Washington – By all accounts, the U.S. government was not involved in the failed plot this month to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. One would hope that the Central Intelligence Agency could do better than a farcical scheme that was disowned by the Venezuelan opposition, penetrated by regime security forces and disrupted as soon as it began.
Yet this trivial episode invites us to think seriously about the role of covert intervention and regime change in U.S. policy. Just as the United States sought to undermine or topple unfriendly regimes during the Cold War, it may look to such methods again in its increasingly heated rivalry with China. Caution will be necessary: History tells us that while covert intervention can sometimes be a cost-effective tool of competition, it is fraught with risks and profound moral trade-offs.
Covert action came of age during the Cold War. In the late 1940s, when the CIA and National Security Council were born, the U.S. began developing a global capability for intervention under the cloak of secrecy. Over the succeeding decades, it would seek to destabilize or replace numerous governments that were slipping into the Soviet sphere or softening up their countries for communist influence.
The U.S. didn’t do this gratuitously, or to protect American investments overseas. Washington resorted to covert action because its leaders believed that the geopolitical balance was fragile and that the U.S. needed affordable methods of competing along a nearly global periphery. And because waging that struggle against a ruthless enemy in an often-unstable Third World might require fighting dirty, America must be able to do so in quiet, nonattributable ways.
The CIA successfully overthrew, or helped overthrow, governments in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s. It prosecuted a shadowy struggle from Central America to southern Africa to Afghanistan through the end of the 1980s. In most cases, the U.S. subverted communist or other unfriendly authoritarian regimes, but it also targeted democratically elected leaders such as Chile’s Salvador Allende, who were seen as taking the wrong side in the Cold War. “We are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination,” a classified report on CIA operations concluded in 1954. “There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.”
After the Cold War, covert intervention receded in importance. According to published reports, the U.S. sought covert options for toppling the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and other sworn enemies. Absent the Soviet threat, however, the geopolitical imperatives of competing for influence everywhere became less pressing.
Meanwhile, the spread of democracy and the rise of overt tools for promoting it, such as the quasi-autonomous National Endowment for Democracy, gave the U.S. less morally ambiguous ways of shaping political outcomes. Why send spooks to influence an election in Georgia or Ukraine when Washington could send nongovernmental groups and election monitors instead? As Allen Weinstein, a founder of the National Endowment for Democracy, said, “A lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.”
It’s not so easy anymore. American officials can no longer assume the inevitable emergence of a friendlier, more democratic world. U.S. competition with China (and, to a lesser degree, Russia) is intensifying and sprawling geographically. A few years from now, Washington might find itself desperately seeking covert options to prevent some important country in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East or Southeast Asia from aligning with Beijing.
If that seems far-fetched, consider how much the U.S.-China rivalry has escalated over the past three years, and where that trajectory might lead in another decade. Or remember that U.S. policymakers of the late 1940s probably never imagined that America would wage a complex covert struggle over Angola a quarter-century later. One timeless rule of international politics is that strategic competition takes countries places they may not initially expect, or want, to go.
But is covert intervention a good idea? Some analysts argue that it rarely works and should be avoided, yet this is probably the wrong standard. Countries usually resort to covert action when other options have either failed or are deemed undesirable, so the likelihood of success is low to begin with. That built-in handicap notwithstanding, the U.S. did, in some cases, get serious strategic mileage out of its meddling.
In the late 1940s, covert support for democratic politicians in Italy played a modest but probably important role in shoring up that country against communist challenges at the polls. For the cost of a few hired mobs, the U.S. facilitated the toppling of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran in 1953, securing its strategic flank in the Persian Gulf for 25 years. CIA support helped the Indonesian military consolidate power after it toppled an increasingly anti-American Sukarno in 1965, thus avoiding the prospect of Southeast Asia’s most important country turning hostile.
During the 1970s, when the Third World was convulsed by ideological radicalism and the U.S. was experiencing its post-Vietnam hangover, covert action was critical to holding the line. Finally, in the 1980s, the Reagan administration used a wide-ranging covert offensive to put intense pressure on Soviet clients in Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Angola, and to drive up the costs of Moscow’s global presence. Without covert action, America might not have won the Cold War.
Unfortunately, some of these examples also tell a darker story. By aiding the Indonesian military in 1965, the U.S. implicated itself in horrific violence that killed half a million people. The price the U.S. ultimately paid for conspiring against Mossadegh and backing the shah of Iran was measured in the enmity of the anti-American regime that took power in 1979. The U.S. supported some decent people fighting against Communist regimes in the 1980s, and some truly awful ones as well, including some who would go on to play an important role in a blossoming international jihad. And in destabilizing Allende’s regime in the early 1970s, the U.S. helped extinguish Chilean democracy for nearly two decades.
The nature of covert intervention is that it is difficult to be choosy in one’s partners or their methods, which can create a moral mess for a democratic superpower. A sense that almost anything would be better than ascendant communism led the U.S. to embrace expedients — authoritarian regimes, efforts to kill foreign leaders such as Patrice Lumumba in the Congo or Fidel Castro in Cuba — that were ugly. When that happened, covert action could become a cause of anti-Americanism in the Third World rather than a solution for it.
Not least, because covert operations are high-risk endeavors, they can backfire spectacularly. The U.S. created some of its own problems in Indonesia in the 1950s by trying, and failing, to spur a separatist movement against Sukarno’s government. The Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 pushed Castro to undertake a covert offensive of his own, meant to overthrow U.S. allies in Latin America. It also caused Nikita Khrushchev to deploy nuclear missiles in Cuba, leading to the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War.
One tragedy of geopolitical rivalry is that it often presents great powers with unappealing choices. The alternative to a bad outcome may be one that is worse, both morally and strategically. That’s why the U.S. so often resorted to behind-the-scenes intervention in the Cold War, and why it may prove useful in the future. But history shows that covert action is no cure-all for a country’s geopolitical challenges. In some cases, it can produce tragedies of its own.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger distinguished professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.