites and the violent crushing of hope in U.S. domains is striking and instructive, and becomes even more so when we broaden the perspective. The assassination of the Jesuit intellectuals was a crushing blow to liberation theology, the remarkable revival of Christianity that had its roots in the initiatives of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, which he opened in 1962, an event that “ushered in a new era in the history of the Catholic Church,” in the words of the distinguished theologian Hans Küng, “an epoch-making and irrevocable turning point.” Inspired by Vatican II, Latin American bishops adopted “the preferential option for the poor,” renewing the radical pacifism of the Gospels that had been put to rest when the Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire—instituting “a revolution” that in less than a century converted “the persecuted church” to a “persecuting church” (Küng). In the post–Vatican II attempt to revive the Christianity of the pre-Roman period, priests, nuns, and laypersons took the message of the Gospels to the poor and the persecuted, brought them together in “base communities,” and encouraged them to take their fate into their own hands and to work together to overcome the misery of survival in the harsh realms of U.S. power.7

The “preferential option for the poor,” drawn from the Gospels, was recognized by the masters to be a grave and intolerable heresy, and the reaction was swift. In 1964, a military coup, for which the basis was laid by the Kennedy administration, established a neo-Nazi-style national security state in Brazil, overthrowing a mildly social democratic government and instituting a regime of torture and oppression. In the wake of the Brazilian coup, the dominoes began to fall, and a monstrous plague of repression spread through the hemisphere under similar murderous tyrannies. Included was the first 9/11, in Chile—by any objective measure far more severe than the second 9/11 in 2001—and also the regime of the killers and torturers in Argentina, perhaps the worst of all of them and Reagan’s special favorite. The plague finally struck Central America in full force throughout the 1980s. In the course of the terror and slaughter, the practitioners of liberation theology were a prime target, among them the martyrs of the Church whose execution in November 1989 was commemorated on the twentieth anniversary with a resounding silence, barely broken. Forgotten almost completely are Julia Elba and Celina Mariset Ramos. The one survivor of the massacre, Father Jon Sobrino, reminds us that they are the symbols of the suffering masses of El Salvador, and the world.8 Or would remind us if we were willing to listen.

There has been much debate about who deserves the credit for the fall of the Berlin wall. It was also a topic of a meeting of the three presidents most directly involved. Germany’s Helmut Kohl concluded the meeting by saying, “I know now how heaven helped us.” George H. W. Bush generously praised the East German people, who “for too long had been deprived of their God-given rights.” Gorbachev suggested that the United States needs its own perestroika.9

There are no such doubts about the demolition of the attempt to revive the church of the Gospels. The School of the Americas (since renamed), famous for its training of Latin American killers, proudly announces as one of its “talking points” that liberation theology was “defeated with the assistance of the U.S. army”10—given a helping hand, to be sure, by the Vatican, using the gentler means of expulsion and suppression, particularly under the guidance of the Vatican enforcer, Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.

The bitter campaign to reverse the heresy set in motion by Vatican II received an incomparable literary expression in Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor. In this tale, set in Seville at “the most terrible time of the Inquisition,” Jesus Christ suddenly appeared on the streets, “softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, everyone recognized him” and was “irresistibly drawn to him.” The Grand Inquisitor, recognizing the grave danger, “bids the guards take Him and lead Him away” to prison, where the old man accuses Christ of coming to “hinder us” in our great work of destroying the subversive ideas of freedom and community. “We have taken the sword of Caesar” and follow him, not Thee, the Inquisitor admonished Jesus. We seek to be rulers of the earth so that we can teach the “weak and vile” multitude that “they will only become free when they renounce their freedom to us and submit to us.” Then they will be timid and frightened and happy. So tomorrow “I must burn Thee” and put an end to Thy evil ways. But finally the old man relented, and “let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”

The pupils of Fort Bragg learned a harsher lesson.

