Saturday, January 6, 2007

Review of "Safe for Democracy" by John Prados (2 of 2)

As that quote illustrates, because of the costs to the "soft power" of America's pre-2001 democratic example, covert ops prsent very practical dangers. Prados explores a number of those in the context of his case studies, such as:

* The risks of escalation. "Failed political action contains an inherent temptation to escalate, as tragically shown in Chile."

* The dangers of loose cannons and questionable allies. The CIA has long relied on independent contractors. And now a very large part of the CIA's covert ops activities involve working through third-country intelligence services.

* Incrimination. As Prados observes, if a political action is started somewhere and the CIA later pulls out, they inevitably leave behind evidence of US involvement which can come back to cause problems later.

* Costs. Some of these operations suck up a lot of money, especially in situations where various players are taking their own cut of the funds.

* Finding "third forces". The CIA always looks for a third force, one not tied to the most extreme political tendencies in the target country. But sometimes there just aren't any "third forces" to be found that will work with the CIA. I was really struck in reading Prados' book about how fixated the CIA covert ops folks have been on this "third force" approach.

* Hanging out with bad company. The CIA has found itself working with the Mafia in Cuba, drug smugglers in Laose and Afghanistan, and a sometimes sordid crew of mercenaries, thugs and war criminals. Not necessarily bad in itself, but also not without serious risks. Even with less sleazy allies, covert operators sometimes find it hard to resist the temptation to "go native" and put the interests of the tribe or foreign party or paramilitary group with whom they are working ahead of US interests, which are never entirely identical. Put another way, the covert operators have to be willing to sell out or cut loose their local allies if the circumstances call for it. Which can be messy.

These sorts of practical problems come into play even when the intent of the covert op is to be a less drastic substitute for conventional military action. That or other good intentions don't remove the practical problems and risks. As Prados puts it, "Visions of covert action are based on a wish and a hope". Just like the Cheney-Bush administration's plans to invade Iraq, and we can see how well that's working out. Specifically with regard to paramilitary ops, he writes, "American national interest suffers each time a paramilitary operation fails. The record shows successes to be few, failures far more numerous, and wartime acdtions to have been the most useful".

Another important facet of covert operations should not be lost behind images of James Bond:

After building a capability expressly to fight the Russians, secret warriors abandoned action in the denied areas [the Soviet bloc] in favor of interventions in the Third World. It took roughly until 1954 for the CIA to generate its global paramilitary capabilitiy; then no further paramilitary operations were attempted against the Soviet Union. With the exception of Afghanistan, this is especially true of the twenty-five-year period from 1960 to 1985 of which McGeorge Bundy writes, but it has remained true since. Covert operations have been and are a weapon against the weak. (my emphasis in bold)

Prados also makes some important observations on disputed historical points. For instance, on the question of whether John Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, who directed the anti-Cuban campaign, knew specifically about CIA assassination plots against Castro, he is agnostic. Based on the information in the public record, he thinks "the evidence and chronology are highly suggetive" that they may have. He leaves it at, "Readers can draw their own conclusions".

He also argues that President Dwight Eisenhower's handling of covert ops suggests that in foreign affairs, he was less passive (for better or worse!) than many have thought, then and now:

At the strategic nuclear level, Eisenhower did much to resist a stampeding arms race, though his achievement has been tarnished in recent years by revelation of his delegations of authority to use nuclear weapons. But as the man who institutionalized covert operations, Ike does not emerge as the moderate, even liberal, Republican seen in historical reappraisals. It is apparent - and now largely accepted by historians - that Eisenhower relied upon covert operations instead of, and in preference to, conventional military force. He institutionalized covert operations precisely by creating mechanisms to manage them. The president did this even while the Indochina and Guatemala ventures were in progress, and he sustained the effort to control global clandestine operations.

Prados uses a style I particularly like for historical writing. He constructs factual narratives of events based on thorough research with minimal analytic interpretation interspersed. And when he does make analystical points he bases them closely n the factual material he presents. He constructs parsimonious arguments, would be another way to put it. Which is not al all to say the reader can't use the information he provides and come to different analytical conclusions.

Prados, who is also the author of The Hidden History of the Vietnam War and Lost Crusader: The Secret Wars of CIA Director William Colby, is one of the leading authorities on the history of US covert operations. Safe for Democracy gives us a valuable history of CIA covert ops based on the information currently available publicly. And he raises an important challenge to assumptions that covert ops, whether political or paramilitary, have proved themselves to be efficient and effective instruments of US foreign policy. Especially if our foreign policy seriously aims to make the world safe for democracy.

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