[The last in a series of events marking Wofford's hosting of last Saturday night's Republican debate was a post-mortem, held Thursday night. Below are my remarks at that forum.]
As I noted in my presentation last week, candidates often seem to forget that the whole world is listening. This was apparent, I thought, from the start of last Saturday’s debate. When asked what to do about the problem of Iran potentially getting a nuclear weapon, the several candidates (Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum) suggested that covert action against Iran was the appropriate response.
This, it seems to me, raises a fairly obvious problem: once you say publicly that you intend to use secret methods to overthrow a foreign government, or interfere with its nuclear program, it is hardly "covert" anymore. Both Cain and Romney said that they would use unspecified covert action. Those, at least, were general statements.
Gingrich, however, not to be outdone, got specific—he wants Iranian scientists "taken out," that is, assassinated. And then he said, stunningly, that what he had just suggested was "all of it deniable." Gingrich also later said that the US should be working covertly to overthrow Assad in Syria. Were Gingrich to become president, and the things he has now suggested publicly were to happen, how then would they be "deniable"? This is the problem with publicly saying you will use covert action—it isn’t really that covert, or deniable, anymore.
There is a nice historical parallel to this situation, from 50 years ago. On Oct. 6, 1960, John F. Kennedy called Cuba "the most glaring failure of American foreign policy," much as Romney said that Iran was "President Obama’s greatest failing."
When in 1960 Eisenhower imposed on Cuba what Time magazine called "the most severe trade embargo imposed on any nation except for Red China," JFK called it "a dramatic but almost empty gesture." This is similar to the way the candidates, when asked what they would do differently, said they would put really harsh economic sanctions on Iran, when there are already significant economic sanctions on Iran.
In criticizing the Eisenhower administration on Cuba, Kennedy went even further, much as the candidates did on Saturday: "we must attempt to strengthen the non-Batista democratic anti-Castro forces in exile, and in Cuba itself, who offer eventual hope of overthrowing Castro. Thus far these fighters have had virtually no support from our government."
Kennedy was essentially calling for the US to covertly work for a revolution in Cuba. By the time he said that, however, the CIA plan, that would become known as the Bay of Pigs, was well along in its development. Kennedy evidently did not know this. Nixon was furious because he thought JFK did know, but in fact CIA director Allen Dulles, who had briefed Kennedy on national security issues, omitted the plan in his briefing.
What is interesting is how Nixon responded. Since he could not say that such covert activity was in fact going on, he decided to denounce Kennedy for the suggestion: "I think Sen. Kennedy’s policies and recommendations for the handling of the Castro regime are probably the most dangerously irresponsible recommendations that he’s made during the course of this campaign." Even after Kennedy backed off a bit, saying he only mean to "let the forces of freedom in Cuba" know that "the US sympathized with them," Nixon continued to hammer Kennedy, calling him "rash," "impulsive," and "shockingly reckless." "United States support for a revolution in Cuba," Nixon said, would be "a direct invitation for the Soviet Union to intervene militarily on the side of Castro." But in private, Nixon had endorsed the secret CIA plan to do just that.
Nixon was in a difficult position, knowing about covert action that he could not discuss. But thinking that Kennedy had knowingly politicized the matter, Nixon struck back, publicly taking a position that was the opposite of his private view, in order to score political points.
When I heard these calls for covert action against Iran, I could not help but wonder if we might have a similar situation today. Many people believe that the Obama administration has been covertly working to subvert the Iranian nuclear program. For example, it is possible that the Obama administration either was responsible for the Stuxnet computer worm attack on Iran's nuclear program or supported Israel in that effort.
But of course, if that IS happening, the Obama administration could hardly admit it publicly. When Rick Santorum returned to the topic of Iran later in the debate and made these comments, it seemed to me that he was suggested that is what is going on.
You can almost see Santorum trying to be careful, noting that covert activity is likely going on and that the US may well be behind it—even that he hopes it is. He seems to be trying to deal with the fact that it is possible that the US is already doing some of the things that Gingrich encouraged. There have in fact been scientists who have ended up dead, most recently this past July, and speculation that foreign intelligences services may be behind the killings.
The other aspect of this topic I’d like to discuss is the history of covert action by the US in Iran and the wisdom of publicly advocating it. As relatively few Americans know, but every Iranian knows, the US used covert action to help overthrow the government of Iran in 1953. The CIA helped engineer a coup d’etat that overthrew the Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, who was threatening to nationalize the oil industry, and installed the Shah as a dictator. He ruled until 1979, when he was overthrown in the Iranian revolution and replaced by the current Islamic regime. The anti-American character of that regime is due, at least in part, to that previous American covert action. That, it seems to be, might suggest that undertaking more covert action in Iran is not the best approach.
Even if you could argue that covert action in Iran would be a wise policy, saying so publicly strikes me as foolish. Mitt Romney was critical of President Obama for not being speaking more forcefully in favor of the Iranian opposition, but in the historical context of US-Iranian relations, there is a justification for that.
Romney said that Obama failed to say he was with the Iranian protesters, when Obama has denounced Iran for "gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully," and that the Iranian people should be allowed to "express their yearning for greater freedom and a more representative government."
When Obama was pressed to insert himself into the protests in Iran, he said: "The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States."
For the opposition forces to be associated with the United States could be politically toxic for them in Iran. It would be like Occupy Wall Street associating themselves publicly with Castro’s Cuba, or Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. It could ruin their credentials as Iranian nationalists. Placing the United States fully on the side of the Iranian opposition might make for a good applause line in a debate, but that does not necessarily make it good policy. It could even backfire.
Lastly, it is not even clear that a regime change would necessarily produce the results the US wants regarding the atom bomb. Are there forces inside Iran that are in favor of giving up the nuclear program, or might the idea that Iran has a right to be a nuclear power have widespread appeal beyond the current government? If so, then it is at least possible that "regime change" might not affect Iran’s nuclear program, despite the presumption at the debate that it would.
If discussing covert action is so fraught with difficulties and complications, why did it receive so much attention on Saturday? I’d argue it is because of the complexity of the problem. There are not too many people outside Iran who look favorably on the prospect of a nuclear Iran, so declaring that "unacceptable," as Romney did, has appeal. But when Scott Pelley pressed Romney on whether it would be worth going to war over, Romney focused attention again on measures short of war—because given our overstretched military, few people really want another war, and air strikes might not get the job done.
The appeal of advocating covert operations, I suspect, is that it seems to hold out the prospect of a cost-free intervention. But as I have noted, it may not be really cost free--even if it succeeds.