Dirty Business

10.19.14 9:45 AM ET

The CIA’s Wrong: Arming Rebels Works

President Obama has weighed the options and concluded America does more harm than good when it sets out to topple regimes. OK. But don’t pretend that’s the CIA’s fault.

PARIS, France—What could be more cynical than a covert operation? Sure, there’s always a lot of talk about fighting for freedom, defeating tyranny. What was it Ronald Reagan called the Contras and the Afghan mujahedin? “They are the moral equivalent of the Founding Fathers.”

Actually some of the Contras whom I knew were the moral equivalent of pathological killers. They were so out of control that the CIA, which had armed them and trained them, finally had two of their commanders hunted down and executed.

As I say, covert ops: cynical business.

But recent reporting on the subject has been profoundly and, indeed, dangerously misleading about both the truth and the consequences surrounding such operations.

All sorts of politicians—left, right and center; former administration insiders and confirmed outliers—have been talking about arming and training Syrian rebels as if that could have been the salvation of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship in Damascus in 2012, and would have preempted, somehow, the rise of the horrific organization that calls itself the Islamic State, but which we’ll call by the acronyms it despises: ISIS or ISIL.

Certainly there was bitter infighting inside the administration back then. As one agency insider told me, “three years ago the Syria program was headed by a man who was competent but not senior enough to run such a high-profile account.” So Langley decided to cut short the tour of the then-CIA station chief in Bangkok and bring him in to head up the show. But “he was so shocked by the disorganization and lack of seriousness that he submitted his papers to retire.”

Criticism keeps pouring in and the Obama administration is hard pressed to prove it made the right decision back then, on the one hand, but has good reason to change its mind now as it tries to train new cadre to fight, not Assad, but ISIS. “This makes no sense,” says the same CIA veteran.

But from Obama’s point of view, actually, it does. The basic principles by which this administration operates are clear for anyone to see, even if the once-eloquent POTUS now finds it impossible to articulate simple ideas:

Obama does not believe in overthrowing foreign governments.

Obama does not intend to occupy foreign countries.

Obama does not think American troops—overt or covert—provide very good answers to the world’s crises.

Indeed, Obama sees very clearly what most average Americans see: U.S. efforts to overthrow bad guys abroad usually wind up making things worse, and the only reason to move against them is if they pose, as Tom Clancy would say, a “clear and present danger” to the United States.

Obama does not see Assad as a threat to U.S. security unless he uses weapons of mass destruction (which he’s mostly given up) or shoots at American and allied warplanes fighting ISIS (which he has not done so far).

On the other hand, in Obama’s view the zealots of the Islamic State are not a state at all, they are ISIL, and they do present a near-term threat to American interests, American allies, and the American people. The beheadings of American and British citizens are just a small part of the picture. One recent missive from ISIS to its follower advised them, "If you are able to kill an American or European infidel—particularly any of the hostile, impure Frenchmen—or an Australian or a Canadian, or any [other] infidel enemy from the countries that have banded against the Islamic State, then put your trust in Allah and kill him, by any way or means. Do not consult anyone and do not seek a fatwa from anyone. It is immaterial if the infidel is a combatant or a civilian. Their sentence is one; they are both infidels, both enemies. The blood of both is permitted…"

And then there’s this, in the same message: "If you cannot [detonate] a bomb or [fire] a bullet, arrange to meet alone with a French or an American infidel and bash his skull in with a rock, slaughter him with a knife, run him over with your car, throw him off a cliff, strangle him, or inject him with poison."

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Up against such an enemy, you are bound to use whatever resources are available, including local ground forces that you train and arm. You are not trying to create an insurgency, after all, you are trying to stop one. And it may be that this strategy will not work. But it is hardly so irrational or contradictory as Obama’s critics have suggested.

Unfortunately, the administration has added to the confusion rather than helping to clear it up. It is trying to lay off responsibility for its earlier decisions without explaining clearly its current ones.

Back in January, Obama told David Remnick of The New Yorker that when he was thinking about arming Syrian rebels a couple of years ago, he “actually asked the CIA to analyze examples of America financing and supplying arms to an insurgency in a country that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much.”

