The Cherry Orchard has been quiet lately, mainly because I’ve been occupied with an emergency technical redesign of my other blog. I’m still paying attention over here, though, and you better believe I’ll be back in full force to cover the 2008 Presidential Election. If you’re wondering where I stand on that right now, well, nothing much has changed. I support Hillary Clinton. I support Barack Obama. I support John Edwards. I want a change in leadership and an end to the military mania that has been so harmful to this nation since 2001.
I’ve lately been reading Tim Weiner’s award-winning new book Legacy of Ashes: This History of the CIA. This book presents a single powerful thesis: from its beginnings in Harry Truman’s post-war administration, America’s Central Intelligence Agency has been riven by a split between proponents of two opposing visions of the CIA’s role: those who favor a passive, espionage-minded spy agency and those who favor covert action over information. The latter has predominated, from the 1940’s straight through to today.
The essential question is: should the CIA report what other governments are doing, or change what other governments are doing? Should it gather news, or should it make news? The CIA was successful at making news in Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973, but the long-term effects of America’s bold programs to manipulate foreign governments are worrisome. Most worrisome of all — and this is a point that Tim Weiner pounds home repeatedly in this angry book — is the fact that while engaging in disruptive covert actions in every corner of the world, the CIA has clearly neglected the espionage side of national security. According to this book, we have far fewer high-functioning clandestine agents around the world than one concerned with the USA’s security would hope. We are laughably understaffed with operatives capable of reading foreign languages. We have been constantly undermined by double agents.
The commitment to covert action over knowledge seems to resonate with America’s cultural and political image, especially as expressed by Presidential candidates today. We are pragmatic, we are fearless, we “bring the war to them”, and our every move is above reproach because “we are America”. Unfortunately, this deeply ingrained approach to global politics has left Americans feeling more and more insecure in a world riven by nationalist, religious and ethnic hatred. Tim Weiner’s book is not about partisan politics — he expresses deep contempt for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (both of them best suited for domestic politics, both with terrible track records in foreign policy) and has the most regard for worldly-minded Presidents like Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush.
The book does reflect upon each American citizen’s idea of what our place in the world is, and one can only pray that our national culture will become more worldly, more considerate of international concerns, more multi-lingual, more respectful to foreign religions and alternative economic practices, and less isolated, less chauvinistic, less solipsistic. If we had put more effort into understanding and infiltrating the various societies around the world (rather than trying to manipulate these societies through imperious and unilateral policies), we would never have been caught looking on September 11, 2001.