In 1977, the highly respected Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande preached in El Salvador of his fears that “very soon the Bible and the Gospel will not be allowed within our country. We’ll get the covers and nothing more, because all its pages are subversive…And I fear, my brothers, that if Jesus of Nazareth returned…they would arrest him. They would take him to the courts and accuse him of being unconstitutional and subversive.” His insight into policy was all too accurate. A few weeks later he was assassinated, again by much the same hands.11

The two events—the collapse of Russian tyranny and the destruction of the evil ways of the Gospels—were linked symbolically when the hero of 1989, Vaclav Havel, came to Washington shortly after the assassination of his Salvadoran counterparts. Speaking before a joint session of Congress, he received thunderous applause when he praised the United States as the “defender of freedom.” The intellectual classes were entranced. The Washington Post described Havel’s message as a “voice of conscience” that speaks “compellingly of the responsibilities that large and small powers owe each other.” Others wondered why American intellectuals do not ascend these lofty heights. Commentators were deeply moved by Havel’s explanation for the passivity of the Czech security forces when faced with the forces of “love, tolerance, nonviolence, the human spirit and forgiveness.”12 If only the Salvadoran Jesuits had grasped these lofty thoughts when facing the guns of Washington’s Atlacatl battalion.

One may imagine the reactions if the circumstances had been reversed—a thought experiment that could teach us a good deal about ourselves.

At the extreme dissident end, Anthony Lewis hailed Havel for teaching us that “we live in a romantic age.” Lewis however had in mind another wondrous achievement of “a world changed without guns” in the new era of nonviolence and idealism that shaped the consciousness of the “niners”: the victory of the U.S. candidate in the Nicaraguan elections, an “experiment in peace and democracy,” Lewis wrote, which gives “fresh testimony to the power of Jefferson’s idea: government with the consent of the governed, as Vaclav Havel reminded us the other day.… To say so seems romantic, but then we live in a romantic age.”13

Others too exulted in the victory of “peace and democracy” in Nicaragua. Headlines in the New York Times proclaimed that Americans are “United in Joy,” North Korean–style, over this “Victory for U.S. Fair Play.” The modalities of “U.S. Fair Play” were not concealed. Time magazine praised the methods that were used to bring about the latest of the “happy series of democratic surprises” as “democracy burst forth” in Nicaragua. The methods were to “wreck the economy and prosecute a long and deadly proxy war until the exhausted natives overthrow the unwanted government themselves,” with a cost to us that is “minimal,” leaving the victim “with wrecked bridges, sabotaged power stations, and ruined farms,” and thus providing the U.S. candidate with “a winning issue”: ending the “impoverishment of the people of Nicaragua”—and unmentioned, an end to the terrorist war that was destroying the country and would continue, President Bush I instructed Nicaraguans, unless they gave Americans reason to be “United in Joy.” The only issue dividing conservatives and liberals, Time correctly concludes, is “who should claim credit” for this triumph of democracy, in a free and fair election, without coercion.14

Outside of Western intellectual circles, the comparison between U.S. and Soviet satellites was readily perceived. To cite one all too poignant example, the journal Proceso of the Jesuit university in El Salvador observed that

If Lech Walesa had been doing his organizing work in El Salvador, he would have already entered into the ranks of the disappeared—at the hands of ‘heavily armed men dressed in civilian clothes’; or have been blown to pieces in a dynamite attack on his union headquarters. If Alexander Dubcek were a politician in our country, he would have been assassinated like Héctor Oquelí [the social democratic leader assassinated in Guatemala, apparently by Salvadoran death squads]. If Andrei Sakharov had worked here in favor of human rights, he would have met the same fate as Herbert Anaya [one of the many murdered leaders of the independent Salvadoran Human Rights Commission CDHES]. If Ota-Sik or Vaclav Havel had been carrying out their intellectual work in El Salvador, they would have [wound] up one sinister morning lying on the patio of a university campus with their heads destroyed by the bullets of an elite army battalion.15
Despite the U.S. triumph of November 1989, the yearning for freedom and justice has proven hard to crush. A year after Washington’s victory over the Church of the Gospels in El Salvador, the demon of liberation theology emerged again in Haiti with the democratic election of a liberation theology priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As discussed earlier, Washington moved at once to destroy the threat, reinstating the rule of the military and the traditional ruling elite. A few years later the demon raised its head again in Honduras. One of the reasons for Obama’s indirect but sufficient support for the military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government and restored power to the traditional rulers was Zelaya’s moves toward “alliance with liberation-theologian priests and other environmental activists protesting mining and biofuelinduced deforestation.” Meanwhile an ex-bishop tainted by association with liberation theology was elected in Paraguay, overturning decades of dictatorship and elite rule in what was considered a safe dependency. It takes constant vigilance to ensure that the rot does not reappear.16

There is much to contemplate in all of this, but let us put these painful topics aside and proceed.

