If you want to know why the American intervention in Iraq has failed, look at the El Salvador of a quarter-century ago.
Latin America, writes Grandin (History/New York Univ.), has been a proving ground for America’s imperial ambitions since the Jefferson administration. Over the last 200 years, he argues, “two broad arcs of hostility have defined U.S.–Latin American relations.” The first is a pattern of direct military intervention, usually to protect American economic interests; the second, often carried out by proxy, pretends to nobler goals such as containing communism or drug smuggling or—now—terrorism. Grandin holds that a third period is dawning, one in which America projects military and economic power to “guard against the resurgence of a new, continent-wide democratic left,” which has indeed emerged in Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela and may soon sweep Mexico, bringing dreaded red flags to America’s borders. Grandin suggests that this is justifiable, for the end product of America’s imperialism in Latin America has been an impoverishment of the region, thanks to the neoliberal “economic regime heralded by Milton Friedman and his colleagues and imposed by Reagan and his successors”; at the end of the 1960s, 11 percent of Latin Americans lived on less than $2 a day, whereas by 1996 the number had grown to 33 percent, or 165 million people. This pattern holds in El Salvador, ravaged by U.S.-backed death squads in the ’70s and ’80s and monitored by then-junior U.S. officials who now hold command, among them Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. The latter, Grandin observes, once argued that El Salvador, “with 50 percent of its population below the poverty level, was a model for what his administration hoped to achieve in Iraq.”
Nixon observed that the U.S. could do what it wanted in Latin America because his compatriots didn’t give a damn about the place. Grandin’s excellent book makes a good case for caring.