The illusion of US influence

In a controversial move last week, a House-Senate conference committee restored funding to the US Army School of the Americas. It's unfortunate that in its deliberations the committee failed to reflect on the recent events in East Timor.

The US's failed efforts for more than 10 days to induce Indonesia's armed forces to halt the violence - and to cease tacit and sometimes active support of the campaign of terror and killing - once again exposed the basic flaw in the American approach to influencing third world militaries.

This fiscal year alone the Pentagon has spent $50 million on its International Military Education and Training (IMET) program - an effort designed, as a Defense Department report grandiosely argues, to impart "democratic values ... and respect for civilian authority and military professionalism" to foreign military leaders.

The assumption behind this expensive endeavor - and such similar programs as the School of the Americas and the Pentagon's Inter-American Defense College - is that by "exposing" third world officers to the ethos of the US armed forces, those officers will become more like America's, and that this exposure and other "military to military" contacts will somehow give the US political influence over these military leaders.

Obviously, this line of thinking is arrogant. After all, why doesn't the Defense Department assume that by "exposing" US officers to authoritarian military cultures, American officers will embrace the values of their charges, rather than vice versa?

The only answer is that the Pentagon assumes US values are so self-evidently superior that merely exhibiting them will convert third world military leaders to the American way. IMET history reveals that notion to be a fallacy.

In El Salvador, for example, the elite Atlacatl Battalion received extensive US training, yet that group was responsible for the murder of six Jesuit priests in 1991, as well as numerous other atrocities throughout El Salvador's civil war. The members of the Salvadoran high command who indisputably covered it up were also recipients of IMET. Most were also graduates of the School of the Americas - as was Roberto D'Aubuisson, the former Salvadoran officer who was the leader of the right-wing death squads.

Given such a track record, some critics of US foreign policy have long argued that the School of the Americas and IMET merely train third world officers to be more efficient abusers of human rights.

But the sources of the problem are far simpler and less nefarious:

*The US armed forces' ability to alter fundamentally the beliefs and values of officers from very different political and military cultures is extremely limited - far more limited than the Pentagon's overblown rhetoric would have it.

*Despite US tutelage, foreign militaries will respond to their notions of national - and institutional - interests, rather than America's.

Thus, we really shouldn't have been surprised that the US armed forces' influence on the Indonesian military proved so minimal, despite the 17 Indonesian officers trained in the US this year and despite the series of demarches from American military leaders to their Indonesian counterparts the other week - including pleas directed to Indonesia's military chief by both the commander in chief of the US Pacific Command and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The School of the Americas should be closed - and as we enter the second post-cold-war decade, the IMET program should be drastically reduced.

Of course, US national security interests might require that certain foreign militaries be trained to use military equipment and to employ specific tactics, but IMET's ambitious political and social goals are wasting taxpayers' money.

To be sure, advocates of IMET will argue, as they always have, that the program engenders invaluable cooperative relationships between the US and foreign militaries.

But this logic puts the cart before the horse.

The events in East Timor show that worthwhile military cooperation cannot be born of IMET but only of common interests and values. When those are present, IMET is superfluous. When they are absent, IMET is useless.

*Benjamin Schwarz is a Los Angeles-based correspondent of The Atlantic Monthly.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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