Spare a thought for Grenada. If the tiny Caribbean “spice island” figures at all these days, it’s as a last-minute holiday bargain in the travel supplements. Even then, many people think it is in southern Spain.
The story was different 20 years ago. Grenada was catapulted on to the front pages in October 1983 when troops from the world’s most powerful country invaded the nutmeg-exporting island in order to effect “regime change”. The White House sledgehammer was successful and US forces soon withdrew, but claims that a minuscule place with no army and a population of less than 100,000 could conceivably be a military threat prompted derision.
Two decades later the invasion looks less like an aberration than a harbinger of what happened in Iraq this year, a case of Caribbean farce being repeated as Middle Eastern tragedy. With George Bush senior in office as vice-president, the US assault on Grenada was a foretaste of the “pre-emptive military intervention” which his son enshrined as US national strategic doctrine last summer. Get them before they are even remotely in a position to get you.
Reporters who covered Grenada in that distant autumn of 1983 saw the same abuse of human rights, the same postwar incompetence, the same primitive failure to understand a foreign culture which the US “war on terror” was later to produce.
None of us was allowed into Point Salines, the airport which the US took over as its occupation headquarters. But looking across rows of barbed wire we caught glimpses of detainees being herded into wooden crates. The entrances to these boxes were less than three feet high and prisoners had to undergo the humiliation of having to crouch on all fours to get in. A single tiny window in each crate gave the luckless prisoners a view of armed guards in sandbagged watchtowers. It was the prototype of Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-Ray.
At the village of Grand Roy I found a stunned group of local women with the same blank looks of incomprehension that I was to see after US raids in Iraq this summer. No one was killed but six US soldiers had seized the Pope Paul Ecumenical Centre, a building used for community meetings and a children’s summer camp. They hurled beds, tables and chairs into the street. “Our company HQ heard this was a centre for communist propaganda. We had an intelligence report that they had found a scrapbook with material which was communist in nature,” said a staff sergeant. A copy of a very unglossy magazine called Soviet Woman lay incriminatingly on a desk. Asked whether this and a few other socialist pamphlets were enough to justify closing the place, the sergeant, a burly Puerto Rican, responded: “That’s a question for senior officers. I’ve accomplished my mission.”
Until the invasion, dirt-poor Grenada was run by a mildly leftwing government. The quaintly named New Jewel Movement had launched a revolution whose nickname - the “revo” - sounded like a motorbike. Maurice Bishop, its charismatic leader, was murdered by a sectarian rival and most Grenadans were still in shock and mourning when Ronald Reagan exploited the chaos to send in US troops.
Washington’s case was that a new airport was being built by Cubans (true) as a launch-pad for future regional interventions by Fidel Castro (false). It was not explained how Grenada could give Castro extra muscle when the island is further from Florida or Central America - where leftwing insurgents were fighting military regimes - than Cuba is itself.
The true impulse - America’s obsessive hatred of Cuba’s independence and its desire to stop other countries in the region from following suit - was spelt out on the walls of the looted Cuban embassy. “Eat shit, Commie faggot,” said newly written graffiti. The vandals had left their calling card, the initials AA for All American, which the 82nd Airborne Division likes to use. (They are the same outfit which recently killed three Iraqis near Falluja while shooting up a farmhouse and calling in airstrikes to destroy the building.)
Tawdry, vicious and ignorant, the invasion of Grenada differed from this year’s war on Iraq in one important particular. A furious British prime minister did not hesitate to tell the US president he was wrong. In spite of her love-in with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher saw through the threadbare threat assessments which the US put up to justify the war. “I am totally and utterly against communism and terrorism,” she thundered in a BBC interview. “But if you are going to pronounce a new law that wherever communism reigns against the will of their people, the United States shall enter - then we are going to have really terrible wars in the world.”
In her autobiography, she later described how Reagan rang to get her views a few hours before the invasion. It would be seen, she told him, “as intervention by a western country in the internal affairs of a small independent nation, however unattractive its regime”. No self-delusions about liberation. Unlike Blair, Thatcher knew it would be occupation.
She explained that Grenada had not suddenly changed “from a democratic island paradise into a Soviet surrogate overnight in October 1983”. Its socialist regime had taken over four years earlier. The Iraq analogy arises again. What made Saddam Hussein’s Iraq more of a “threat” in March 2003 than it had been during the years of containment?
“The new ‘hemispheric’ strategy which President Reagan’s administration was pursuing in our view led the US to exaggerate the threat which a Marxist Grenada posed,” Thatcher wrote. Brave words, especially after Reagan had helped her during the Falklands war 18 months earlier. Reagan spurned the advice and ordered the invasion to go ahead. “I felt dismayed and let down. At best, the British government had been made to look impotent, at worst we looked deceitful,” Thatcher commented.
The lesson for today is clear. When the US feels its vital interests are at stake abroad, whispers from a friend are unlikely to change things. Thatcher’s colleague Christopher Soames put the point starkly in a House of Lords debate a few days after the invasion. “I hope her majesty’s government will draw the conclusion from this sorry episode that perhaps the best way for the United Kingdom to bring influence to bear upon the decision-making process of the United States in the middle and latter parts of the 1980s will be off a European base. It is in strengthening that base and speaking with a European authority that we shall have much more influence over the US than through any special Anglo-Saxon influence that may or may not be left over from the mists of time,” he declared.
Soames was a Europhile and Thatcher herself would never make the case in such strategic terms. But even with her narrow Atlanticist point of view, she knew when the Americans were going wrong and was not scared to tell them.
The contrast with Blair is sad.