Covert Operations, Now More Than Ever

Sunday, April 30, 2000

Lord Acton's famous maxim about the corruptive influence of power is just as true with regard to "absolute" military force as it is with regard to power in the domestic political realm. He might even have added that command of un-matched technological prowess can blind policymakers to lower-profile, lower-cost ways to achieve their nation's goals. Some security problems can be solved with a sledgehammer or only with a sledgehammer. But far more common are those foreign policy challenges that can be solved—or prevented altogether—by measures short of violent conflict, even where routine diplomatic instruments prove ineffective.

As the reigning superpower, the United States must not eschew forceful diplomacy or violence in extremis when its strategic interests are at stake. But Washington's current overreliance on aerial bombardment as the weapon of second (if not first) resort diminishes America's prestige, sullies its espousal of a liberal-democratic new world order, and endangers its strategic relations with other major powers. Less-confrontational options can achieve U.S. goals without the harmful side effects that include a strained Western alliance and strained relations with China and Russia, not to mention civilian deaths and material destruction. That less-confrontational option is covert or indirect action abroad, and it offers today, no less than during the Cold War, an effective alternative to the unacceptable risks and costs of military operations.

The Yugoslavian bombing campaign and the long series of air strikes against Iraq raise afresh the issue of how and why America should pursue its foreign policy agenda. Kosovo made clear, to some observers at least, that the United States should not wade into middle-sized conflicts in places with unpronounceable names and little strategic value, no matter what the extent of human suffering. Americans cannot, after all, make the lions lie down with the lambs, everywhere and for all time. Other critics concluded that Washington should have done more sooner in Kosovo, deploying ground troops and risking casualties in order to win a battle for international moral conduct. But the first opinion gives short shrift to the consequences that an unchecked slaughter in Europe could hold for that continent, whereas the second appears impractical because the stakes—even in President Clinton's view—were not worth the political problems that could result from the shedding of American blood in a distant country for obscure goals.

The ambiguous rationale for involvement resulted in an air campaign and not a war, a characterization that the Clinton administration scrupulously avoided. But as it turned out, the relentless air strikes, often against civilian targets, sapped the moral high ground that Clinton coveted. They failed to halt Belgrade's atrocities in Kosovo, damaged relations with China and Russia over a nonstrategic issue, risked NATO's unity, and left Slobodan Milosevic in power. One is left to wonder whether the necessity of "doing something" to address a genuine humanitarian and political crisis could have inspired an earlier, more effective, and less violent response lying between the extremes of disengagement and war.

To be sure, a reliance on air power reflects our technologically oriented civilization. High-altitude bombing promises to override historical complexities. But it ignores the fact that intractable ethnic and political conflicts are often resistant to technological quick fixes. It is not enough just to make low-tech regimes in places like Serbia and Iraq "hunker down"; it means ridding them of their predatory leaders. And that requires a dramatic paradigm shift back to covert action as the policy option of choice. Such operations have often leveraged the preponderance of U.S. power to secure outcomes favorable to American aims, and their effectiveness stemmed in part from the perception in a target country that the United States had thrown its weight behind one side in a crisis. Direct military intervention proved unnecessary. Indeed, one might even conclude that direct military intervention, far from being the way to ensure policy success, is a proof of policy failure.

Indirect methods rely less on cutting-edge technologies and employment of force and more on American operatives' mastering local politics, understanding different cultures, and learning foreign languages. Above all, they call for political judgment and continuous, anticipatory attention to the world beyond American shores. Briefly, they seek to strengthen local opposition forces against an adversarial regime so as to bring about positive changes in governments.

Despite NATO's ever-intensified bombings of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic not only pursued his ethnic-cleansing policies during the bombardment but also clung to power after signing the Balkan military agreement. Other dictators such as Libya's Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein have also endured American barrages without capitulating to American demands. Perhaps it is time to look to other means to deal with "rogues" and criminals who build weapons of mass destruction or destabilize their neighborhoods.

Measures Short of War

Needless to say, the U.S. government should always take the conventional diplomatic steps available in order to advance American interests and promote regional peace and the cause of democracy and human rights when they seem challenged. But traditional instruments of statecraft—sanctions, presidential appeals or threats, and American largesse (read bribes)—will not influence iron-fisted adversaries. The really tough nuts, such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Serbia, and Cuba, will not be cracked by sanctions or modify their policies because a miffed U.S. State Department has withdrawn its embassy staff. Economic embargoes are even more problematic since they hurt innocent victims in the sanctioned states. Even the resort to international tribunals to try wrongdoers for murderous acts, for instance in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, does not suffice to forestall determined criminals.

