Overt pledges undercut covert efforts

November 18, 2011


— The leading Republican candidates were weirdly overt with their promises in last weekend’s debate about waging covert war against Iran and even assassinating its scientists. Perhaps it’s a sign that foreigners don’t take American politics very seriously, but the inflammatory talk created barely a ripple in this part of the world.

Or maybe the savvy, cynical Middle East believes that the covert war has already begun — with Israel’s Mossad conducting lethal operations of the sort Republicans are clamoring for the CIA to adopt. The danger is that if the other side thinks the conflict has already started, it will feel compelled to retaliate.  

The language the GOP candidates used was astonishing, at least for people who assume that covert activities are ones that aren’t talked about openly — much less, touted in campaign debates.

With the easy talk about waterboarding and “taking out” Iranian scientists, it seemed, too, that the party was back to 2006 — recaptured by the hard-line policies of Dick Cheney, and the neoconservative ideology that undergirded them. The hawkish GOP line echoed that of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who according to Israeli press leaks has in recent weeks been arguing the case for war.

This field of Republicans says strange things in debates, but it was still startling to hear the leading candidates’ statements. Mitt Romney pledged to “work on a covert basis to encourage the dissidents.” Herman Cain said he would “assist the opposition movement in Iran that’s trying to overthrow the regime.” Newt Gingrich promised “maximum covert operations ... including taking out their scientists, including breaking up their systems. All of it covertly, all of it deniable.”

Romney also promised “covert activity” against Syria, while Gingrich argued for a “mostly covert” effort to topple the Syrian regime.

What is it about “covert” that the Republicans don’t understand? What would be the American reaction to similar public threats against the United States if they were made by Iranian or Syrian politicians? This kind of loose talk is one reason the world doesn’t take the CIA as seriously as it once did. Activities that are so glibly discussed lose some of their credibility, in addition to their deniability.

Here in the Gulf, many leaders would secretly love to see the United States (and probably Israel, too) take a pop at Iran, so long as they don’t have to face the blowback. That’s the risk of secret war; the enemy can respond covertly, where and when it chooses. That’s why the Gulf states are so nervous about the Shiite opposition movement in Bahrain, and the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. They see them (not always correctly) as weapons in Iran’s secret arsenal.

Beyond the war talk of recent weeks, it’s clear that the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program truly is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion,” to use Harvard professor Graham Allison’s memorable phrase. Either the Iranians agree to turn back their program, or the West accedes to Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state. The alternative is a collision.

The question is starkly similar to what President Kennedy faced in the October 1962 standoff: He sought a way to convey U.S. determination without outright war. The Pentagon generals were screaming that Kennedy had to bomb the Soviet missile sites in Cuba — in much the same way that Israeli hawks are agitating today for a bombing campaign against Iran. Kennedy wisely realized that it wasn’t all or nothing; he could operate along a continuum of power, in which bombing would be the last step, not the first.

The option Kennedy chose deserves some discussion now. He decided, against the advice of most advisers, on a “quarantine” of Cuba to prevent the nuclear missiles from becoming operational. It was a step well short of war (or even, lethal covert action), and it left the Soviets room to maneuver. It also avoided the political fallout across Latin America that would come from bombing Cuba (similar to the destabilizing effect that bombing Iran would cause for America and Israel).

A quarantine of Iran’s nuclear program could take many forms, along a ladder of escalating seriousness. It would seek to enforce U.N. resolutions, peacefully. If crafted wisely, it would have the support of most U.S. allies.

As America chooses its tools along the continuum of power, it will undoubtedly continue (and perhaps augment) its covert activities against Iran. But they lose their impact and rationale if they become a topic for facile domestic political debate.  

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email is davidignatius@washpost.com.


akuna 6 years, 7 months ago

Not a single Republican candidate is smart enough to be President. They're fully consumed on passing their oppressive ideologies and giving more handouts to the riches Americans. We don't need their cowboy swagger anymore.

jayhawkinsf 6 years, 7 months ago

The current crop of Republicans aren't smart enough? Maybe. I'd bet Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich are but they have other problems, like electability. And Obama has demonstrated he lacks true leadership qualities that a president needs.

akuna 6 years, 7 months ago

Thug huh? Nice veiled racism.

