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Note: Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served with distinction in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff in Washington.  Below my brief comments is a noteworthy opinion column that he wrote recently for his local newspaper in Vermont.


  Many thanks for writing this excellent piece.  I've circulated it to a number of friends and correspondents (as bcc addressees to this email) to whom I believe it will be interesting and meaningful.

I think there are many of us who had extensive experience in covert action during our active CIA careers who would agree in retrospect that "regime change" operations have almost invariably been counterproductive over the long term, even after they seemed apparently "successful" at the time.  Having participated in two notable examples ---- in Lebanon (1957) and Syria (1958) --- I feel strongly about this!  In both of those cases, I believe we are STILL, many decades later, paying a price for poor judgment and shortsighted policy planning -- a consequence that I believe is still insufficiently understood and appreciated in Washington.

Most obviously, of course, we have been reminded repeatedly in just the past two weeks that millions of Iranians of all ages and social backgrounds remain keenly aware and resentful of the regime change operation that took place 56 years ago --- making it much more difficult for us today to engage constructively with that critically important nation.

Unfortunately, the U.S. foreign policy establishment in general, but including particularly the intelligence community, has practically no institutional memory, and therefore has never come to this realization with sufficient intellectual conviction to have an impact on contemporary foreign policy practitioners.   The academic community, by and large, has been either too intimidated by the "security" mystique (or too frustrated by Freedom Of Information Act obstructions) to make an effective contribution either to clarifying the historical record or to educating new generations of policy makers.

More of us need to share our perspectives on this subject --- while we are still around!!

Thanks again.


Other Options Haven’t Worked:  Let’s Try Diplomacy

June 25, 2009

By Haviland Smith

    Since the Second World War, the Republicans have said consistently that the Democrats’ main foreign policy problem is that they are either unable or unwilling to successfully and purposefully project American power abroad.  In this context, there are three means by which we can project power abroad: We can do it with military operations, we can do it with covert, regime change/intelligence operations and we can do it with diplomatic operations.

    Over those sixty-odd years, American administrations are said to have been involved in 32 cases of either military or covert intelligence projections of power in which we have attempted to overthrow sitting governments.  They range from Korea through Iran and Cuba to Bosnia and Afghanistan. Democrat administrations have been involved in 10 of those operations where Republicans have supported 22. Some, like Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan and Iraq have been supported by both Republican and Democrat administrations.

    Thus, it would appear that, successful or not, Republicans are better than twice as likely to project power through military or intelligence operations than are the Democrats.

    Just what have all those operations really done for America?  Let’s examine alleged US Intelligence or regime change operations first. Consider Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Costa Rica (1955), Syria (1957), Indonesia (1958), Dominican Republic (1960), Peru (1960), Equador (1960), Congo (1960), Cuba (1961), Brazil (1964), Chile (1972), Angola (1975) and Nicaragua (1981).  Our “success” in installing Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran haunts us to this day.  Cuba helped solidify Castro in power.  The remaining Latin America operations left us with a “big brother”, negative legacy that still infuriates our Latin neighbors.  Ditto those in Africa and Islam.

    Our military projections of power can be examined in Korea (1950-53), Viet Nam (1961-73), Lebanon (1982-84), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Iraq (Gulf) (1991), Somalia (1993), Bosnia (1994-95), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001-date) and Iraq (2003-date). With the possible exception of Bosnia and Kosovo where we have dampened ethnic hatred at least for the moment (a positive outcome) and maybe Panama, all of which were of relatively minor international importance, it is really hard to see the benefits of our other, larger scale, military adventures.  Korea remains divided and leaves a nuclear North Korea.  Viet Nam was a loss.  Afghanistan and Iraq do not look likely to be wins.

    So, in relation to the amount of US national treasure poured into these military and intelligence adventures, the return seems pretty meager.   That was obvious from the start in Korea and Viet Nam where we were motivated by a largely imagined communist threat.  Yet, we went ahead, repeating the same behaviors for over sixty years, always finding a questionable, illusory threat, now terrorism, to justify our actions.  And we still haven’t stopped.  Or have we?

    Surprisingly, President Obama has chosen to prolong the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, yet it would seem from his recent statements that a really basic change is underway in our foreign policy.  He says we are not at war with Islam.  He speaks of “respect” for Islam and of talking with Iran and perhaps even with the Taliban.  It seems likely this new president is going to employ the most underused tool of power projection in our national arsenal, one that has not seen the light of day for almost eight years. – Diplomatic power.  

    And what happens?  President Obama is attacked immediately by a cross-section of the press and the entire political spectrum as soft on terror, soft on Iran, soft on Islam, and soft on our enemies whoever they may be. Comfortable with the clearly unsuccessful past, these critics see anything other than confrontation with our adversaries as appeasement at best and capitulation at worst.
    Today’s Republicans have come full circle. They have had their fling at projecting power through military and intelligence operations at the expense of coalition building and diplomacy. By any reasonable standard, they have come up empty.  There is really nothing left for them to do but paint today’s Democrats as capitulators and appeasers who are soft on everything and unwilling or unable to appropriately project American power abroad!

    If we read history, which most politicians and many of our most prolific media commentators apparently do not, then it is time to put our old military and intelligence projections of power aside, if only because they have not served our interests in the post-WWII world. We have not employed diplomatic power as a primary weapon for years.  We really need to give it a chance,  It is our best if not only option in today’s new, confusing and increasingly complicated world.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.  A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.