Kissinger commission: it's mostly a bum rap

By , Sidney Weintraub is Dean Rusk professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

I was a consultant to the Kissinger commission, but I would not defend all of the report. However, I jump into the editorial barrage because I have been dismayed by the unwillingness of many observers to give the report a fair hearing.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. argued that civil war is a common experience, and if the path to nationhood runs with blood, so be it because this follows historic logic. Nothing the commission could have said other than to pull out of Central America would affect this judgment. Journalists, including Mary McGrory, Carl Rowan, and Marianne Means, each argued that since legislation along the lines recommended by the commission is unlikely, the group need not have bothered. These were all predictable opinions. Most critics of administration policy have taken the conventional viewpoint that the root of Central American problems is grinding poverty and inequality. This is a comfortable ethical position, but I doubt they can demonstrate a link between poverty and civil war. The commission report addressed these issues, but many critics argue this is not enough, that the administration must also jettison noneconomic support for El Salvador.

There is a cold-war tone in the security and diplomatic chapters, but the argumentation is not of the know-nothing variety. In any event, Congress need not accept the validity of rhetoric as it crafts a legislative program.

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One reported aspect was the majority recommendation in favor of withholding military aid unless there is improvement in human rights in Central America. This is a warning to El Salvador to eliminate the death squads. Kissinger and two other commissioners dissented, but Congress will have the last word. What was not widely reported was that economic aid also would be conditioned on human rights performance, without dissent from any commissioner. The report urges the use of respected human rights agencies not controlled by the US executive (such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica) to render advisory judgments.

Critics have jumped on the $8 billion price tag for economic assistance over five years. The figure is too high in my judgment for what Central America can absorb. The critical aspect, however, is not the precise price tag - which within limits is negotiable - but the conditions under which aid is given. The bulk of the report is devoted to this, not the numbers.

Many social recommendations may be overly ambitious. I doubt that we can find 10,000 qualified Central Americans to take up the proposed scholarships at US universities - but the emphases on health and literacy are surely felicitous.

Nicaragua is not automatically excluded from receiving economic aid under the commission's proposal. Its inclusion is conditioned on a commitment to pluralism and free choice by its citizens. The same conditions theoretically apply to Guatemala, and Congress should be well advised to insist that they be met by all the countries that receive US aid.

What the Kissinger commission proposed is a variant of the model of the Alliance for Progress - of a compact for economic development among the US, other potential donor countries of the hemisphere (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Canada), and the seven Central American countries (Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, and Belize, and the five common market countries). All Contadora countries are included. The details of the contract must be worked out among potential members. They will include economic assistance, trade measures, and debt rescheduling. All economic aid is to be contingent on meeting economic, social, political, and human rights criteria. The economic programs of countries are to be assessed by Latin American and US experts in the fashion of the ''wise men'' under the Alliance for Progress. These are not easy times to reach such a compact - but the proposal is constructive.

It is easy to throw up one's hands, cast blame, and declare the situation hopeless. A next step is to start a negotiating process involving the US Congress and executive, and other countries of the hemisphere.

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