Commentary Magazine

Fighting Back

In the 1970’s the Soviet Union embarked upon an ambitious program of using proxy forces to expand its international power. Cubans entered Africa in the tens of thousands, from Angola to Ethiopia, from Somalia to South Yemen and Libya. This tactic was a great success, with the Communists in Angola and Ethiopia defeating their internal (and, in the case of Angola, American-backed) opponents, and the Communist regime in South Yemen serving as a major training base for international terrorism. In the same period, the Soviets gave clandestine support to a vast international terrorist center in Lebanon, employing the PLO and other radical Arab forces as the infrastructure for the operation.

Nor was Lebanon the only such center. Radical Arab states, including Libya, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, organized their own terrorist support and training centers, sometimes with Soviet help, sometimes on their own, sending killers of different ideological and religious hues to strike down Israeli, American, French, and other Western targets throughout the world.

In our own hemisphere the pattern held. Once the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua, the same proxies, with covert support from the Soviet bloc, flowed through Cuba into Managua to organize the guerrilla assaults against Central and Latin America. Thanks to captured documents from Grenada,1 and recently-captured papers from a leader of the guerrillas in El Salvador, we can trace in great detail the role of these proxies in organizing, training, and commanding the Soviet-sponsored war to our South.

What should the United States do in the face of this challenge?



The direct use of massive American military power, even in situations where it might be the most effective response, is so politically controversial that no President can be expected to order it unless it is clearly proportionate to the provocation; and even then he is unlikely to do so unless he believes that the struggle will be quite short and a successful outcome a virtual certainty. He might send American armed forces to fight in Grenada against a few Cubans and local militiamen, but he is not going to send American soldiers to fight Cubans in Angola or Sandinistas in El Salvador, Honduras, or Nicaragua itself. After all, when 55 American military advisers were sent to El Salvador, there was a vociferous cry of “another Vietnam,” followed by congressional insistence that our Salvadoran allies be certified as morally upright every 90 days. One can then imagine the uproar over the deployment of American fighting men against proxy forces. Clearly, in many of these cases, we need to find a different response.

One obvious and traditional method is to help anti-Soviet or anti-Communist local forces. This has several advantages over the commitment of our armed personnel: our involvement is limited to providing assistance, and therefore is not likely to draw the United States into direct conflict; we are clearly helping people who themselves are committed to the cause, because it is they who risk their lives and fight the actual battles; and, finally, it is a symmetrical response, a measured “punishment” that seems to fit the crime committed by the hostile proxies in the first place. If the Soviets can recruit the likes of Castro, Arafat, and Ortega to do their work for them, if the Ayatollah Khomeini can organize suicide squads through his Shiite followers all over the Middle East, and if Qaddafi can send hired gunmen against Western targets and his own émigrés, why should the United States be barred from supporting others who wish to fight for our common objectives?

The problem is not a lack of opportunity. In the major theaters of action over the past decade there have been many willing allies: no fewer than two vigorous groups, one led by Jonas Savimbi and the other by Holden Roberto, in Angola; various anti-Shiite forces in Lebanon; and the former allies of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, from Arturo Cruz to Edén Pastora, along with other governments in the region who recognize the gravity of the Nicaraguan threat.

Yet despite such abundant opportunities, we have rarely been able to mount an effective campaign. Our Central American policy of bringing the fight to the Sandinistas, although it has achieved a largely unacknowledged degree of success, is now treading water, and continues mainly because of private-sector funding of the contras rather than because of any significant American governmental action. By most informed accounts, the Afghans are receiving only a fraction of what they need to punish the Soviets for their invasion. Savimbi is the undeclared winner in the war for Angola, but it is no thanks to us. Qaddafi in Libya sleeps uneasily because his own people wish to remove him, not because of anything we have done. And the international terror network has yet to receive a blow from the United States, even though hundreds of Americans have fallen, and the number of American hostages mounts steadily, with the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 only the most publicized in a long series of similar aggressions.



The main source of this singular failure lies in the fact that such indirect use of American power necessarily involves a certain degree of secret or covert activity, and there is a deep-seated conviction among Americans that covert activity is in itself sinister, and that any secret effort by the United State to challenge our enemies is bound to be morally demeaning.

The view of the world behind this conviction reached its apogee at the time of Watergate, when the late Senator Frank Church and former Congressman Otis Pike headed congressional commissions that investigated the past sins of the CIA. That period—and the chilling Carter years that reaped the Watergate harvest—provided the basic elements in the still ongoing national debate over both covert action and a more vigorous policy generally.

Church and Pike, delving deeply into the most secret activities of the United States, concluded that the CIA had become a “rogue elephant” which had to be brought under control. As a result, congressional oversight committees were established in great numbers (at one time, the intelligence community had to brief no fewer than eight separate committees—four in each house—on its programs). Past secret activities of the CIA were also paraded before the public, resulting in the departure of some of the highest-ranking officials of the Agency (counterintelligence chief James Angleton, for one) and the excoriation of others like former director Richard Helms.

