The controversy swirling around American foreign policy in Central America highlights anew the problems and potential of covert action as an instrument of foreign policy. When, if ever, is it appropriate to choose covert action in preference to the other instruments of policy such as diplomacy, overt information and propaganda programs, foreign aid, political pressure, trade concessions or restrictions, and economic sanctions? It is only within the last 10 years that Congress and the American people have begun to come to grips with this question.
The real advantage of covert action is that, if it is successful, it enables the United States to accomplish anonymously what it probably could not accomplish openly. Thus, by circuitously funneling money or other assistance to a given candidate or political party, we can influence the outcome of foreign elections. Such efforts would backfire if they were attempted publicly. Covert action contributed to keeping Western European labor unions noncommunist. It has influenced foreign public opinion through subsidizing publications or journalists and sometimes through spreading false rumors. It is not a new technique. Thomas Jefferson used it in an effort to incite the Florida Indians against the Spanish.
Covert action also has its own peculiar problems. In the first place, it is inherently sneaky. It raises the question about where one draws the line between legitimate attempts to influence a foreign government - through diplomacy or trade, for example - and impermissible intervention in another's domestic affairs.
In the second place, by definition it has to be covert and to remain so for a good many years. The larger the number of people involved, the greater the likelihood that it will become public. Kennedy discovered this in the Bay of Pigs, Johnson and Nixon in Laos, Ford in Angola, and now Reagan in Nicaragua.
In the third place, covert action of necessity is secret, not only from the country against which it is directed, but from Americans as well. It is a way for the US government to carry out a program that large numbers of Americans would oppose if they knew about it. This is a characteristic shared by all of the examples cited above - Cuba, Laos, Angola, Nicaragua. Presidents tend to resort to covert action because it enables them to do what they want without the tedium of debates in Congress and the public at large. On the other hand, if there is a solid consensus about a policy objective, covert action is noncontroversial. Compare the general acquiescence in aid to the Afghan rebels and the stormy debate over aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.
Finally, even when a particular covert action is successful, it may create a new problem while solving an old one. A covert action contributed to the overthrow of the leftist Iranian regime of Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953 and the restoration to power of the Shah. This produced many advantages for the US over the next quarter-century, but the Shah's policies contained the seeds of their own destruction, and now the Ayatollah Khomeini makes Mossadegh look like a moderate. A covert action overthrew the leftist Guatemalan regime of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. This bought time, but it settled none of Guatemala's fundamental problems. These results were not foreseeable in 1953 and '54, but they should make us more wary of repeating the pattern.
Nor do problems of this nature arise only from the consequences of paramilitary action. If we intervene in foreign elections and it becomes known, the candidate or political party we are trying to help becomes discredited and the opposition becomes stronger. This happened in Chile, where the otherwise excellent reputation of Eduardo Frei (a good, decent man) was tarnished by revelations of covert US support and probably enabled Salvador Allende, against whom the US efforts were directed, to remain in office longer than he otherwise would have. Now we may be seeing the same phenomenon in El Salvador, where, it has been revealed, the US covertly aided the campaign of President Jose Napoleon Duarte.
An argument can be made - and a growing number of people are making it - that the US ought to renounce covert action entirely as an instrument of foreign policy. This is perhaps going too far, given the dangers and imperfections of the contemporary world.
But if the US is going to resort to covert action, the following minimum criteria are suggested:
* There should be more than a reasonable assurance that the action can be kept secret. This implies that it should be on a small scale.
* The action should be directed toward an objective that has widespread public support.
* It should not involve methods or techniques that are offensive to American values.
* Above all, it should be subjected to more rigorous cost-benefit analysis than has usually been the case.