Professor Russell Crandall, Now of the Pentagon: A Controversial Analyst and Three Controversial Caribbean Interventions

In the U.S. policy arsenal, a series of specialized weapons stand ready to defend democracy, and perhaps of equal importance, to serve Washington’s strategic interests abroad. In “Gunboat Democracy; U.S. Interventions in the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Panama” (2006), Professor Russell Crandall, on leave from Davidson College in North Carolina, contextualizes a particular series of U.S. involvements in the Caribbean over the past several decades in order to pinpoint how strategic regional interests have shaped U.S. policy towards the three specific countries under discussion. Crandall’s central and most controversial claim is that democracy has been made unquestionably stronger in the Caribbean after the United States intervened with overwhelming military force.

Professor Crandall’s prose is easy to read and graciously styled, but is also grossly opinionated and wondrously simplistic. His main objective is to provide objective criteria in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the three radical interventions which become the raw meat of his analysis. The criteria includes whether or not Washington made prudent decisions based on all of the information that was available at the time. Also, Crandall means to weigh in on the consequences of U.S. military intervention in the purported defense of democratic institutions in these countries. Ultimately, and perhaps inevitably, given his highly wrought security/strategy background, and his adept penetration of the Pentagon’s bureaucratic corridors, Crandall easily concludes that the three interventions were legitimate.

Regarding Russell Crandall

The PR notes made available by his college spell out Professor Crandall’s meteoric progress: first as a member of the Bush National Security Council team, then to Obama’s campaign, and now into his current Pentagon service as an advisor. They reveal an ambitious academic who is skilled at working political networks effectively enough to hold respectable positions under both administrations. When it comes to Latin America issues, divergent ideological battle lines between the Republicans and Democrats have never seemed to get in Crandall’s way. One can only conclude that his ebullience over the Bush administration’s regional policy might have limited his ability to sympathize with Obama’s more enlightened approach to Latin America. George W. Bush’s Latin America, after all, was the antithesis of Barack Obama’s. Given Washington’s present initiative to place a string of military bases throughout Colombia, and perhaps elsewhere, for many skeptics the question remains as to whether Professor Crandall can be comfortable with a regional map that isn’t laced with U.S. military facilities.

Democracy on the Run

Crandall, always affable, does not state his own personal agenda outright, as much as he clearly strives to brush off critics who disapprove of his support for “democracy promotion” at the barrel of a gun. In light of Washington’s multiple failings in its struggle to secure democracy in the wake of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Crandall seeks to prove what others might term as a tendentious thesis: that U.S. military intervention abroad can be justified if it ostensibly nurtures democratic institutions, defined of course, by Washington’s policymakers. Russell Crandall is more than willing to prove that there is a positive correlation between the weight of U.S. military force used in the interventions, and the subsequent strength of the democracy that is later experienced. Even in light of an overwhelming literature which argues that freedom and democracy cannot be imposed by force, Crandall adamantly disagrees, stating that, “Grenada was now [after the U.S. intervention] more free and democratic than at any point in recent memory” (p.161).

What Crandall fails to see is that there is a body of history here that tells a different and somewhat more complex story, and it makes all the difference if one is talking about Maurice Bishop’s Grenada, or “General” Hudson Austin’s Grenada. Crandall contends that in Panama and the Dominican Republic, the general outcomes were the same, “the taking out of Noriega by the United States ended up being a quick and lasting way for Panama to get rid of its oppressor” (p.200), and “the [Dominican] intervention also has helped promote a modern political system” (p.94). Crandall fails to mention that, in the fullness of time, the ‘modern political systems’ in question would come to be dominated by strongman governments resulting in drug running, corruption, bank fraud, and money laundering – projecting the pretense, rather than the substance of democracy. Ultimately, Crandall might bring himself to argue that the world ought to be grateful that the contemporary history of the Dominican Republic, Panama and Grenada were conceptualized by the National Security Council, and scripted by the Pentagon.

Surprisingly, Crandall acknowledges that the democratic institutions established in the Dominican Republic after U.S. intervention by the Johnson administration were somewhat weaker than in Panama and Grenada. But when asked why, he argues that insufficient U.S. military force had been committed; as if thousands of troops were not enough to handle a disorganized revolutionary force numbered in the hundreds. It remains unclear to the reader from the introduction of “Gunboat Democracy” to its conclusion, why the extent of force used in the interventions became a unifying function of their success.

Saving Latin Americans from Themselves

Underlining the author’s belief is an uncompromising America-knows-best attitude, fortified by a robust script in which Latin Americans are seen to be the victims of inevitable and self-inflicted ideological problems, against which they must be immunized. Regarding the intervention in Panama, in which Manuel Noriega was removed from power by U.S. forces, Crandall postulates that, “even if the Panamanian people had removed Noriega themselves, it was more than likely that someone who was far from democratic would have replaced him” (p.200). This process of serial interventions could be described as Crandall’s sense of noblesse oblige.

