Military assistance deserves more scrutiny in many cases. Ukraine is nowhere near the most important.
If you take Donald Trump at face value about his now-infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which occurred shortly after he mysteriously stopped military aid meant for Ukraine, he was only concerned about sending millions to a country known for corruption. It was just a coincidence that he named his political rival’s son, Hunter Biden.
He raised an important issue, albeit for ends that congressional Democrats consider impeachable. Military and other security-assistance aid eats up about a third of the U.S. foreign-aid budget, which itself has been a target of Trump’s ire. And it has a spotty record—both in achieving stated American goals when it’s offered, and in forcing better behavior when it’s withheld.
This is partly because of the conditions that can lead to U.S. military aid in the first place. The notoriously corrupt governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have received tens of billions of dollars to build up their security forces over more than a decade, are just the most expensive examples. After all, as the military analyst Stephen Biddle and co-authors put it in a recent paper: “The U.S. rarely gives [security assistance] to Switzerland or Canada because they don’t need it; the states that need it are rarely governed as effectively as Switzerland or Canada.”
Ukraine does suffer from corruption, but it’s by no means the worst offender among the recipients of American largesse. The research group Security Assistance Monitor noted in a report last fall that some two-thirds of the countries receiving U.S. counterterrorism aid, or 24 of 36 countries examined, “posed serious corruption risks.” In Ukraine’s case, the Obama White House hesitated to provide military aid—and avoided providing lethal aid altogether—for other reasons, fearing that doing so would provoke Russia and worsen the conflict.
After Barack Obama left, Trump announced, and Congress approved, a plan to provide anti-tank missiles as well, something both military and diplomatic officials had recommended. Joseph Dunford, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in congressional testimony in the fall of 2017 that “Ukraine needed additional capabilities to protect their sovereignty” from Russia, which was supporting an insurgency in the eastern half of the country and had already seized the Crimean Peninsula. To the extent corruption was a concern at the time, it did not take precedence over the determination to try to stop Russian tanks.
The Pentagon specifically said Ukraine was making progress tackling corruption in a letter to Congress this spring, two months before Trump suspended aid and then raised the corruption issue in the phone call with Ukraine’s president, during which he asked for an investigation into Joe Biden’s son. The letter from the Defense Department, which NPR first reported, certified that “the government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption,” among other things.
But other countries’ experiences have demonstrated how aid itself can fuel corruption, even indirectly by freeing up more of the host government’s resources to distribute bribes. Or it can create perverse incentives. A weak government in a country getting massive amounts of military aid has reason to fear the development of a strong and professional military; see: Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi.
And security assistance can simply fail entirely—especially when corruption is endemic. This was the case in Iraq in 2014, which Transparency International has called “one of the most spectacular defeats of the 21st century [in which] 25,000 Iraqi soldiers and police were dispersed by just 1,300 ISIS fighters in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.” One key factor: Then–Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prized loyalty over competence in the promotion of senior officers, some of whom preferred stealing public funds to training a competent fighting force.
So it stands to reason that the U.S. should be able to withhold military aid—either to try to force better behavior, or simply to stop wasting taxpayer money on something that’s not working. It’s not especially rare—historically, presidents and lawmakers have done this for all kinds of reasons. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan did it to Israel, stopping the sale of cluster bombs to the country for six years after Congress found Israel had used them against civilians in Lebanon. The George W. Bush administration once suspended military aid to 35 countries simultaneously when they refused to guarantee U.S. immunity in potential cases at the recently formed International Criminal Court. (Much of this money has since been reinstated, particularly for NATO and major non-NATO allies.) There’s a law that bans assistance to human-rights abusers, though it applies to military units, not to entire countries. It was this law, for instance, that Trump’s State Department invoked in 2017 when declaring Burmese units involved in abuses against Rohingya Muslims to be ineligible for military aid.
But presidents have also historically gone to absurd lengths to avoid suspending military aid to entire countries when the aid is seen as advancing a key national-security interest. The U.S. continued to provide security assistance to Pakistan during the Obama administration despite the country’s failure to meet American demands to stop supporting terrorist groups and combat the Taliban. (The Trump administration suspended military aid to Pakistan this year, however.) In Egypt, following the overthrow of the elected President Morsi, the Obama administration temporarily suspended delivery to Egypt of some weapons systems, but famously declined to describe what had happened as a “coup,” for fear of triggering the aid restrictions such a designation might entail.
Elias Yousif, a program and research associate at Security Assistance Monitor, says such suspensions may happen far more than the public realizes, as Congress and the executive branch tussle over aid packages and approvals. When the disputes are severe, they can spill out into the open. For instance, the White House and Congress have argued repeatedly this year over military support to the Saudi campaign in Yemen; Congress supported cutting off aid on the grounds that the U.S. was becoming complicit in a humanitarian catastrophe, but the White House kept providing the aid anyway.
