Nearly two hundred years ago during the Tripolitan War, United States
President Thomas Jefferson ordered the paramilitary removal of the ruler of Tripoli, in
what may have been the first instance of government sanctioned covert operation in
American history. Since this time, the frequency of such operations performed in the
American interest by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has certainly increased, as
has the power and dominance of the United States on the world stage. In fact,
Joseph S. Nye goes so far as to claim that the Americans possess the most power
within any one state since the Roman Empire. Yet although covert paramilitary
operations have been necessary for the United States to achieve its current
hegemonic status, if continued, their long lasting effects will contribute to the demise
of American dominance. Covert actions aim to deceive, manipulate, weaken and
defeat real and perceived enemies. As well, the use of hard power attains real
physical control over other regions that soft power cannot. However, such tactics
breed unrest, simultaneously threatening domestic peace and national security, while
trapping the government in a complex web of alliances and deceit with no opportunity
to abandon its dishonourable ways. In order to warn against the use of covert
paramilitary operations as a tool of foreign policy, this paper illustrates the adverse
effects of such clandestine missions undertaken by the American government in the
During the postwar period of the late 1940’s and the 1950’s, the “threat” of
communism and the American desire for control over foreign resources ushered in
an age of heightened covert CIA activity. The National Security Act of 1947, which
created the CIA, declared that the agency should “perform such other functions and
duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security
Council may from time to time direct.” (Rositzke) Under this clause, covert activities
were indirectly authorized, allowing for more accurate intelligence networks and the
offensive potential to “roll back”–rather than simply prevent–the spread of
communism. (Rositzke) Covert operations also enabled the United States to secure
influence in areas of geographic wealth, particularly in those regions rich in oil. By
secretly disseminating propaganda, manipulating foreign economies and abetting
coups against the leaders of its target countries, the CIA facilitated the rise of
If covert action is so effective in furthering the influence of a state, why should
the United States forsake its secret involvement in the affairs of other countries?
Professor Roy Godson believes that overt and covert programs are necessary within a
democracy to protect and advance its interests; he refers to the “clandestine arts” as
the “trump cards in the early twenty-first century.” Indeed secret paramilitary
operations can allow for short-term gains, but the long-term effects are far more
significant, and can lead a once-powerful state to its downfall. A government that
resorts to covert action threatens its own domestic and international stability. As
Sagarika Ghose insists, “power without legitimacy breeds its own undermining.”
NSC 4-A requires that all covert activities disguise American involvement so
that if uncovered, the American government can “plausibly disclaim any responsibility
for them.” (Rositzke) Such precautions have rarely, if ever, succeeded, and
underestimate the intelligence of the rest of the world; a government cannot conceal
its wrongdoings–people will know. During the Vietnam War, New York Times reporter
Seymour Hersh risked his career to expose many incriminating war stories the
American government had tried to leave in Vietnam, which only exacerbated domestic
discontent and protest against the war. (Schaller, Scarff & Schulzinger 305).
Additionally, a severe loss of faith in political leaders occurred when President Ronald
Reagan’s involvement in the Iran-contra scandal became known during the
president’s second term. Clearly, as cases of covert operations become public,
domestic division and debates over the legitimacy of government worsen. Citizens
protest. The possibility of peace and progress within the state is diminished.
American covert operations have also shown to support organized crime, not
only by offering an unruly example to American citizens, but by actually cooperating
with criminals at home and abroad. A prime example of such collaboration is the
effort made by both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations to assassinate
Cuban leader Fidel Castro. The CIA approached the Mafia for help, “hoping to tap its
assassination expertise,” at which time one of the principal Mafia collaborators was
on trial in the United States for murder. (Schaller, Scarff & Schulzinger 186) These
criminals were handsomely paid by the CIA, and it is likely that this government
money was then used to fund domestic criminal organizations which menace the
security and strength of the country. It is not surprising that the United Nations, the
European Union and other global and regional organizations deem “political-criminal
collaboration…one of the most serious security challenges of the next decade.”
Moreover, covert paramilitary actions–for example, trespassing in another state
to murder a political leader because he or she is not devoted to American
objectives–betray democratic principles. The United States is the oldest democracy
still in existence today, and claims to have a certain moral obligation to protect
democratic ideals worldwide (freedom from oppression, equality, basic human
rights…). Yet were either Operation Mongoose or Operation Phoenix, two clandestine
assassination programs in Cuba and Vietnam, respectively, in compliance with
democratic ideals? No–and the list of examples of covert operations during which the
United States has ignored its own values is not limited to two. The CIA has even
managed to engage in domestic covert action. In response to dissent towards the
Vietnam war, Operation Chaos discouraged the antiwar movement. “Eventually the
CIA opened files on over seven thousand Americans–in violation of its charter, which
stipulated that it could not operate inside the United States.” (Schaller, Scharff &
Schulzinger 281) Civil liberties were also ignored during the Cold War, when the
United States government applied strict surveillance of its citizens in fear that they
would be influenced by the covert activities of other states, namely the Soviet Union.