That is why the United States since World War II has relied on two indirect and nonmilitary remedies to undo actual or potential adversaries: robust public support for reformers in target countries and muscular covert operations. Aboveboard approaches have entailed financial and technical assistance to bolster independent media, grassroots political movements, radio broadcasts beamed into a target country, and exchange programs for students, academics, journalists, and other professionals. The rationale was to pry open closed societies such as those of the Soviet bloc. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, U.S. overt assistance was instrumental in turning out former communist leaders through elections in Bulgaria, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia. Although these measures are not viewed as covert operations, they constituted a form of intervention in another state's affairs, at least from the perspective of the electoral losers. As such, they blur the line between subversive and reformist ventures. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), established in 1983, has promoted democracy in scores of countries and fills overtly some of the same functions that the Central Intelligence Agency undertook covertly in earlier decades. But the NED's reformist strategies will simply invite the early death of democratic elements in a North Korea, Libya, Iraq, or Syria.

When it becomes necessary to oust a ruthless regime, it means moving along the operational spectrum from overt to covert methods. Obviously, not all detestable regimes warrant subversion, and not all the likely alternative rulers are a clear improvement. President Eisenhower, an enthusiastic employer of secret interventions, backed away from coup plans against Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser when he realized that the political conditions in that country differed greatly from those in Iran, where the CIA had helped remove Mohammad Mossadegh from power. When President Bush, to take another example, realized that no attractive prospects existed to stage a coup against Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, he opted for a military invasion. But when a viable alternative to an odious regime does exist, then covert action combined with good political judgment and professional execution can yield magnificent results. They are also far cheaper in blood, treasure, and political capital.

During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services conducted numerous operations against the Axis, from counterintelligence activity to airdrops of weapons and explosives for guerrilla bands operating behind enemy lines. Of course, war gives a wide latitude to covert actions against a belligerent state, but is a given action less moral when its purpose is to prevent a war rather than to win one? The question answered itself during the four decades of the Cold War.

The post-world war era ushered in a unique ideological, military, and diplomatic rivalry between the two surviving global powers. Except for the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, much of the struggle between Moscow and Washington was conducted beneath the threshold of open combat lest they provoke a nuclear showdown. Covert "black" operations, then and now, are much less confrontational than direct military interventions, so the United States embarked on operations—in places as varied as Iran, the Philippines, and Chile—to support friends and overthrow leaders that appeared to further Soviet designs.

None of these American-aided ousters escaped criticism here or abroad as illustrations of American "imperialism"—but no one can deny their effectiveness and efficiency. Under the shah, Iran modernized and moved into the ranks of major players in Middle East politics, while Chile after Allende gradually became Latin America's beacon of economic growth, political stability, and (eventually) democratization. Neither Iran nor Chile is cause for U.S. embarrassment. Indeed, both did much better than a precoup prognosis would have predicted from their histories.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco began a twenty-year-long reaction against covert operations. Reagan's successful support of the Afghan mujahideen reignited the debate. Critics argue that U.S. support of those rebels ultimately enabled the Muslim fundamentalist Taliban to occupy much of Afghanistan and play host to Osama bin Laden, the Saudi businessman turned terrorist. But such a monocausal explanation distorts history to serve political motives. For centuries, Afghanistan has been a badly fragmented country. The Soviets relied on local puppets to maintain control in a classic divide-and-rule scheme, which deepened societal divisions. Reagan's intervention did not cause the cleavages among Afghanistan's mountainous tribes. It helped them to unite temporarily against the Soviet occupation, just as they had resisted British penetration in the previous century.


It is not enough simply to make low-tech regimes in places like Serbia and Iraq "hunker down." We need to rid them of their predatory leaders.


Still, the blow-back phenomenon is cited as evidence against covert enterprises: that is, to manipulate foreign countries is to invite retribution down the road. Perhaps that is so—no one can read the future-but no covert action could possibly compare with such direct actions as emergency airlifts to Israel, the Persian Gulf War, and the ongoing U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and the gulf when it comes to provoking anti-American sentiments in the Middle East. And when compared with the results of Soviet interventions or Marxist-inspired movements in such places as Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Peru, and Vietnam, the aftereffects of American covert enterprises look much more praiseworthy. Today, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, for example, have more promising prospects for progress than ex-Soviet proxies such as North Korea, Vietnam, Yemen, Somalia, and Cuba.

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. administrations have relied on conventional projection of power, sometimes in anemic fashion, sometimes in heavy-handed fashion, as if aircraft carriers, ground forces, and bomber squadrons were omnicompetent and irresistible. Never, in peacetime, has the United States been so bellicose. Meanwhile, the covert option has lain nearly dormant, and what post-Cold War record it has is mixed, thanks again to poor judgment and poor execution.

Covert Operations: A Realistic Alternative

Admittedly, the record of achievement of indirect measures is not perfect. But then, clear-cut U.S. military victories since the Second World War have been much more scarce. Even the apparent victory in the Persian Gulf is marred by the enduring presence of Saddam Hussein. Korea, Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo were limited conflicts with limited results, and the war in Vietnam was an outright American defeat. A number of covert actions, on the other hand, have had decisive and favorable results and certainly worked far better than the bombing of Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic or the cruise missile launches against Sudan or Afghanistan. Covert actions can succeed in cases where direct intervention might exact great costs in American lives, funds, and damaged international relations; they can also promote democratic ideals and economic development without putting American force and prestige on the line. Critics retort that the record of covert operations has included bloody tactics, right-wing death squads, and human rights violations. But their opponents were equally ruthless. It is just that we have romanticized any revolutionary guerrilla with a gun and a redistributive doctrine.