So great was the hostility to covert programs that the Senate took the extraordinary step of passing a law forbidding clandestine support for the two pro-Western factions in the Angolan civil war, thereby guaranteeing the triumph of the Communist MPLA (better that a Soviet proxy should win than that we should tarnish our hands by secretly aiding Savimbi and Roberto).

In addition, following the discovery that President Kennedy had authorized attempts to murder Fidel Castro and that he might also have approved the murder of Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem (as well as the unfounded suspicion that Richard Nixon had somehow been involved in the murder of Salvador Allende in Chile), President Ford issued an executive order declaring that assassination, or any action that facilitated assassination, was off-limits to officials, agents, and representatives of the American government.

The Carter administration took this trend to its logical conclusion. Thus Carter’s director of the CIA, Admiral Stansfield Turner, provoked the departure of roughly 800 clandestine agents by offering them a choice between voluntary early retirement and being driven out. The point was clear enough: the sort of thing that those people did was no longer acceptable in this country, and once the capacity for covert action were eliminated, the temptation to make use of it would be automatically purged.

And indeed Carter greatly reduced the number of covert operations, and even went so far as to intervene with friendly countries to prevent actions against our mutual enemies (the most dramatic case being his veto of a plan by Egypt under Anwar Sadat to attack Qaddafi’s Libya). Evidently, if American foreign policy were to be raised to a new moral plane, we would have to hold our allies and friends to similarly high standards, even if this meant that our enemies would continue to flourish.

Under the Reagan administration, some of the most devastating practices of the past ten years have been undone, and others have been mitigated. There are now only two oversight committees, and from time to time one hears calls for more vigorous support of friends, allies, and proxies. Yet one cannot say that there has been a fundamental rethinking of our position. Although the Clark Amendment, which forbids support for anti-Communist movements in Angola, has come under serious challenge in both the House and the Senate, the principle embodied in the Amendment has been extended to Central America, where Congress has prohibited American support of any group that aims at the overthrow of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

In the important field of counterterrorism, assassination—even of known killers of Americans—remains unacceptable, and the slightest hint that the United States might secretly support foreign groups who want to strike back at those who have murdered our people is greeted with the same cries of scandal and outrage that were heard in the 70’s. Thus, when it was discovered that the CIA had worked with a Lebanese intelligence organization that in turn had been responsible for bombing the headquarters of Hezbollah—the radical Shiite terrorist group that appears to have been a prime mover in the murders of hundreds of Americans in Lebanon over the past few years and in the holding of hostages from TWA Flight 847—even this remote involvement of the American government was roundly condemned by members of Congress, by much of the media, and by former officials of the Carter administration.2



It is often difficult to tell if the critics object to our efforts to fight back, or only to the methods that are employed.

Occasionally, for example, one hears it said that if we must support groups like the Afghan resistance or the contras, we ought at least to do it openly. But this misses the essential point about such assistance. Secrecy is often required, not because we have anything to be ashamed of, but because those who are actually doing the fighting wish for reasons of their own to keep our relationship secret.

Thus in the case of the Afghan resistance, the key act of courage has to be performed not in Washington but in Islamabad, where President Zia of Pakistan is regularly treated to explicit threats from the Soviet Union. It is he who faces the Red Army across his border, and it is he who must decide how much space, how much money, how much ammunition, and how many weapons he will permit the Afghans to receive in and through his country. To make public American financial assistance to the Afghans is to expose Zia, thereby greatly increasing the chances that he will hedge his bet by moderating the program that we so badly want to succeed.

The stakes for Zia are quite different from those in Washington. For him, it is a question of survival; for American politicians, intellectuals, and journalists, the question of covert support is generally treated as if it were a matter of American ethics alone. By framing the debate in terms of American public morality, the question is taken out of its proper context, and becomes systematically distorted. We should be asking what the best way is to combat Soviet expansionism in Afghanistan; instead we are asking whether it is proper for the U.S. to keep its activities secret.

Similarly, in Central America, every country feels mortally threatened by the Sandinistas, and in their hearts all Central American leaders would like to see the Managua regime either removed or rendered significantly less threatening than it is today. Not only do the Sandinistas now boast an army that is larger than the sum total of all the other armies in the region, they support and control guerrilla movements in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

Quite logically, the government of Honduras is willing to permit its territory to be used by the contras. But equally logically, the Hondurans are loath to see these activities—and our support for them—become public knowledge. Insofar as they do become public knowledge, the chances of Sandinista incursions into Honduran territory are increased, and ammunition is lent to domestic opponents of the current government. Finally, given our record of abandoning allies under siege, the Hondurans (and who can blame them?) desperately wish to retain the option of coming to terms with the Sandinistas if we bail out of Central America. They may need to deny their own active involvement at some later date, and to condemn us for secretly operating in their country.

