In the rest of the essay, however, Chomsky makes a good argument that, looking at our behavior over the last sixty years or so, the US can justifiably be called both “a leading terrorist state” and, according to the poll Chomsky cites, “the biggest threat to world peace.”
Once he finishes discussing the poll, Chomsky cites a recent New York Times article reporting that a CIA study has found that providing covert aid to rebels (what Chomsky calls “major terrorist operations run by the White House”) seldom works. The CIA report, the Times said, covers CIA operations “from Angola to Nicaragua to Cuba.” Chomsky goes on to flesh out those operations, showing not only that they were failures, but that they justly can be referred to as state-sponsored terrorism.
The Times article and the Chomsky diatribe raise two questions, neither of which Chomsky attempts to answer, at least in this article. There’s a big question: Why has the US consistently acted in a way which increases, rather than ameliorates, the international destabilization brought about by its victory in the Cold War? And there’s a minor question: Why would the CIA continue a policy – providing covert aid to those who rebel against governments we don’t like or which don’t like us – when it consistently has proven a failure and has often even backfired, making the situation worse?
Let’s take the parochial, CIA question first. Why has the Agency persisted in a failed policy? The most obvious answer is that it has done so at the insistence of the executive, of whatever administration is in the White House which, after all, is its boss. If that is the reason, one can assume that, once it was clear to the Agency that it was not a clever policy, it warned the gung-ho administration, the State Department and pertinent congressional committees against it, only to be over-ruled.
Whatever, whoever, influenced the Obama administration’s initial, pre-ISIS, reluctance to arm the anti-Assad forces in Syria, one can assume that CIA input played a part. However, the CIA’s directors, Leon Panetta and David Petraeus, (the onset of the armed insurrection against Assad coincided with the departure of Panetta and the embarrassing truncation of Petraeus’ term) advised Obama to provide military aid to the Syrian rebels even though the Agency knew that, historically, arming rebels was a bootless and possibly perilous policy,
So the question still remains. Why has the CIA (whose middle initial stands for “intelligence”) ignored its own empirical evidence and continued arming rebel groups? Might it be blinded by an arrogance inherent among spies, a belief that it can beat the odds, a propensity for come-what-may derring-do? Accounts of espionage operations of the past and memoirs of retired secret agents do indicate that many spies have a romanticized view of their work and joined the profession to satisfy a thirst for adventure. That would go some way toward explaining a willful rejection of data based on previous operations; to defy that data amounts, really, to a sort of doughtiness, the same kind advanced in the that old saw, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
However, another, quite different factor, should be considered.
It is a commonplace among political scientists, as well as those who study the operations of any large organizations, that one of the problems facing governments – and corporations – that bureaucracies are self-perpetuating. A bureaucratic agency is, after all, an agglomeration of people and has a survival instinct like that of any living being. A bureaucracy must protect its raison d’etre. To maintain their viability and keep themselves employed, bureaucrats must ensure that there are always issues to face, problems to solve, justifications for further action on their part. Furthermore, as any administrator soon learns, if a bureaucratic department – whether it is a college library or a federal government monolith – does not spend all the money allotted to it in this year’s budget, the money allotted to it next year likely will be less.
Let’s now look at the CIA not as a den of spies, not as an arm of US foreign policy, not as a covert fifth armed service, but as a government agency, a government bureaucracy. According to classified figures leaked by Edward Snowden, the National Intelligence Program allotted $14.8 billion to the CIA in 2013, more than to any other spy group. The CIA also received other funds – for example, from the Military Intelligence Program – the amount of which remains classified and unknown. For the CIA to maintain that funding level, it must preserve its prominence as the premier US intelligence agency. It must do things, no matter what they are, to show that it still is an active, aggressive, vital segment of the government. And it must spend every penny it gets.
What if there were, in truth, not enough for the CIA to do? What if we were in a period where the relations of foreign countries to the US and to each other were so complex and the domestic political situations of our allies and our enemies so fluid that there was no way even the smartest intelligence officer could know what was the next right move? That is, what if the best policy for a covert operations agency were to not act, simply to wait and see how things develop? Such a stance might be possible for the State Department, for example, whose funded function is to staff embassies and conduct diplomacy, but the CIA’s function is to maintain a constant state of active and novel operations. Would the CIA – and this holds true for all our intelligence services, who are in competition with each other for funding and recognition – be able to sit on its hands and do nothing until the dust clears, if this were the best option? George Kennan is acknowledged as a genius for having advocated a Cold War policy like this. (And it worked!) There may be a few geniuses in the CIA, but I suspect that most of the Agency is just made up of ordinary folk.