All war is hell. But is subversive warfare worse than the collateral damage done to hospitals, schools, and houses by aerial bombardments? America's newfound reliance on the "immaculate coercion" of dropping bombs from jets flying three miles over Iraq or Yugoslavia to attain our policy objectives has led us not only to eschew the deployment of land forces but also to downplay indirect antiregime ventures. In the case of Iraq, the Clinton team initially dismissed every anti-Saddam group as ineffective or antagonistic, rather than working to coordinate their movements. Likewise, when consideration of assistance to the Kosovo Liberation Army was publicly aired, opponents called attention to the divisions within the KLA and contended that helping it would set a precedent for other ethnic groups bent on separation. But just as the Allies in World War II dropped weapons, radios, and other supplies to Tito's communist partisans, NATO could not pick and choose what partisans existed on the ground. In fact, a lengthy Western tutelage of the KLA or guerrilla groups elsewhere holds out the prospect of professionalizing a movement, purging it of corrupt fighters, and influencing it along democratic lines. This has happened to the bulk of Latin American trainees, whom the United States instructed at length in democratic civil-military relations. Revolutionaries hunger for the legitimacy provided by a major patron. It is far easier to affect a nationalist movement while it is in the malleable stage than once it comes to power.

In the final analysis, politics always makes for strange bedfellows, and states must usually choose the lesser of evils. To refrain from supporting all but the most pristine Jeffersonian resistance force is to paralyze oneself.

Covert actions in the past did push the envelope of normal and legal international relations. But the ambiguous nature of the Cold War blurred the distinction in international law between declared hostility and genuine harmony. In other words, the previous era was conducive to covert enterprises. A nation-state's recourse to self-defense, however, has always been lawful, and certain rogue leaders do constitute a clear and present danger. The "end justifying the means" controversy confronts policymakers whenever they undertake covert, or even overt, actions against another state. We should hold indirect operations to the same criteria as overt uses of force. Do they advance American interests? Do they meet established principles of armed conflict? Are they proportional to the goal? In cases such as Iraq, where ordinary citizens suffer under a cruel tyrant and the regime threatens its neighbors with brutal invasion, arguments against subversion of Saddam Hussein appear overly legalistic.


Just as it was during the Cold War, covert action is still an effective alternative to the unacceptable risks and costs of military operations.


Subversion offends American sensibilities of fair play, the rule of law, and orderly turnover of government to another party following a free election. We like to think that dirty tricks are the tactics of less-scrupulous governments. The amoral French, perfidious British, or treacherous Russians somehow seem better suited to skullduggery than the "apple pie and mom" Americans. Others disdain, or even revel in, criticism of underhandedness in the pursuit of national interests. But Americans take it to heart, launch congressional investigations, and editorialize against underhanded methods that blot our escutcheon. The only result is that extended bombing, outsized destruction, and indiscriminate death are somehow offered as more moral and justifiable, especially if the United States is willing to foot the bill for reconstruction.

At first blush, U.S. sponsorship of indirect operations runs counter to the multilateralism espoused by U.N. exponents. Such American ventures in the past might have appeared unilateral and self-serving. But here again circumstances have shifted as a result of the acknowledged ineffectiveness of the United Nations during the Bosnia war of the early 1990s. More recently, the United Nations had to stand aside while NATO conducted the military campaign in Kosovo. The dispatch of Nigerian troops to conflict-ridden Sierra Leone and the Australian-led force in breakaway East Timor were further recognition by the United Nations that its former peacekeeping missions had given way to dangerous peace enforcement operations beyond the means of its blue helmets. Indirect assaults against the Saddam Husseins and Slobodan Milosevics of the world may well assume the mantle of virtuousness now attached to humanitarian interventions. In any event, when Washington's actions are perceived as advancing the greater and common good, as distinct from its own narrow interests, multilateralist condemnation may be muted by reality.

By ruling out covert actions and by relying too heavily on air assault, the United States handicaps itself in the emerging, complex world. Responses to every local case of murderous behavior should not rise to the level of direct American military intervention. Yet, as the reigning superpower, we feel a responsibility to address a spreading crisis before it engulfs a region. Prudence dictates an alternative to massive air strikes and lopsided, no-casualty victories that will in time erode our moral standing and raise up a host of adversaries worldwide. In an earlier age, Eisenhower recognized the dilemmas when he privately lamented "that some of our traditional ideas of international sportsmanship are scarcely applicable in the morass in which the world now founders."

From the U.S.-Soviet bipolarity we inherited a blurring between war and peace that has shaped our current era. The lessons and options from the past can be applied to small-scale cold wars that we are likely to face in the Serbias and Iraqs of the future. Indirect applications of power will relieve our military overextension, reduce our exposure to combat casualties, skirt unnecessary confrontation, and spare us from assuming burdens that are not easily shed. How much less costly, more humane, and more effective would well-planned and well-executed covert operations be than our present reliance on aerial siege warfare?