Quite aside from the convenience of our allies, there are often important reasons to keep American support secret. On many occasions, if we took open action, we might invite a large-scale war. Without the ability to wage this form of intermediate conflict, our government would be left with a choice between mere talk and direct military confrontation.



But the prejudice against secrecy is not the only obstacle to our efforts to respond in kind to the proxy assault. Thus Senator Patrick Leahy says that if we are going to take action against terrorists, we should do it ourselves and not get mixed up with unsavory groups such as the one in Lebanon that bombed Hezbollah.

Yet just as the critics of secrecy in effect leave us with no possibility of effective action, so those who attack our attempts to recruit allies in the war against terrorism erect standards that in practice lead either to paralysis or to failure.

To fight back against terrorists, we need first-class information about their intentions, and this information can only come from people who are on intimate terms with the terrorists. For the most part, this means that we either have to infiltrate the terrorist groups (which can only be done if the infiltrators commit terrorist acts themselves) or recruit active terrorists directly. In short, we have no choice but to work with some unsavory types, even if our objective is limited to gathering information. (Here, incidentally, is another area in which secrecy is an absolute requirement of success, since the survival of our informants is at stake.)

Nor will it “solve” the problem to say, as Senator Leahy does, that we should use our own people, rather than proxies, to strike at the terrorists. In the first place, to repeat, taking action directly entails the risk of an all-out war—and while under certain circumstances a reprisal against, say, Syria or Iran might be worth the risk, under other circumstances the risk might be better avoided.

In the second place, if Americans are going to operate against terrorists in the Middle East, the requirements for detailed information become even greater than before, thus putting us once again in the hands of terrorists who are willing to collaborate with us. Furthermore, there are times when it is simply impossible for Americans to enter places with reasonable safety, while locals have a much better chance.

Many of the same considerations apply to the highly-charged subject of assassination. There was great outrage when it was discovered that the CIA-financed “manual” that was apparently being used to train some of the contras suggested the possibility of “neutralizing” selected political and military commissars of the Sandinistas. The implication of the uproar was that it might be all right to train men in warfare, but not to kill specific individuals. This is of a piece with the confusions surrounding the use of proxies in counterterrorism, and the necessity of secrecy. For the blanket rejection of assassination risks actions, either by Americans or by proxies, that will lead to greater violence, and more death, especially of innocent bystanders.

To take the Nicaraguan case first: selectively targeting the leaders of the Sandinista armed forces, or their Cuban, East German, Libyan, and Palestinian advisers, is certainly preferable to the obvious alternative, which is large-scale assaults against the conscripted armed forces of Nicaragua, with inevitable harm to the civilian population. And where Afghanistan is concerned, ruling out any American involvement with assassination would mean encouraging the Afghan resistance to engage in all-out assaults against the Red Army, rather than selectively going after the Soviet commanders and “advisers.”

As for counterterrorism: suppose that we knew the names and addresses of the persons who organized the terrorist bombings of the American Marine barracks and the American embassy in Beirut, or those who hijacked TWA Flight 847. Under the blanket prohibition of assassination, it is illegal to organize a “hit team” or resort to other methods to kill those persons individually. However, it is legal to strike at a military target, so we could, for example, bomb a “facility” in which they train other terrorists, or perhaps where their headquarters are located. Yet bombing buildings risks the deaths of many other people, especially when we recall that terrorists in Lebanon generally place their headquarters in hospitals, schools, and churches, thus ensuring that anyone who attempts to attack them will automatically kill innocent women, children, doctors, nurses, and priests.



One is left with the suspicion that the moralistic complaints against secrecy, or against the unpleasant necessities of counter-terrorism and of the war against Soviet-sponsored proxies in Central America, are nothing more than excuses for abandoning any serious attempt by the United States to fight back. If the critics both in and out of Congress are not prepared to support armed struggle against enemy proxies, whether in Central America or in the shadowy realm of the terrorist war, so be it. But they should not be permitted to hide sanctimoniously behind the current rationalizations for refusing to do anything effective against a dangerous challenge to the interests and security of the United States.




1 Available in The Grenada Documents, edited by Michael Ledeen and Herbert Romerstein (U.S. Departments of State and Defense) and The Grenada Papers, edited by Paul Sea-bury and Walter A. McDougall (Institute for Contemporary Studies); see the discussion by Arch Puddington in “Totalitarianism Today,” COMMENTARY, December 1984.—Ed.

2 One should not leave the impression that the only opposition lies outside the administration. One of the most damaging legacies of Watergate has been the now-habitual recourse of government officials who happen to disapprove of a given policy or action to leak information about it to the press. In the case of actions which require secrecy to be effective, the results can be, and have been, devastating.

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