A critical question about “the biggest year in world history since 1945,” which “changed everything,” is how global policies were affected by the dawn of the “unipolar moment,” as it came to be called, the glorious “end of history” in the eyes of some prominent intellectuals. The answer reveals a good deal about the nature of the Cold War, and its aftermath.

The Bush I administration reacted at once by invading Panama, as already discussed. The event was a minor footnote to a familiar history, though there were two innovations. One was the pretext: not “the Russians are coming,” the reflexive justification of the past, but the threat to our existence caused by Hispanic narcotraffickers. The second difference was explained by former high State Department official Elliott Abrams, who pointed out that for the first time the United States was able to intervene without concern for a Russian reaction somewhere in the world. As other prominent commentators elaborated, the collapse of the Soviet deterrent “makes military power more useful as a United States foreign policy instrument…against those who contemplate challenging important American interests,” and makes it easier to resist “manipulation of America by third world nations.” We are now more free to resort to force, violence, and subversion to achieve our global aims.17

The Bush I administration responded immediately to these opportunities in its Pentagon budget and national security strategy report in early 1990. In brief, nothing would change, apart from pretexts and tactics. We still need a huge military system, but for a new reason: the “technological sophistication” of third world powers. We have to maintain the “defense industrial base”—a euphemism for state-supported high-tech industry. We must also maintain intervention forces directed at the Middle East energy regions—where the significant threats to our interests “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door,” contrary to decades of deceit. All of this and much more like it was passed over quietly, barely even reported. But for those who hope to understand the world, it is quite instructive.18

As a pretext for intervention, the “war on drugs” was far too narrow. A more sweeping mission was needed. The intellectual community quickly rose to the challenge. They declared a “normative revolution” that granted the United States the right of “humanitarian intervention” as it chose—for the noblest of reasons, by definition. The traditional victims were unimpressed, to put it mildly. Conferences of leaders of the global South bitterly condemned what they called “the so-called right of humanitarian intervention,” reacting particularly to the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 (which, as anticipated, precipitated a sharp increase in atrocities). Their stand was upheld by a high-level UN panel in 2004 with leading Western figures participating, among them former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and the distinguished Australian diplomat Gareth Evans.

A refinement was therefore necessary, and again, the intellectual classes rose to the occasion, devising a new doctrine, “responsibility to protect,” familiarly known as R2P, now the topic of a substantial literature, many conferences, new organizations and journals, and much praise. The praise is justified, at least in one respect. We may recall Gandhi’s response to the question of what he thought about Western civilization. He’s alleged to have said, “It would be a good idea.” And the same holds of R2P. It would be a good idea, if the concept were taken seriously.

As already briefly discussed, there are two quite distinct versions of R2P: the UN General Assembly version, and the Evans Commission version, the latter hardly more than an authorization for NATO to use force at will. Those who pay attention to history will not be surprised to discover that the Western powers exercise their “responsibility to protect” in accord with the Evans version, and in a highly selective manner, adhering closely to the maxims of Thucydides and Smith, and the Jennings corollary. Merely to illustrate, there is no thought of devoting pennies to protect those dying from hunger and lack of health care at twice the level of Rwanda among children alone, and not for one hundred days but every day.19 Protected populations are also barred from protection, among them the victims of U.S.-Israeli attacks in Gaza, who are protected persons under the Geneva Conventions. Victims who are the direct responsibility of the Security Council have also been unable to appeal to R2P, for example, Iraqis subjected to Clinton’s murderous sanctions. Or the victims of the worst massacres of recent years, in eastern Congo, where only the cynical might suspect that the neglect has something to do with the fact that the worst offender is U.S. ally Rwanda, and that multinationals are making a mint from robbing the region’s rich mineral resources with the crucial aid of the militias tearing the place to shreds. And on, and on, amply reviewed elsewhere, and just as the rational would expect.