Many of Crandall’s formulations are dressed up in a disturbing hip-hip-hooray rhetoric, which must have annoyed at least some of his readers, especially those like myself, who happen to be of another nationality. Throughout much of his study, Crandall seeks to point out that those living in the Caribbean (especially in Grenada), were in dire need of U.S. direct action to protect them against becoming captives of leftist authoritarian actors, but it is here that his evidence truly runs thin. The White House’s passion to oust Maurice Bishop’s Marxist New Jewel movement from power soon after it took office was based upon an utter myth; that Bishop had commissioned the construction of a military airport on Grenada at the behest of Havana, in order to facilitate the movement of Cuban troops to aid in the revolutionary wars in Africa. Furthermore, President Bush’s insistence that General Noriega was a major drug runner and human rights violator was equally inflated. Although Noriega was a somewhat unsavory figure, only a small number of fatalities could truly be ascribed to him. Manuel Noriega was, after all, a former CIA asset, who for years served as a highly appreciated functionary of the Agency.

Even with these facts aside, it is odd that Crandall did not bother to canvas other writings on democracy (for example, Robert Dahl comes to mind) in search of deeper explanations for the advent and endurance of democratic regimes. Because he isolates his work from others who have taken on the task of explaining where, when, and how democracy thrives, Crandall’s book comes out rather narrow in its scope, totally predictable in its attitude, and somewhat shallow in its overall analysis of democracy as a process. In effect, he utilizes meager theory to thump a very big drum. Furthermore, despite his fluency in the language, he ignores important Spanish sources that presumably could have broadened and deepened his enterprise.

The Protection of U.S. Citizens: A Pretense for Invasion

Professor Crandall had no problem in swallowing the line that securing the supposed safety of American citizens lent a compelling argument for the execution of the Dominican Republic intervention, but he tortures the “we did it to protect U.S. citizens” apologia well beyond its proper functional range. In such settings, Crandall alludes to the scheming Communist side as the main threat to American life, often with little effort to substantiate his claim with historical evidence buttressed with recent documents and other primary sources. If he had, perhaps he would have acknowledged that the number of U.S. casualties from these interventions, to no one’s surprise, was negligible. Occasionally Crandall lets his true beliefs show, stating at one time that, “a better way of viewing the situation is to accept that at least some risk of a Communist takeover existed” (p.37).

In the case of Grenada, Crandall has attempted to refute some of his expositors’ critiques, but ultimately refers to the “what if the U.S.A. hadn’t intervened” stream of analysis. Crandall does not acknowledge that only a small group unanimously considered Grenada a win for Washington diplomacy. Of equal importance, he fails to remind us that U.S. public opinion had been deceptively manipulated in order for Americans to accept a political ideology which was fraudulent to its core. This includes the arresting of a political process whereby Washington could have targeted “General” Hudson Austin, rather than pretending to avenge the murder of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop, who had been slain by the Austin coup. To this end, Crandall never explains why such overwhelming military force was necessary to secure the lives of American citizens, when the threat was if anything, palpably modest.

The cable traffic between the State Department and Pentagon to their agents in the field indicates that the call for U.S. troops to protect U.S. and foreign nationals (who sought refuge at the Embajador Hotel in the Dominican Republic and at St. George’s Medical School in Grenada), had been authored in Washington. The calls to intervene were not authored by General Wessin y Wessin, in the name of the Dominican Republic military, or by the responsible officials at St. George’s. Unnoted by Crandall, Dr. Geoffrey Bourne, the vice chancellor at St. George’s University School of Medicine, insisted at the time that the safety of American medical students was never in doubt, and was only compromised once the U.S. invasion began. Ultimately, Professor Crandall’s analysis proves that the world of “what if” is better left untouched by U.S. academics with a strong military tropism.

A Strangled Truth

To be fair, Crandall energetically tries to establish that American lives were truly at stake, but here he is fatally limited in what inside truths he can ultimately muster after relying so heavily on his collection of ideologically-driven White House sources, and little else. As a result, in many respects, he puts himself in an awkward position. By using such skewed evidence to illuminate critical moments in the buildup to the interventions, he has struggled to lump his three little wars together in order to defend the administration-of-the-day’s actions. He chose to do this as opposed to proving, with irrefutable evidence, that specific decisions to intervene at each transformative stage were merited. One must humbly chide Professor Crandall for not making use of an entire file of COHA material that was issued at the time, which had useful disclosures about the role of the CIA and State Department in fabricating a case for intervening in Grenada and generating false interpretations over the use of the island’s new airport. Perhaps he might have been a more credible analyst had he chosen to consult a broader base of sources and more thoroughly explored critics’ claims – which might be inconvenient for him, but still necessary to address.

