A cardinal principle of democracy is that elected civilian leaders must have full, unfettered control over a nation's armed forces. Military establishments cannot operate autonomously; they must be subject to civilian authority. Some US overseas military assistance programs appear to be flouting - rather than defending - that principle.
Recent Washington Post articles by Dana Priest and Doug Farah report on the Pentagon's Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), a congressionally mandated program that exempts the overseas training of US special forces from many of the restraints placed on other foreign military exercises. JCET operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, however, routinely pursue purposes that go well beyond training US troops.
They work with foreign armies to battle drugs, teach antiguerrilla tactics, and bolster US influence in the region. JCET conducts its business free of the human rights restrictions commonly imposed on US aid programs, and can legally operate in countries where other US military exchanges are prohibited. It is an ideal vehicle for building military-to-military ties without normal policy constraints.
This last feature of JCET can be troubling, however, if it leads to actions that are out-of-step with declared US policy. In Colombia and Peru, for example, JCET activity, because it's not required to take precautions, has apparently circumvented the US government's commitment not to arm or train security forces guilty of human rights abuses.
More disturbing is the seeming lack of civilian oversight - from either the US or host government - in the design, negotiation, and implementation of the JCET programs. The deal is struck between the militaries of the two countries, and carried out with little attention from civilian authorities. This is not the right model for US military cooperation in Latin America, where civil-military relations remain unsettled in so many places.
There are reasons for supporting JCET activities, which are, in many instances, serving both US and Latin American interests. In those countries where drug trafficking is subverting democratic institutions, better trained and prepared security forces are needed. Political violence also needs to be more effectively addressed in some nations. US training can help get human rights concerns more prominently on the agendas of the region's armed forces.
Yet, despite the potential benefits, proceeding without unambiguous civilian control is a mistake. Such control is no guarantee of virtue, but it is a vital safeguard that should not be short-circuited. Democracy is best promoted through democratic procedures.
If the details were made public and political leaders had to assume responsibility, the US might have to abandon a few military exchanges in Latin America and the Caribbean. In some places, local citizens or politicians would object. In others, the pressure might come from US human rights groups. In still others, Congress could decide to terminate the program. But this is precisely what civilian control is all about.
The military does not automatically get its way. It is also what regional cooperation is about. The US does not always get its way. In most countries, however, the programs would continue unimpeded - and probably not much changed.
JCET and other military exchanges can and should fully reflect the values of American democracy. Three simple reforms would make that possible.
First, all overseas military programs should be formally and explicitly approved by civilian authorities (for example, the host country's foreign minister and the US Ambassador) and be open to appropriate legislative review.
Second, comprehensive reports should be regularly submitted to civilian policy officials in the two countries, and some version of them should be made public. On the basis of these reports, US ambassadors should be required to determine whether the missions are consistent with broader US policy goals or need to be adjusted.
Third, each JCET program should be required periodically to demonstrate to civilian overseers that (1) it is providing, as the law demands, significant training for US soldiers and (2) its exemption from the human rights and other restraints imposed on other military exchanges is not leading to violations of broad US principles or policy goals.
Military training and assistance programs are too important to be left to the generals alone.
* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.