Ronald Reagan’s resounding reelection victory on November 6 represents a daunting challenge to progressive forces in this country, a challenge that would have been awesome enough even if the Democrats had managed to win. Indicative of the dangers that lie ahead was the administration’s fabricated “leak” on election night that Soviet MiG fighter jets were en route to Nicaragua. This assertion proved completely false, but still served the administration’s purpose of whipping up support for greater US military intervention there. Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger then tried to maintain the official distortion level by insisting that Nicaragua was importing massive quantities of offensive weapons. Pentagon officials could not identify a single “offensive” weapons system provided to the Nicaraguans, but the Weinberger version had captured the headlines and sustained the scenario of a Soviet-Cuban-Nicaraguan “threat.” In Honduras, which is a virtual US military base in the campaign against Nicaragua and the Salvadoran rebels, top military officers laughed off the US charge that Nicaragua was preparing to invade.
It seems clear that Central America is the major target at this time of the Reagan administration’s interventionist impulse. It is here that the challenge to Washington’s view of the world is both most advanced and closest at hand. This is in marked distinction to the situation just a year ago, when US forces were directly engaged in Lebanon and preparing to intervene in the Persian Gulf. There appear to be several explanations for this. First, the Lebanon experience seriously cramped the administration’s enthusiasm for armed intervention in the Middle East. Second, Iraq has manged to stave off an immediate Iranian threat to itself and other US allies on the Arab side of the Gulf. Finally, the administration perceives little popular or Congressional support for such “distant” interventions.
Nevertheless, as Michael Klare points out in this issue, the Middle East remains the most dangerous flashpoint for an intervention that could escalate to wider war. Economic problems here in the US, which feed the interventionist instinct, are already beginning to intensify as the Reagan recovery falters toward recession. At the same time, the material and political infrastructure for intervention, under the rubric of the Central Command, are now more solidly in place. Given the likelihood of war and civil strife involving key regional states, the sort of explosive incident or crisis that could trigger such an intervention seems all too likely over the next several years. The Reagan game plan for Central America is large-scale and protracted military intimidation. Reagan’s second-term approach to the Middle East is likely to be more episodic but quick to respond militarily to any social upheaval or political crisis.
There is every indication that the means and excuses for armed intervention in the Middle East will be cast in terms of the fight against “terrorism.” Secretary of State Shultz previewed this line during the campaign, when he demanded public support for expanded intelligence operations, covert actions and preemptive and retaliatory military attacks involving civilian casualties. Shultz declared that “the rest of us would do well to follow Israel’s example in this regard,” and he admonished people to “clear our heads of moral confusion” that would “paralyze” the administration. “We know the difference between terrorists and freedom fighters, and as we look around the world, we have no trouble telling one from the other,” he remarked.
Encouraged by the administration’s ability to distinguish between terrorists and freedom fighters, the conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report after the election urging the Reagan team to expand and intensify covert and “paramilitary” operations against “unfriendly” governments. In addition to Nicaragua, Angola and Vietnam, the report mentions several Middle East target regimes, including Libya, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Iran. A similar Heritage Foundation agenda published four years ago presaged many of the administration’s present policies, including an expansion of covert operations more modest that the one envisaged now.