The New York Times ran a story last week that suggested CIA covert operations failed again and again to achieve the policy objectives set for them.

Just about everyone I talked to afterward in the U.S. intelligence community saw this as a story put out by the administration. One retired high-ranking intelligence officer said the article “seems founded on the kind of leaks that are permissible when beneficial to folks in high places but prosecutable when done by others.”

Has the CIA failed repeatedly to meet its covert goals? Actually, the problem has been exactly the reverse. With the exception of the Bay of Pigs, the agency has succeeded repeatedly, sometimes spectacularly. In Afghanistan in the 1980s “the CIA arms for the mujahedin won the final and decisive battle of the Cold War, liberating Eastern Europe and destroying the USSR,” says CIA veteran Bruce Riedel, now at the Brookings Institute. “That’s victory by any measure. Of course the war had other long term consequences, but the CIA accomplished what the White House wanted, a Russian Vietnam.”

Long-term consequences indeed. What happened again and again after the agency eliminated or helped to neutralize the presumed bad guys was the spectacle of their replacements turning out to be as bad or worse. But for those tragic policy decisions one must blame every president dating back to Dwight D. Eisenhower. American commanders-in-chief and the people around them come to think they can reengineer countries around the world, whether to make them more anti-Communist in the old days, or less terrorist, or more humanitarian in the present. And in many cases the action is out in the open.

 “A CIA study says arming rebels rarely works?” a senior veteran of the agency asked wryly. “You could say the same thing about the U.S. military. How many wars have we won since World War II?” Granada? Kosovo? One hardly wants to mention the continuing tragedy of Iraq and Afghanistan: “mission accomplished” turns so quickly to “mission impossible.”

From 1983 to 2003 the United States waged what Rudyard Kipling called “savage wars of peace” to teach lessons and change regimes just about every year, sometimes secretly, more often openly, in Lebanon, Granada, Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, Libya, against Iran in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and so on. Most Americans have forgotten these operations, of course, but the latter ones, especially the 1999 Kosovo war in which not a single allied soldier lost his or her life, started to make the whole business of war look just a little too easy—and laid the groundwork for the biggest disaster of all, the full scale invasion of Iraq.

By comparison with conventional military campaigns, the CIA ops were, in fact, pretty small beer, but most eventually left an acrid aftertaste. “The CIA’s most damaging interventions have come from its very success in arming insurgencies—whether in Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Brazil, Guyana, Chile, the list goes on and on,” says Stephen Schlesinger, co-author of Bitter Fruit, a classic study of the CIA covert action that overthrew the elected president of Guatemala in 1954. “The presumption that we can topple governments we don't like, acting outside the boundaries of international law or the UN Charter, is what has gotten us repeatedly in trouble in the past, marring our international standing. We are the recidivists of global failure when it comes to tampering with foreign states.”

And by comparison with almost any other conflict that the American dinosaur has been tempted to wade into, Syria is about as welcoming as the La Brea tar pit. Veteran CIA operative Robert Baer, author most recently of The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assassins, sees almost no comparison between the great covert victory in Afghanistan, however bad the after-shocks, and the situation in Syria today. “Arming the Afghans was a very clear-cut war: they wanted to end Russian occupation and the Reagan administration just wanted dead Russians,” Baer told me over the phone. In Syria, he said, “the dividing lines are just so blurred.”

One of the most instructive analyses of the perils inherent in covert war was written by Stephen Schlesinger’s father, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., when he was a special assistant to President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Days before the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, he advised Kennedy, that “a successful military result may be to a considerable degree nullified by seriously adverse results in the political, diplomatic and economic areas,” and an unsuccessful result would be an unmitigated disaster in which, no doubt, “senatorial voices [would be] raised demanding overt U.S. intervention.” In the event, debacle that it was, Kennedy refused to listen to them.

Whatever was in that CIA report referred to by the Times, Obama has had to weigh the example of the Bay of Pigs humiliation in the 1960s, of the Afghanistan victory in the 1980s, and the realities of Syria today, and decide whether he wants to put American power, blood and money behind regime change in Syria, or behind a war to crush upstart terrorists spreading across the region. Probably he thinks the choice is obvious.