Thus far, debate over American policy toward Iran has revolved around President Barack Obama’s various responses. When Iran’s electoral crisis first erupted, he downplayed its significance, calling the two rival candidates, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Mousavi, “tweedledum and tweedledee.” A week later, he sharply condemned the Islamic regime, describing himself as “appalled and outraged” by the government’s actions.
But are presidential pronouncements — however pusillanimous or intrepid — the limit of American power?
The ayatollahs’ nuclear ambitions make Iran one the most critical countries for the future of U.S. foreign policy. Beyond the immediate problem of nuclear proliferation, there is the broader issue of Iranian influence spreading via proxy forces in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. And even beyond that, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 is the original wellspring of the Islamic fundamentalism that has swept the world over the past three decades.
In a better world, toppling this vicious regime and altering the tide of history would be a primary objective of U.S. foreign policy. Yet even if President Obama miraculously came to that conclusion, how could he realize such an objective? This is a useful question to ask because it reveals how much the United States has disarmed itself in the vital realm of intelligence.
In the late 1940s through the late 1950s, the U.S. faced similar problems in various locales around the world. One of them was Italy, where there was a very real danger that the highly organized Italian Communist Party — benefiting from huge covert subsidies from the Kremlin — would come to power via the ballot box. Soviet funds had enabled that party to build a dense network of paid organizers that operated in every region and created front groups in every sector of society, from farmers to veterans to students.
The prospect of Italy becoming the first country in Europe to fall to Communism via subversion rather than direct force of Soviet arms was not, at the height of the Cold War, something the U.S. could abide. So the CIA was instructed, first by Harry Truman and then by Dwight Eisenhower, to stop it. It was the challenge presented by Italy’s vulnerability in its 1948 election that prompted the fledgling spy agency to create its Office of Policy Coordination. The banal-sounding name was a cover for what was an aggressive tool of covert political propaganda and paramilitary operations.
Over the course of the 1950s, the CIA secretly funneled money to forces in Italy’s political center. This enabled democratically oriented parties to match the Italian Communist Party activist for activist. When revealed years later, the policy was subjected to scathing criticism. But it had worked. Fragile Italy remained democratic in the 1950s and is a stable democracy today.
Harsh criticism of such operations — beginning in the 1970s when all the CIA’s secrets spilled out — is what prompted the U.S. to dismantle its capabilities in covert political action. Interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, legions of agency critics said, was both immoral and illegal.
As a matter of law, the critics are right. Such covert action is indeed illegal. But legality is beside the point. Espionage is by definition illegal and yet all countries engage in it. This is what the Soviet Union did in Italy, and it is what Iran, by organizing terrorist structures in the Middle East, Europe and elsewhere, has been doing intensively for 30 years.
As for the moral issues involved in covert operations, they are the standard ones of balancing means and ends. Self-defense is the basic right of every state; open warfare is certainly permitted to uphold it. Covert warfare, so long as it is similarly defensive, is no different. Yet throughout our history, a higher moralism has periodically come along and led us to shun intelligence operations, as when Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson famously declared that “gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” Stimson then shuttered his department’s code-breaking operation just as terrible storms were beginning to gather across both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Today, as a breaking point in the Islamic Republic appears to recede from view as a result of brutal violence, the U.S. appears utterly powerless to influence the course of events. Yet how much better off both Iran and the world would be if the CIA, operating covertly through local friendly forces, could have helped, say, to spark a general strike to topple the ruthless regime of the ayatollahs.
The great irony in all this is that even as the U.S. seeks to claim the moral high ground by not “meddling” — to use Mr. Obama’s term — we and our allies are getting blamed all the same. “There are riots and attacks in the streets that are orchestrated from the outside in a bid to destabilize the country’s Islamic regime,” says Sheikh Naim Qassem, a ranking figure of Hezbollah, Iran’s obedient instrument in Lebanon.
We are thus paying the price of running covert operations even as we gain absolutely none of the benefits. Rebuilding our capacity in this area cannot be accomplished overnight. Meanwhile, as Iran’s nuclear ambitions continue unabated, we may in the end have to pay a high price in treasure and blood for having declined to pay the relatively low cost of mounting secret warfare.
Mr. Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and a resident scholar at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., is the author of “Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law” to be published by W.W. Norton in 2010.