U.S. foreign policy relies a great deal on giving military aid, in the form of arms sales and training foreign forces, in an effort to advance security interests without committing large forces overseas. The public should be scrutinizing where it’s going and what ends it’s achieving—and at what cost. But in the Ukraine instance, the bigger question now is whether, in the course of a phone call, the president dangled $400 million not in the American interest, but in his own.
aka Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation
the School was assigned the specific Cold War goal of teaching “anti-communist” counterinsurgency training to military personnel of Latin American countries. At the time and in those places, the label “communist” was, in the words of anthropologist Lesley Gill, “… an enormously elastic category that could accommodate almost any critic of the status quo.”:10 During this period, Colombia supplied the largest number of students from any client country.:17
.. On September 21, 1984, the school was expelled from Panama under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. Prior to this expulsion, politicians and journalists in Panama had complained that civilian graduates from the school engaged in repressive and antidemocratic behavior.[13
.. Despite this required instruction, the School still utilized material from Spanish language training manuals that discussed methods of coercion against insurgents through execution and torture from 1982 until 1991.
.. As the Cold War drew to a close around 1990, United States foreign policy shifted focus from “anti-communism” to the War on Drugs, with narcoguerillas replacing “communists
.. This term was later replaced by “the more ominous sounding ‘terrorist‘
.. By 2000 the School of the Americas was under increasing criticism in the United States for training students who later participated in undemocratic governments and committed human rights abuses.
.. the institute was renamed to WHINSEC. U.S. Army Maj. Joseph Blair, a former director of instruction at the school, said in 2002 that “there are no substantive changes besides the name. […] They teach the identical courses that I taught and changed the course names and use the same manuals.”
.. Since 1990, SOA Watch has sponsored an annual public demonstration of protest of SOA/WHINSEC at Ft. Benning. In 2005, the demonstration drew 19,000 people. The protests are timed to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador on November 1989 by graduates of the School of the Americas
.. six Jesuit priests
Murder of Archbishop Romero
In February 1980 Archbishop Óscar Romero published an open letter to US President Jimmy Carter in which he pleaded with him to suspend the United States’ ongoing program of military aid to the Salvadoran regime. He advised Carter that “Political power is in the hands of the armed forces. They know only how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.” Romero warned that US support would only “sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their fundamental human rights.” On 24 March 1980, the Archbishop was assassinated while celebrating mass, the day after he called upon Salvadoran soldiers and security force members to not follow their orders to kill Salvadoran civilians. President Jimmy Carter stated this was a “shocking and unconscionable act”. At his funeral a week later, government-sponsored snipers in the National Palace and on the periphery of the Gerardo Barrios Plaza were responsible for the shooting of 42 mourners.
.. Murder and rape of US nuns
.. On December 2, 1980, members of the Salvadoran National Guard were suspected to have raped and murdered four American nuns and a laywoman. Maryknoll missionary nuns Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, and Ursuline nun Dorothy Kazel, and laywoman Jean Donovan were on a Catholic relief mission providing food, shelter, transport, medical care, and burial to death squad victims. U.S. military aid was briefly cut off in response to the murders but would be renewed within six weeks. The outgoing Carter administration increased military aid to the Salvadoran armed forces to $10 million which included $5 million in rifles, ammunition, grenades and helicopters.
“Draining the Sea”
.. In its effort to defeat the insurgency, the Salvadoran Armed Forces carried out a “scorched earth” strategy, adopting tactics similar to those being employed by the counterinsurgency in neighboring Guatemala. These tactics were primarily derived and adapted from U.S. strategy during the Vietnam War and taught by American military advisors.
.. An integral part of the Salvadoran Army’s counterinsurgency strategy entailed “draining the sea” or “drying up the ocean,” that is, eliminating the insurgency by eradicating its support base in the countryside. The primary target was the civilian population – displacing or killing them in order to remove any possible base of support for the rebels. The concept of “draining the sea” had its basis in a doctrine by Mao Zedong which emphasized that “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.”
.. “This may be an effective strategy for winning the war. It is, however, a strategy that involves the use of terror tactics—bombings, strafings, shellings and, occasionally, massacres of civilians.”
.. On 18 March, three days after the sweep in Cabañas began, 4-8,000 survivors of the sweep (mostly women and children) attempted to cross the Rio Lempa into Honduras to flee violence. There, they were caught between Salvadoran and Honduran troops. The Salvadoran Air Force, subsequently bombed and strafed the fleeing civilians with machine gun fire, killing hundreds
.. Atlacatl soldiers were equipped and directed by U.S. military advisers operating in El Salvador and were described as “the pride of the United States military team in San Salvador. Trained in antiguerrilla operations, the battalion was intended to turn a losing war around.”
