Washington CIA officials are telling key members of Congress that the spy agency has only a 10 percent to 15 percent chance of recruiting an Iraqi general to put a bullet in the brain of Saddam Hussein or of mounting any other successful covert operation that would avoid a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
No surprise there, except perhaps for the admirable realism of the spooks' assessment. The agency's efforts at overthrowing the Iraqi dictator have failed for a decade. Its record of picking the wrong horses and tactics has robbed the CIA's leadership of the confidence they would need to grant President Bush's wish that they relieve him of having to invade Iraq by next winter.
It is in many ways a misguided wish. Relying solely on the CIA to deal with Saddam Hussein misreads the strong points both of the agency and the American nation when at war.
Covert action has its place in the toolbox of statecraft. It was an important adjunct to military operations and to defending democratic institutions against communist subversion abroad during the Cold War. But when forced to carry the burden of American policy and to pick new dictators for Third World populations what the agency is being asked to do in Iraq right now covert action usually falls on its face.
As he moves toward the decisive moments in both the long and flawed U.S. quasi-war with Iraq and his own war on global terrorism, Bush needs to consider carefully what worked in the Cold War and why. His own lack of personal involvement in that struggle makes it easy for him to be misled.
This is as true in "public diplomacy" the euphemism for that other black art, national propaganda promotion as it is in covert action, and for similar reasons.
The Voice of America and other propaganda outlets were important instruments in winning the Cold War. Soviet and East European citizens were given an easily assimilated message: "Your government is lying to you. It is lying about your condition in life, about itself, and most of all about the West." No reasonably well-informed Russian, Pole or Frenchman could dispute such demonstrable truth.
Using the massive powers of the United States to tell Muslim nations that the deranged criminal Osama bin Laden is lying to the world is using a sledgehammer to smash a gnat. The target audience understands that devastating imbalance. Worse, it also understands that the U.S. public diplomatists would never dream of saying to Egyptians, Saudi Arabians, Pakistanis and others: "Your governments are lying to you about America systematically, either directly or through their captive national media."
The continuing problems in the U.S. propaganda war are not a matter of the Muslim audience "liking" or "hating" America. Instead, this audience has no basis for trusting the message it is being given. It will have doubts about the propagandists' vaunting American honesty and democracy and good intentions as long as it sees with its own eyes a corrupt complicity behind the message. Bush's public diplomatists have been given Mission Impossible.
That fate is also being dealt again to the CIA in Iraq. Back in 1995, its absolute best-case scenario for toppling Saddam was undercut by a panicky Clinton White House. The agency's current director, George Tenet, seems suitably modest about his chances of succeeding with significantly less help on the ground this time around.
Tenet's public congressional testimony suggests that he understands that the agency is most effective in supporting roles in large actions that have goals beyond "regime change." Its operatives can help shape the terrain in overt military operations, where U.S. armed forces represent national consensus and operate under well-developed sets of rules, law and tradition supported by the American public.
Success has also come when the CIA quietly supported endangered foreign democratic institutions such as labor unions, political parties or the odd band of intellectuals, as it did in Europe in the Cold War. Agency disasters have struck when it has ridden off on its own, as it did in Vietnam, Guatemala and more recently in its dealings with Yasser Arafat's corrupt henchmen.
The spies, like the propagandists, go wrong when they do not put America's most abiding principles of honesty, fairness and democracy at the center of their work. They cannot be angels or alchemists. But they cannot betray what America stands for and expect to create anything of value or durability.
Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.