Jayhawk. True Ron Paul is the best of the candidates, but the Republicans are not going to ever embrace him much like the Democrats will never embrace Nader.

Obama's leadership qualities are spotty. He's proven himself to be a very adept Commander-in-Chief with getting Osama bin Laden and all. His domestic leadership has been tumultuous at best. He's gotten quite a bit done for progressives but has not been able to build bi-partisanship when it come to economic policies with the very partisan Tea Party faction of the Republican Party.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 7 months ago

The only overt pledge that really bothers a committed liberal like Ignatius is a pledge not to raise taxes and instead cut spending, a pledge that many courageous Republicans are continuing to honor for the sake of the long-term economic well-being of their Country.

weeslicket 6 years, 7 months ago

more name-calling from cato_the_elder.

akuna 6 years, 7 months ago

"Republicans are continuing to honor for the sake of the long-term economic well-being of their Country." Like when Reagan raised taxes 11 times? Or when he left office increasing the national deficit from 1 trillion dollars to 4 trillion dollars? That's incredibly honorable. NOT.

cato_the_elder 6 years, 7 months ago

Although I was referring to present-day Republicans, which makes your comment irrelevant, Reagan had to deal with Democrat majorities during most of his term in office. His decisive actions as President of the United States destroyed the Soviet Union, which is a far cry from the present actions of the Apologist-in-Chief residing part-time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

akuna 6 years, 7 months ago

You just built a very apt parallel to President Obama. Obama has to deal with extremists and unwavering Tea Partiers and social conservatives, which makes solving our current economic crisis difficult to say the least and makes any gains toward equality and fairness all the more impressive. Obama's decisive actions eliminated the global leader of terror, Osama bin Laden.

"... residing part-time at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?" What are you talking about?

cato_the_elder 6 years, 7 months ago

Out of fear of negative political consequences (e.g., Carter's failed military mission in 1980), Obama didn't have the guts to take Osama out. Leon Panetta did, and forced Obama to give the order. Panetta is an American hero. Plenty will be written on this after Obama leaves office in January of 2013.

weeslicket 6 years, 7 months ago

i think you need to provide some references for this statement.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 7 months ago

"Not a single Republican candidate is smart enough to be President." ==== That's not true, and an IQ test, like a religious test, is not allowed. Newt is clever and a deep thinker; Romney has feet of clay but is clever and a good politician who got elected in a state where he should have lost. Cain is no dummy, but has little political sense; Paul is extremely intelligent but has no chance since the Libertarians are a bit too strange. I still think they will end up with Romney, which will make for some interesting exchanges. Mitt will have to defend his moves to fire people and move jobs overseas when he was a 'biddnessman.' That might create some cognitive dissonance! The best of the lot may be Huntsman, but he's already toast. Michelle B may be a bit stupid, at least too stupid to remember she used to be a tax attorney working for "the man" and dumping on the little people.

jafs 6 years, 7 months ago

How deep is it to openly talk about covert/deniable operations, as Gingrich did here?

Romney will also have to deal with the Massachusetts health care system, which he implemented, and his opposition to a similar program at the federal level.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 7 months ago

jafs: I didn't say Newt was always thinking. In this case he was not. I think I heard the other day that some of the Iranian nuclear scientists have met suspicious ends. Good news that.

weeslicket 6 years, 7 months ago

geeze, made in china. quit talking sense already. the republican primary voters may actually be listening.

weeslicket 6 years, 7 months ago

true. but it's also true that you, liberty_one, and libertarians generally are a little bit strange.

tomatogrower 6 years, 7 months ago

So Republicans think it's ok to kill scientists, who haven't done anything to the US yet, but they were shocked that Obama killed Bin Laden, who was instrumental in killing Americans? More fear mongering by the right wingnuts.

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