The Negroponte smear

Rich Lowry
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Posted: Feb 21, 2005 12:00 AM

Human-rights activists say they will wage an assault on the nomination of John Negroponte as national intelligence director based on the former ambassador's service in Latin America in the 1980s. In this nomination fight, Negroponte will be accused, essentially, of being on the right side of history.

    Negroponte was ambassador to Honduras during the Reagan administration, at the forefront of a spectacularly successful fight to introduce and sustain Western political norms in the region. For this, his reputation has been smeared by left-wing nostalgics who can't get over their opposition to the Reagan policy, let alone admit that it worked.

    Carter administration policy in the 1970s was to topple human-rights-abusing allies of the United States, then walk away, not caring if totalitarian left-wing governments rose up in their place. The Reagan policy was to encourage human rights and democracy across the board, by resisting the advance of communism in the Western Hemisphere and encouraging military governments to democratize.

    The specific accusation against Negroponte is that he knew about abuses committed by the Honduran military. Did such abuses occur? Yes. The strategy of his critics is basically to tar him with that fact -- i.e., he was U.S. ambassador, so he must somehow have been responsible for everything that happened there.

    But the context is important. From 1972 to 1982 -- through the Carter years -- Honduras had a military government. Indeed, Ronald Reagan inherited a terrible mess in Central America. Arguably the bloodiest year of anti-communist "death squad" activity in El Salvador -- often blamed on Reagan -- was 1980, when Jimmy Carter was in office, yammering ineffectually about human rights. In Honduras, Reagan was working with what was a new civilian government, elected in 1982. To expect that government to have adopted pure democratic norms immediately was unrealistic.

    Reagan's dual-track policy was to undermine the left-wing Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua while encouraging reform elsewhere. The left made every possible excuse for the Sandinistas and argued essentially that their totalitarian rule should simply be accepted. But the Sandinistas were bent on expanding communism throughout the region, so a necessary condition of democratic reform in Central America was driving them from power. Negroponte was a key point man in this project, funneling aid to the anti-Sandinista rebels -- the Contras -- from Honduras. Reagan critics have never forgiven him.

    They charge that the Contras were awful human-rights abusers. While there were individual abuses by the Contras, they never made it policy to use human-rights abuses as a systematic element of their strategy. The Marxist Sandinista government did. This is why two of the Contras' most prominent leaders, Alfonso Rebelo and Arturo Cruz, were Social Democrats and disaffected Sandinistas. In the end, it was military pressure that made the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador opposing the elected government there and the Marxist government in Nicaragua both come to the negotiating table and eventually make peace.

    It's an old saying that if you find a turtle on top of a fence post, it didn't get there by accident. Nor was it an accident that Central America, and Latin America generally, underwent a democratic revolution in the 1980s and afterward. Honduras has had six free elections since 1981. Guatemala made a transition, with Reagan's support, to democracy in 1985. In El Salvador's crucial 1984 elections, the Reagan administration backed the Christian Democratic (center-left) candidate for president, precisely because he was better on human rights than the right-wing candidate, who was associated with the death squads.

    At the beginning of Reagan's term, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay were military dictatorships. Nicaragua had just fallen to a communist insurrection, and El Salvador seemed set to be next. By the end of or shortly after Reagan's term, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay had democratized. Nicaragua held elections won by the opposition, and El Salvador became a model in the region. That John Negroponte was crucial to the policy that affected this revolution should be a recommendation, not a criticism.