A Brief History of US Interventions, 1973-2013: History Repeating?

13/09/2013 11:25 BST | Updated 10/11/2013 10:12 GMT

This week marks the 40th anniversary of US intervention in Latin America, culminating in the coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power in Chile.

Back in 1973, the moral case for intervention was made in the name of freedom and protecting vulnerable peoples from the alleged irresponsibility of their own governments. More realistically, as in Syria today, the dilemma faced by the US government was whether to "wait and try to protect our interests" vis-à-vis "irresponsible" leaders diplomatically, or else "do we decide to do something to prevent him from consolidating himself now".

Both languages, the moral case and raw geo-power, come from the same person: Henry Kissinger, in a memo he prepared for President Richard Nixon after it became clear that the Chilean people may be irresponsible enough, as he put it, to elect Salvador Allende.

Crucially, the decision to deal with Allende was made before he was confirmed as the leader of the Chilean government, and before any facts could demonstrate his alleged irresponsibility. Sure, the new Chilean government made mistakes. But the accusation raised against him, that his government created a climate of violence against his own people, was exaggerated or false.

However, such factual nuances mattered little. The logic guiding the choice of US intervention was not one of factual analysis, dialogue and adequate response.

The opposite was true: for Washington's decision-makers the question was not whether Latin America will be permitted to deal with their conflicts independently - whether an independent Left would be allowed to flourish in Chile. It would not. Instead, they grew anxious about whether their eagerness to allow only one type of political vision in the region would be seen as too imperialistic.

To avoid this, deciders like Kissinger and Nixon came up with a two-pronged approach: first, opt for limited action and controlled intervention. Second, act in the context of a coalition of willing allies -notwithstanding how free or democratic their values and institutions may be - ready to take the heat off the US when necessary but always operating in sync with its aims.

The result was as influential as it was paradoxical.

Decisions over the details of intervention - what UK General Sir Mike Jackson calls "the clarity of the political objectives" - became anything but clear. Acting more or less in the shadows precludes such clarity. "Irrefutable" evidence is presented on the basis that others must trust your sources and intelligence as evident enough. Decisions appear calculating, due to the need to package them "in a style that [gives] the appearance of reacting to his moves", as Kissinger and others in the US national security establishment put it when they advocated "bringing him [Allende] down without being counterproductive".

Lofty ideals like "participating in the defense of freedom" loose their moral veneer once fused to Machiavellian concerns for credibility, prestige and influence. "There must be times when we should and must react, not because we want to hurt them but to show we can't be kicked around", Nixon said.

Kissinger's and Nixon's words, that "the dangers of doing nothing" were bigger than the risks of doing "something", have been echoed by members of the Obama administration. Critics have pointed out that the objectives of "limited action" are at best unclear, and the administration's approach too calculating. Revelations of "irrefutable" evidence have so far failed to produce the desired consensus, proving fragile in the face of post-Iraq public distrust.

Problematically, the moral case changes by the day: from repugnancy at an irresponsible leader violating his people, to "we must show we can't be kicked around" and recovering lost prestige, to deferred red lines or sending a message to others.

This too is an inheritance from the time of US intervention in Latin America. Historians have demonstrated that at the core of 1970s strategy in the region was a belief that America had a "vital interest" in regaining political influence, recovering lost prestige, and ensuring that "the battle of ideas" was won by those essentially rooted in capitalism.

Also, seeking willing allies irrespective of their credentials greatly increases the chances of things going wrong. America shouldn´t overestimate its ability to control interventions. This was the case in 1973 when it acted as matchmaker between the US-backed Brazilian dictatorship and the golpistas of the Chilean army. Days after the coup, Brazilian intelligence officers were in Santiago's Estadio Nacional "training" the rebels now in charge on torture and disappearance.

Not that the latter needed motivation: their hatred for the previous regime and its supporters was deeply entrenched in a religious fundamentalism (instilled by ultra-Catholic views) that saw leftism not merely as economically unsound but as part of an ungodly plot by a Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik clique.

Observers of Chile have paid little attention to the significance of religious fundamentalism as a precursor of the trial by fire that plunged Chileans into unspeakable horror for years to come. US decision-makers mistook the influence such views had among the military golpistas they ended up supporting. They may have misunderstood their anti-communism as a commitment to free-enterprise, when in fact it responded to a theology of hatred.

The parallels with at least a sector of the Syrian rebels that would benefit from "limited" intervention should not be understated. Nor should be the tendency of plans for the day-after not to go according to plan.

In Chile, less moderate elements within the Chilean army took power and installed their reign of terror, aided by a religious fundamentalism mistaken as somehow beneficial towards liberal interests. It took over a decade for the US to recognise that their "son a bitch" in Chile was just that, a son of a bitch.

Mixing moral case with geo-power turned out a toxic cocktail. The world cannot stand by as a brutal dictator gasses or violates his own people - in Syria or Chile. Neither it should stand for a toxic policy of military intervention.