Jeffrey Sachs Should Avoid Dabbling In National Security Punditry

on October 14 | in Bureaucracy, CIA, Foreign Policy, Terrorism

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Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs is one of the most internationally recognized economists in the world. Author of several books—including a few you probably read in graduate school—he’s worked with Soviet bloc nations to help transition their command-and-control economies into market based ones. Among other titles, he’s Special Advisor to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

So I was struck by his recent inflammatory comments about the intelligence community. His recent appearances indicate what can happen when people start talking about things they have not thought all the way through.

To wit: on MSNBC’s Morning Joe last week, he said, among other gems, “The CIA is the single biggest failure of the US Government.”

(I might humbly suggest the last few Sessions of Congress holds that particular title, as that august body seems always a few days or weeks from being unable to fulfill some basic obligations to pass laws and keep the government operating.)

He later followed that up with a tweet: “@DmJ43 we have failed again and again and spurned diplomacy time and again. Decades of CIA-led failures.”

This is a facile reading of how national security works in this country, and I’m surprised that someone as erudite and careful as Dr. Sachs made such a charge.

If we take at face value that CIA is the primary cause of the wars and conflicts and secretive efforts the U.S. has undertook in the post-WWII era, this also means Presidents and Members of Congress are complete foreign policy/national security rubes, being led around by the nose by a secretive, malicious cabal in Northern Virginia. These Presidents include such Pollyannas such as General Dwight D. Eisenhower and former CIA Director George H.W. Bush who, despite decades of national security expertise, still seem to be continually cowed by their lowly subordinates at Langley.

This rationale also absolves the White House and the national security decisionmakers of all credit–or blame–for the pointy-edged aspects of U.S. foreign policy to a small (but colorful) bureaucracy. CIA executes the desires of policymakers—not the other way around.

Is Sachs unaware Eisenhower personally approved the mission to overthrow Iranian President Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953? Or that John (and Bobby) Kennedy was obsessed with trying to kill Fidel Castro? Or that Ronald Reagan’s knew that CIA mined Managua Harbor in Nicaragua? Or that George W. Bush’s spearheaded the effort to hunt down and capture/kill al Qaeda operatives? And so on.

Of course the Presidents knew. After all, they approved these and other wide-ranging covert actions, sometimes with a wink and a nod, but certainly after 1974 with a written Presidential Finding. After 1991, it was enshrined in law that the relevant Congressional committees would be informed about all covert activities as well.

There are certainly nations where the intelligence services run the show, like Russia. The CIA has also certainly blundered and failed numerous times to execute the White House’s policy desires—why did Castro survive all those attempts on his life, anyways? And CIA employees sometimes have cooked up some pretty crazy ideas to achieve their goals.

But here’s a thought experiment: had President Truman and Congress not brought CIA into existence in 1947-48, would this country have been a more peaceful nation dedicated only to diplomacy in the face of Joseph Stalin and the rapidly expanding Soviet bloc? Would we have stood idly by when North Korea invaded South Korea? Or done nothing following 9/11?

Of course not. A superpower’s policymakers require a top-notch intelligence service.

But to say the tail has always wagged the dog is badly uninformed at best, and dangerously conspiratorial at worst. I’m not an economist, and so I hope Dr. Sachs’ economic prescriptions are better informed than his national security ones. It does no one any benefit to peddle these ideas on national television. 

photo: Jeffrey Sachs on the fifth Gaidar forum in Moscow. January 2014. (Russian Government)

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