The Peru syndrome

Tom Wicker

August 09, 1991|By Tom Wicker

NEW YORK -- AFTER QUICK military victory in the desert war, President Bush exulted that the nation had "kicked the Vietnam syndrome" -- its supposed reluctance, after defeat in Indochina, to send U.S. troops to fight elsewhere in the world. Did that conviction embolden Bush to embark on military intervention against the Shining Path in Peru?

Or have presidents suffered more, and for longer, from what might be called "the Peru syndrome" -- the idea that U.S. forces are required, and can prevail, anywhere U.S. interests appear to be threatened, or might be advanced?

Desert Storm may have strengthened such a Peru syndrome, at least until the fighting ended. But developments since then in Iraq, in Kuwait, in Saudi Arabia should have raised the question -- even in the White House -- whether military intervention necessarily or even usually achieves the ends originally sought.

Most often it has been some vague "communist threat" that had to be countered with troops, as in Lebanon and Grenada. In Panama, Bush sought to restore democracy to a country unaccustomed to it. In the Mideast, the U.S. went to the aid of Western oil sources (under the fig leaf of "resisting aggression").

But in Peru, the administration says, U.S. forces and a $34 million program of assistance are needed to thwart cocaine traffickers and the guerrilla forces that aid them. The latter are not supposed to be the main target, though they're said to be "Maoist" and what little is known suggests similarity to the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

More than 50 U.S. military men, including Green Berets and Navy personnel, will be sent to Peru -- a prime source of coca -- to train two combat battalions, create a river patrol force and rebuild and repair military helicopters.

These are intended to help the government in Lima regain the support of peasants and the control of provinces in the Andes. There, Shining Path guerrillas -- the most violent in South America -- are in virtual occupation.

If Peruvian forces are to stop the drug trade, they must fight the Shining Path; Bush administration officials insist, therefore, that if U.S. military men are to help stop drug trafficking, they must help Peruvian forces in their war against the guerrillas.

The officials add, of course, that U.S. troops will not fight; they will be "trainers" only, as they originally were in Vietnam and as they have been for years in El Salvador.

These forces, however, will be allied to an unstable government and a brutal and repressive army, whose promises to reform can hardly be taken more seriously than those often heard from El Salvador.

The Shining Path is certainly not a beacon of democracy and humanity; but this is a dirty war in which support for either side is likely to entangle U.S. forces in atrocious abuses of human rights. Witness, again, El Salvador.

President Fujimori of Peru at first resisted, then helped design U.S. military and aid programs. With all due regard to him, however, his government may come to feel, as have others in like cases, that U.S. interest and U.S. aid amount to U.S. responsibility to win the war. That would not encourage the reforms Peru's government and army need to make.

The guerrillas, moreover, may well target even noncombatant U.S. trainers, with unpredictable political consequences for the White House and the U.S. public.

Just such attacks were a major factor leading to the expansion of the U.S. effort in Vietnam, until a massive U.S. presence transformed that land and turned its civil war into an American war.

Or, again, if the remote and vicious struggle in the Upper Huallaga Valley of Peru proves hard to win even with limited U.S. help -- and who can believe it will be anything else? -- the temptation to escalate could become irresistible in Washington.

The greater the effort, the more the fear of losing would prolong the war, at terrible cost and perhaps beyond hope of victory.

Or maybe these fears only reflect the Vietnam syndrome the nation kicked last winter. Maybe 50 trainers and relatively few successors, at manageable cost, will block the Shining Path, restrict the cocaine traffic, put Peru on its feet and come home unscathed -- perhaps to a parade up Broadway. That's the Peru syndrome, isn't it? Which the nation clearly hasn't kicked.

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