Sunday, June 29, 2008
The new Sy Hersh piece is up at the New Yorker and -- with the caveat that it might be time to coin a term along the lines of a "Friedman Unit" to describe Hersh's Iran reporting -- to the extent that his account of the Bush administration's covert operations against Iran is accurate, the operations are misguided for all the obvious reasons. Hersh identifies most of them, but leaves unmentioned the fact that encouraging ethno-sectarian faultlines as a means of undermining the Iranian regime is logically inconsistent with the Western strategic consensus that identifies the effects of ethno-sectarian conflict as one of the principle threats to regional and global stability, and repairing them as the emerging justification and goal of military intervention. It's reassuring to note that Vali Nasr, in the piece, dismisses the effectiveness of applying such a tactic to Iran due to the country's well-established national identity, but I remember hearing the same logic used to explain why Iraq's Shiite community would be resistant to Iranian influence in Iraqi internal politics.
Another point that Hersh treats obliquely is that the groups we're supporting covertly, in particular PJAK but to a lesser degree Jundullah, represent threats to our friends as well as to Iran. Hersh mentions the tension this might cause us with Turkey and Afghanistan respectively, but it's worth noting that, as Turkey's security cooperation with Iran regarding Kurdish guerillas in northern Iraq illustrates, our covert Iran policy is also working at cross purposes with our overt Iran policy, namely to isolate Tehran from its neighbors.
But to my mind, the greatest risk of these covert operations is not so much the threat they pose to our Middle East policy, so much as the threat they pose to the health and integrity of our domestic political institutions. The degree of secrecy in which the current administration's covert operations are shrouded is all the more worrying given the Bush administration's willingness, according to Hersh, to keep not only Congress but to a large degree the uniformed military chain of command in the dark about covert operations as well.
That takes on added significance in the context of the upcoming presidential transition. Most of the discusion of that transition has focused on the conduct of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the need for institutional and operational continuity. But with so much of the Bush administration's counterterror and now Middle East policy taking place off the books and being arguably illegal, there's reason to worry about whether or not we'll ever really track all of it down. And that raises the very real risk of these operations becoming rogue operations directed by a private chain of command, if they're directed at all.
A lot of this has to do with executive overreach, and both Barack Obama and John McCain have discussed ways in which they would return the executive branch to the Constitutional framework largely ignored by President Bush. But the guiding logic of all of the operations discussed by Hersh is the War on Terror, which the Bush administration has used to justify the Commander-in-Chief override of the oversight process. The next president should declare the War on Terror over in a legal sense, even while pursuing it operationally. It would send the right message to Americans, to American agents and to the region that we're ready to shine some light into the shadows, instead of operating in them.