Whatever may be said about the right or wrong of U.S. foreign interventions since World War II, it is hardly debatable that few of them have been winners. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have shown an infallible instinct for associating the United States with the losing side.
Nevertheless, if it is true that the government is now contemplating reinvolvement in Guatemala and Cambodia, the Reagan administration may find itself adding some new chapters to our dismal history of foreign failures.
Some kind of a political-moral-ideological case can always be made for foreign adventures, but, to be self-centered, what is best for U.S. security and the national interest? Up to now, it's hard to think of any interventions that have been clear and lasting successes for us.
The day after the election of Ronald Reagan, Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo sent him this message on Central America: Keep out. Don't intervene.
It apparently didn't make much of an impression, for ever since the Reagan regime has riveted attention on El Salvador, Nicaragua and, now, Guatemala. The latest word from the State Department is that the administration is disposed to renew U.S. military aid to Guatemala's military government against what is described as a major insurgency, allegedly armed by "the worldwide communist network."
That's where we came in 26 years ago, when the United States covertly engineered the otherthrow of Guatemala's elected president, Arbenz Guzman. In the succeeding years, it has been nothing but misery for Guatemala's impoverished people as one general after another suppressed democratic resistance, including the general now in power.
One reason Mexico is so suspicious of U.S. interventions in Latin and Central America is America's long record of favoring anti-democratic dictators such as Batista in Cuba, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Somoza in Nicaragua and the military-landowner oligarchy in El Salvador. Most of our old clients have now been deposed, assassinated or both, leaving a legecy of disillusionment with the United States. And Latin doubts about the Reagan administration have been aggravated by new overtures to the repressive authoritarian governments of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.
The most surprising new development is talk that the United States will join China and the ASEAN countries in sponsoring a so-called "third force" against the Vietnamese army now occupying Cambodia. The third force would be composed of what's left of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge communist troops -- about 30,000 -- and former prime minister Son Sann's Liberation Front followers, numbering about 3,000 or so. Is it conceivable that such a feeble combination (even with U.S. support) could overpower the Vietnamese, who have a formidable force of 200,000 in Cambodia? It's a good moment to remember that 500,000 U.S. troops plus a million-man South Vietnamese army could not defeat Hanoi's army after 10 years of fighting.
It's also a good moment to remember that, after Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese army defeated the French at Dienbienphu in 1954, the United States unilaterally took up the cudgels against Hanoi, promoting the division of Vietnam and the installation of American puppets in South Vietnam. During the succeeding war with North Vietnam, the United States began the secret bombing of Cambodia, which disrupted the country and led to the overthrow of Prince Sihanouk's government by Lon Nol. The general was backed by the United States until he, in turn, was overthrown by the genocidal communist forces of Pol Pot.
If all this is not a sufficient warning to stay out of losing situations, let Reagan's advisers add up the cost of our intervening against the winning side in the Chinese civil war and the continuing cost of propping up anti-democratic military governments in South Korea.
In South Asia, we "tilted" toward Pakistan in its losing war with India. In Iran, we backed the shah in his losing fight with his own people. In Ethiopia, we supported and armed Haile Selassie until he was deposed. In the Angolan civil war, we again backed the losing side. And so it has gone for three decades.
All of which prompted Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), the assistant minority leader, to say as far back as 1975: "We need a positive foreign policy -- doing what is good for the U.S. -- instead of the anachronistic cold war policy of doing what we think is worst for the Soviet Union. . . The United States should be a peaceful world neighbor instead of a militant world meddler."
It sounds just as relevant as the day he said it.