The Dominican Script

Although there are a number of systemic problems with the conclusions he reaches, the most obvious example is that he skims over the fact that the United States undeniably worked to undermine the sovereignty of the Caribbean nations under his purview. In his assessment, Crandall avoids the concept of respecting sovereignty, and instead zeroes in on what he sees as the high point of the interventions, stating that “while far from perfect, Dominican democracy was unquestionably stronger than it had been before the U.S. intervention” (p.93).

In order to further substantiate his claim, Crandall details subsequent elections in the Dominican Republic, unabashedly stating that future democratic success in the Dominican stemmed from U.S. military intervention: “given the country’s tumultuous and violent history, a compelling case can be made that the U.S. intervention prevented an incipient civil war from turning into something much worse” (p.94). What Crandall doesn’t stress is that democracy was hardly improved; it was, in fact, worsened by the U.S. thunder.

Crandall does not appear to have considered that had the U.S. chosen not to intervene, perhaps the Dominican Republic might have become a more substantive democracy than it is today, instead of the kleptocracy in which its presidential politics has specialized in for years. He also makes the same blanket judgment for Panama and Grenada, stating that if nothing else, at least the rate at which democracy developed in these countries increased as a result of the U.S. interventions. His ultimate thesis: “democracy could also have easily taken much longer to put down deep roots [without U.S. intervention]” (p.227).

In many ways Professor Crandall dusted off a scuffed up thesis that does not provide a fully satisfying description of any of the three instances of Caribbean interventions he has chosen to chronicle. According to his own criteria, he not only seeks to analyze the interventions by submitting the process to academic rigor, but also seems intent on proving, without a hint of embarrassment, that the ends justified the means. In many ways, he may have bitten off more of an ethical argument than he could chew and, in doing so, he impaired some of the more meaningful insights that have been laid out by conservative analysts elsewhere regarding Washington’s decision-making process.

Despite this impasse, Crandall’s analysis of the Dominican intervention is noteworthy, because of his ability to see things the way President Lyndon B. Johnson did in commissioning the Dominican Intervention of 1965. However, one might argue that framed by Fidel’s victory in Cuba, not yet been beleaguered by Vietnam, but knowing that he would not tolerate another “Havana,” President Johnson contrived the entire Dominican script. This action relied upon Johnson’s ability to justify the landing of tens of thousands of U.S. troops, allegedly to rescue U.S. and foreign nationals who had been urged to take refuge at the Embajador Hotel by local authorities. In other words, Crandall fails to acknowledge that Johnson and his aides raised a Potemkin village to justify the White House’s escapades.

Ideology and Intervention: A Disturbing Duo

As a result of his lackluster approach, much of Crandall’s professional analysis suffers from a near-fatal illness. It is a shame that Crandall, in stressing the desiderata of the interventions, burdens himself with such an unworthy redemptive task in writing “Gunboat Democracy,” when some of his insights into Washington’s motivations for military intervention could have made the cut. Perhaps if he had been able to avoid using paternalistic logic to justify the three interventions in question, Crandall might have emerged as a more balanced analyst. The approach he uses in his writing largely mimics the stand taken by Reagan’s advisors during the Grenada intervention, embodied in a speech that the then-president made to an audience of 90,000 Grenadians. After having ordered the invasion of their country in the name of defending democracy, Reagan said, “I will never be sorry that I made the decision to help you” (p. 162).

Subjective omissions notwithstanding, Russell Crandall has written a flawed, but provocative book, showing that he feels comfortable in defending U.S. military intervention in the Caribbean in a number of settings. More broadly, he seeks to defend, mirabile dictu, America’s right to uphold democratic freedoms around the world. Regrettably, in “Gunboat Democracy,” Crandall first codifies and then commits many of the same errors that both Republican and Democrat administrations did at the time that these interventions were transpiring. It may be that one of the clearest reasons to be disappointed with “Gunboat Democracy,” is that Crandall, a born again buccaneer, mistakes ideologically-driven and anecdotal prejudices as legitimate grounds for military intervention.

One can only hope that in Crandall’s upcoming endeavors he will articulate a stronger, more insightful understanding of Latin America, and rally a sense of common cause with the region’s drive for autonomous democracy. The people of the region are capable, eager and willing to defend democracy according to their own goals, definitions and agendas. Looking ahead, it becomes a question of whether or not the Obama administration will permit the region to determine its own direction. The degree to which Washington means to harmonize its own policy with that of the rest of the hemisphere should be determined in short order, not only with friendly ports-of-call like Peru, Costa Rica, and Colombia, but also with less hospitable provenances like sulking Venezuela, and Bolivia.