Returning to the dawn of the unipolar moment, another question that came to the fore at once was the fate of NATO. Its traditional justification had been defense against Russian hordes. With the USSR gone, the pretext evaporated. Naïve souls, who had faith in prevailing doctrine, would have expected NATO to disappear as well. Quite the contrary.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachev made an astonishing concession: he permitted a unified Germany to join a hostile military alliance run by the global superpower, though Germany alone had almost destroyed Russia twice in the century. There was a quid pro quo, recently clarified. It had been thought that Bush I and his secretary of state James Baker promised not to expand NATO to the East, but in the first careful study of the original documents, Mark Kramer, apparently seeking to refute charges of U.S. duplicity, in fact shows that it went far beyond what had been assumed.20 It turns out that Bush-Baker promised that NATO would not even fully extend to East Germany (GDR). They told Gorbachev that “no NATO forces would ever be deployed on the territory of the former GDR.… NATO’s jurisdiction or forces would not move eastward.” They also assured Gorbachev “that NATO would be transforming itself into a more political organization.” There is no need to comment on that promise.

Mary Elise Sarotte, the leading academic specialist on these events, writes that German chancellor Helmut Kohl “assured Mr. Gorbachev, as Mr. Baker had done, that ‘naturally NATO could not expand its territory’ into East Germany.… Mr. Kohl’s foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, visiting the Kremlin as well, assured his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, that ‘for us, it stands firm: NATO will not expand itself to the East’.… After listening to Mr. Kohl, Mr. Gorbachev agreed that Germany could unify internally,” and unification then proceeded. As Sarotte explains, “In summary, Gorbachev had listened to Baker and Kohl suggest to him for two days in a row that NATO’s jurisdiction would not move eastward, and at the end he agreed to let Germany unify.” He believed Baker’s assurance that “NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position,” a step that Gorbachev insisted would be “unacceptable.”

What Gorbachev did not know, and Kohl and Genscher dismissed, is that President Bush kept to his position that “we prevailed, they didn’t,” so they can impose no conditions. After Secretary of State Baker’s promise to Gorbachev, Sarotte continues, Bush wrote a letter with “language that differed in a subtle but significant way from the language offered by the secretary of state. Instead of a pledge about NATO’s borders, Mr. Bush suggested that East German territory be given a ‘special military status’ within NATO. What that status would consist of was to be negotiated later, but the core assumption was clear. NATO would grow and former East German areas would have a special status within the alliance as it did so.”

Gorbachev was “settling for a gentleman’s agreement,” Sarotte writes—evidently not a wise move when dealing with Washington.21

Central Europe analyst Neil Ascherson observes that “at the heart of Sarotte’s book [on 1989 and its aftermath] is the story of a historic swindle,” as Gorbachev, trusting in Western honesty, accepted the promise by Baker and Kohl that NATO “would not move an inch eastwards,” though it “was disingenuous,” as the full record reveals. Gorbachev, and Russia generally, of course came to recognize the swindle, which left bitterness and hostility that persists. Gorbachev later referred to the “unending expansion of NATO…set against the background of sweet talk about partnership” while justifying Russia’s actions in the Georgian conflict in 2008. Sarotte concludes that the historic swindle “perpetuated the military dividing line between NATO and its biggest strategic threat, Russia, into the post-Cold War world,” contributing to the undermining of a Gorbachev proposal, possibly realistic, for a “Common European Home” of cooperation and interchange from the Atlantic to the Urals, in which both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would vanish in favor of a pan-European security system—not unlike the Gaullist vision that has always been anathema to U.S. planners.22

What followed the “historic swindle” tells us a lot about the Cold War itself, and the world that emerged from its ending. As soon as Clinton came into office he began the expansion of NATO to the east. By now its declared jurisdiction is far broader, as we have seen, including control of the “crucial infrastructure” of the global energy system. It is also to serve as a U.S. intervention force, while keeping Europe in its place, a task that may or may not be manageable as the global system becomes more diverse.

At this point new questions come into view, which merit much more intensive inquiry, beyond the scope of this review of 1989, its significance and portent.

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