This period saw the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the imprisonment
of thousands of Americans considered even remotely affiliated with “the Reds”. One
would assume that such a great democracy would be more accepting of other beliefs.
The offenses of a government at home or abroad affect domestic affairs.
Citizens lose faith in their leaders, and particularly in a country such as the United
States which claims to support democracy, are not afraid to let their resentment and
disapproval be heard. Domestic division occurs and crime rates increase. A country
with these traits cannot maintain global hegemony for long; domestic stability must be
Covert operations are also a risk to national security, in the way that they breed
terrorism and antiamericanism. The CIA has a history of attempting to oust political
leaders who posed communist or nationalist threats in favour of violent dictators
willing to submit to American demands. For example, thanks to the CIA, the shah of
Iran regained authoritarian power in 1953, Castillo Armas liberated Guatemala in
1954 by means of torture and murder, and Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in
1964, allowing the corrupt dictatorship of Colonel Joseph Mobuto to consolidate
power in the Congo. Political figures like these often establish states afflicted with
lawlessness and terror, two conditions that foster discord among the people. In a
2002 speech, President Bush said it best:
…persistent poverty and oppression can lead to hopelessness and despair, and when governments fail to meet the basic needs of their people, these failed states can become havens of terror. (Vladmiroff)
What Bush did not acknowledge was that as a result of the American involvement in
creating these failed states, the United States is a main target for terrorism.
Furthermore, it is not uncommon that today’s terrorist leaders are products of CIA
training and financing from a time when the CIA turned to these individuals for
information or assistance in attempting a covert action; Saddam Hussein and Osama
bin Laden are both former CIA allies. (Scott)
Repeatedly, the negative effects of clandestine paramilitary operations on the
United States surface years after the operation has actually been carried out. Initially
proclaimed a great success, Operation Ajax in Iran nurtured animosities that later
caused the United States great trouble. (Isenberg) Worse still, the September 11
attacks are attributed to CIA-trained bin Laden.
The apparent ease with which the American government manipulates other
states as though they were pawns on a chessboard invites resentment. Whereas at
one time the United States supported Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime in Vietnam, the
dictator became so unpopular that the Americans changed their minds and later tried
to remove him from power. Likewise, the People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) of Greece,
praised by the Allies during the Second World War, was soon afterwards destroyed by
the Americans in favour of authoritarian right-wing groups. (Isenberg) Inevitably,
these actions and others have resulted in passionate antiamericanism. States upset
for having lost “economic stability and momentum, combined with political impotence
in the face of US military hegemony” should not be thought incapable of retaliation.
(Scott) In his essay The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington cites Ayatollah Ali
Khamenei, who declares that “the struggle against American aggression, greed,
plans and policies will be counted as a jihad, and anybody who is killed on that path
is a martyr.” As Isenberg admits, covert paramilitary operations “have produced
enemies, in endless supply.”
As the reach of American influence grows, so does its vulnerability; citizens and
assets abroad and at home are more troublesome to protect. (Godson) Thus, the
United States must not employ clandestine missions, or else provoke the anger of
those it has wronged. The paradox of American power is that “the stronger the nation
grows, the weaker its influence becomes” (Heng)–in different words, other states
grow less and less willing to heed its commands as the United States flaunts its
Unfortunately, the longer any government relies on covert action, the more
difficult it is to break away from its use. Economics, particularly the search for natural
resources, play a major role in this respect. Frank Viviano points out that “the map of
terrorist sanctuaries and targets in the Middle East and Central Asia is also, to an
extraordinary degree, a map of the world’s principal energy sources in the 21st
century.” The largest American oil corporations also happen to fund the campaigns of
the most important political players within American government, thereby pressuring
these candidates to encourage the control of foreign resources and consequently the
use of covert action.
Meanwhile, the increasing importance and clout of the European Union
requires more than ever before that the United States think before it acts. President
Bush recently excluded France, Germany, Russia and other nations from an $18.6
billion reconstruction project in Iraq, on the basis that they did not help militarily in the
war. (Bumiller) However, the day may soon come when the EU–especially France
and Germany–will challenge the global hegemony of the United States, who will no
longer be able to set the rules. The American government is already under the
watchful, critical eye of the rest of the world, so must be mindful of its behaviour.
Covert paramilitary action must be terminated sooner than later.
The Central Intelligence Agency should be limited to those tasks which its
name suggests: the collection and evaluation of intelligence information. Covert
operations destabilize a state from the inside and from the outside, and as time
persists, Washington will find it more and more difficult to desert its paramilitary
means of achieving objectives. A new shape of foreign policy must be forged, based
on humanitarian aid and soft power. Regardless of whether “the ruler is prey to the
ills of the mind, perhaps the more so as his power approaches the absolute,”
American officials must take pains to maintain American democratic ideals. (Waltz
309) Even if the means of doing so are available, the United States cannot apply
military solutions to political problems if it is to relive the glory that was once Rome’s.
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