.. The November 1981 operation was commanded by Lt. Col. Sigifredo Ochoa, a former Treasury Police chief with a reputation for brutality. Ochoa was close associate of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson and was alleged to have been involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
.. Col. Ochoa claimed that hundreds of guerrillas had been killed but was able to show journalists only fifteen captured weapons, half of them virtual antiques, suggesting that most of those killed in the sweep were unarmed.
.. he field commander said they were under orders to kill everyone, including the children, who he asserted would just grow up to become guerrillas if they let them live. “We were going to make an example of these people,” he said.[90
.. El Mozote Massacre
.. The US steadfastly denied the existence of the El Mozote massacre, dismissing reports of it as leftist “propaganda,” until secret US cables were declassified in the 1990s.[91
.. The army and death squads forced many of them to flee to the United States, but most were denied asylum.
.. A US congressional delegation that on January 17–18, 1981, visited the refugee camps in El Salvador on a fact finding mission submitted a report to Congress which found that: “the Salvadoran method of ‘drying up the ocean’ is to eliminate entire villages from the map, to isolate the guerrillas, and deny them any rural base off which they can feed.”
.. El Salvador’s National Federation of Lawyers, which represented all of the country’s bar associations, refused to participate in drafting the 1982 electoral law. The lawyers said that the elections couldn’t possibly be free and fair during a state of siege that suspended all basic rights and freedoms.
.. Fearful of a d’Aubuisson presidency for public relations purposes, the CIA financed Duarte’s campaign with some two million dollars.
.. Nearly two weeks earlier, US Vice President Dan Quayle on a visit to San Salvador told army leaders that human rights abuses committed by the military had to stop. Sources associated with the military said afterword that Quayle’s warning was dismissed as propaganda for American consumption aimed at the US Congress and the U.S. public. At the same time, U.S. advisers were sending a different message to the Salvadoran military – “do what you need to do to stop the commies, just don’t get caught“. A former U.S. intelligence officer suggested the death squads needed to leave less visual evidence, that they should stop dumping bodies on the side of the road because “they have an ocean and they ought to use it“.
.. After 10 years of war, more than one million people had been displaced out of a population of 5,389,000. 40% of the homes of newly displaced people were completely destroyed and another 25% were in need of major repairs
.. At war’s end, the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador registered more than 22,000 complaints of political violence in El Salvador, between January 1980 and July 1991, 60 percent about summary killing, 25 percent about kidnapping, and 20 percent about torture. These complaints attributed almost 85 percent of the violence to the Salvadoran Army and security forces alone.
- The Salvadoran Armed Forces, which were massively supported by the United States (4.6 billion euros), were accused in 60 percent of the complaints,
- the security forces (i.e. the National Guard, Treasury Police and the National Police) in 25 percent,
- military escorts and civil defense units in 20 percent of complaints,
- the death squads in approximately 10 percent, and
- the FMLN in 5 percent.
.. The report concluded that more than 70,000 people were killed, many in the course of gross violation of their human rights. More than 25 per cent of the populace was displaced as refugees before the U.N. peace treaty in 1992
.. The State’s terrorism was affected by the security forces, the Army, the National Guard, and the Treasury Police;:308 yet it was the paramilitary death squads who gave the Government plausible deniability of, and accountability for, the political killings. Typically, a death squad dressed in civilian clothes and traveled in anonymous vehicles (dark windows, blank license plates). Their terrorism consisted of publishing future-victim death lists, delivering coffins to said future victims, and sending the target-person an invitation to his/her own funeral.[169
.. the objective of death-squad-terror seemed not only to eliminate opponents, but also, through torture and the gruesome disfigurement of bodies, to terrorize the population.[170
.. the FMLN continuously violated the human rights of many Salvadorans and other individuals identified as right-wing supporters,
- military targets,
- pro-government politicians,
- public officials, and
These violations included
kidnapping, bombings, rape, and killing.
.. the constitution was amended to prohibit the military from playing an internal security role except under extraordinary circumstances
.. By 1993—nine months ahead of schedule—the military had cut personnel from a wartime high of 63,000 to the level of 32,000 required by the peace accords. By 1999, ESAF’s strength stood at less than 15,000
Human Rights Commission of El Salvador
.. On 26 October 1987, Herbert Ernesto Anaya, head of the CDHES, was assassinated
.. Many of the documents, from the CIA and the Defense Department, are not available