Friday, July 22, 2016

Russell Crandall's The Salvador Option

I read Russell Crandall's The Salvador Option: The United States and El Salvador, 1977-1992 (2016) and it is worth your time. The book is an exhaustive (500 pages plus 100+ more of endnotes) analysis of U.S. policy toward El Salvador, using declassified documents in addition to the massive literature on the topic. The guiding question--contained in the title--centers on how El Salvador is held up (especially by the U.S. military) as a counterinsurgency and state-building model (not unlike Plan Colombia).

This is "thick description," like a number of other very good books in the past few years on U.S. policy (like Morley and McGillion's book on U.S. policy toward Chile, but also books by Brian Loveman, Lars Schoultz, Bill LeoGrande, and others). One important point is that the Reagan administration was not monolithic at any time and evolved, especially when George Shultz replaced Alexander Haig, and when Jeane Kirkpatrick left the administration, not to mention when different ambassadors were in San Salvador.

Crandall dives into the context in detail. So we simultaneously have to come to terms with the fact that the U.S. wanted a moderate (José Napoleón Duarte) in office rather than Roberto D'Aubuisson, and used money to make it happen undemocratically; that it held fast to Duarte even as the army's extrajudicial killings went on; that the army and oligarchy were violent and inflexible; that the FMLN used vicious tactics of its own and did everything it could to disrupt elections; that the Salvadoran army was inept in the field no matter what kind of training it received; that the Cold War dominated the motivations of virtually everyone; that Cuba and Nicaragua were major players as well; that Washington had no serious plan for changing the conditions that generated armed conflict in the first place (despite knowing quite well what those conditions were and paying lip service to land reform); that for years no one could even agree on what "negotiations" should mean; that U.S. policy in El Salvador was often ad hoc; and that the money flowing in made the U.S. Ambassador into a proconsul.

The result was carnage that went on and on until both sides were worn out, and the Cold War was over so Washington didn't care so much anymore. Everyone sought to take credit for the peace agreement (though no one wants to take credit for the bloody aftermath we see now).

Crandall's goal is to lay it all out, sparing no one and trying simply to understand motivations, causes, and effects, which is not easy. The civil war has hardened into caricature for many people depending on their ideological orientation. He does not try to show how his analysis might fit into existing IR theory, which I think would be a fascinating exercise. For example, Kathryn Sikkink's work on "green lights" would be interesting, where the actions of the Salvadoran army and civilian elites might be guided by their belief of what Ronald Reagan wanted to happen in the country.

And what of that original guiding question? The main answer as I see it from Crandall is that the "Salvador Option" makes little sense when taken out of its own specific context, besides the conclusion that inserting yourself into civil war carries heavy ethical and practical implications that are rarely taken into consideration. Sadly, that is a point that gets forgotten by too many policy makers.


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