Maybe I’m wrong, but this is the reason that makes most sense, when it comes to how Chomsky is within his rights to call the US the world’s leading terrorist state. It certainly would explain why it does not seem to matter much to the Agency whether its operations are successful or not. In terms of looking at the CIA not as a world force, but as a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, all its operations are successful if they end up justifying its continuing existence and its budget allotment.
When it comes to the US as a threat to world peace, however – as Chomsky surely would agree – the evidence hardly ends with supplying arms to rebels. US military operations in Viet Nam, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and covert CIA operations on every continent except (perhaps) Australia, including the recent widespread use of unmanned drone attacks, certainly justify calling the United States “the biggest threat to world peace.”
That’s a big deal. That’s a terrible thing to say about one’s own country. If something is to be done to change it, there is a very important question that must be answered: “Who is responsible?” “Who or what, over the last seventy years – basically from the beginning of the Cold War until the present – can be blamed for these illegal, irrational, destructive, destabilizing and misguided activities?”
It isn’t as if we suffered from a Hitler or a Stalin. We haven’t had one omnipotent political party running the country for sixty years. We don’t harbor a right-wing military cabal or a dreaded and untouchable spy-master. (We did have something like that in J. Edgar Hoover, but the havoc he caused was primarily domestic and his reign was pretty much over by the time the US became what Chomsky describes as a terrorist state.)
We can’t fasten the blame on our Presidents, unless you believe that every President from haberdasher, Harry Truman, and Army general, Eisenhower, to remittance man, Bush II, and political organizer, Obama, were initiates of a Masons-like secret society of troublemakers, à la Conan Doyle or H. Rider Haggard. We can condemn them for assenting to disruptive international behavior, for not putting a stop to it, in the case of Eisenhower and Carter, or worse, for getting caught up in it, like Kennedy and Obama, but our Presidents were not the original source of this evil.
The legislative branch cannot be tagged as the originator of out-of-control covert activities, although it too can be faulted as a facilitator. Sometimes, as in the case of the Church Committee, it can be lauded for its attempts to put a check on them.
The obvious culprit is the CIA. But where does that get us? Over the last sixty years the personnel and direction of the agency has changed. One CIA director, Alan Dulles, served eight years; two, Helms and Casey, served seven years; but the average length of time a CIA director has been in office, since 1961, when Dulles left, is about two-and-a-half years.
It is true that, although we haven’t had an evil dictator, an all-powerful spy-master or oppressive one-party rule, American foreign policy has been controlled by some powerful, Machiavellian éminences grises: the Dulles brothers, Kissinger and Cheney. They all possessed an inviolate faith that whatever policy they put in motion, even if it failed in its objective, was still brilliantly conceived. American adventurism did not abate in the periods when these men were not calling the shots, but it is possible that their overconfident, results-be-damned attitude leeched into the CIA and came to be regarded as a desirable personal trait in the Agency, along with bravery, cunning, thoroughness, etc.
Might the attitude that because we are the United States, we must do something, no matter what permeate the thinking of all Washington, when it comes to foreign policy? In a world as complex, unsettled and ever-changing as this post-Cold War one is, if Washington feels that, no matter what, it is necessary actively to engage in international politics, it is not surprising that American foreign policy continually flounders. The alternative to floundering is to tread water – that is, to keep in motion while remaining in place. The Obama administration has, in some cases, attempted to do that. But that strategy – “leading from behind” in Libya, supporting but not arming the Syrian rebels, accepting Russia’s appropriation of Crimea but having conniptions about its incursion into eastern Ukraine – leaves us being perceived not as wise (although, indecisiveness in these cases might well have been the wisest stance), but weak.
We are the most powerful country in the world – militarily, economically and culturally (just look at the tee-shirts sported by those that hate us and the complaisant references they make to American cultural artifacts). We do not have to rattle our sabre to prove it. Would not the best foreign policy strategy for the United States, in tumultuous, unpredictable times like these, be to step back, to not take sides – unless of course, an ally with whom we have a formal defense treaty, such as a NATO country, is threatened – to become a sort of great neutral power, just as Switzerland is a small one? In that way, when the dust clears, and a stable international order, of sorts, does take shape, we will not appear wrong-footed, unreliable and dangerous – which is how we appear now and will continue to appear, if we do not amend our current willy-nilly, knee-jerk foreign policy.