The testimony of several witnesses during the current impeachment hearings in the House of Representatives highlighted one important and ominous point. Ambassador William B. Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George P. Kent, and others made it clear that they did not object merely to President Trump’s controversial phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump appeared to seek a quid pro quo. No, they saw Trump’s entire Ukraine policy as insufficiently hardline and therefore unacceptable.
Indeed, Taylor and Kent seemed to think it was improper for the president to change any aspect of a staunchly supportive U.S. policy toward Kiev and a correspondingly hostile policy toward Russia. Far from being loyal subordinates executing the White House’s vision, they opposed the president’s approach and anointed themselves as guardians of appropriate policy.
Unfortunately, such behavior on the part of foreign policy careerists is far from new; it has merely become more pervasive and brazen during the Trump years. This is indicative of what Trump’s supporters—and others—contend is a campaign by the “deep state,” meaning career officials in the foreign policy bureaucracy and the intelligence agencies, to undermine the president’s foreign policy. Defenders of Taylor, Kent, and other Trump opponents within the foreign policy apparatus either praise them as patriotic dissenters or scoff at the notion that a deep state even exists.
It is extraordinarily naïve to assert that powerful bureaucracies and their key personnel do not protect their institutional interests, push policies in directions they prefer, and attempt to dilute, delay, or defeat initiatives they oppose. Such behavior is a long-standing characteristic of entrenched institutions.
An episode from Ronald Reagan’s presidency illustrates how the CIA seeks to manipulate policy. The agency’s target was Secretary of State George Shultz, who was then applying the Reagan Doctrine and providing U.S. aid to anti-communist rebels in the Third World. Shultz was the chief intellectual architect of the Reagan Doctrine, which he presented in detail during a February 1985 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. But that intellectual pedigree did not shield him from attempted policy sabotage.
Despite his overall enthusiasm for the Reagan Doctrine in places such as Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola, Shultz drew the line at supporting some particularly unsavory alleged freedom fighters. He was especially wary of the anti-communist insurgency in Mozambique led by the Resistencia National Mozambicana, or RENAMO. Shultz recalled that when it came to implementing the Reagan Doctrine, “I took care to know who and what the United States was funding.” He stressed that “I steadfastly insisted that we refuse to give backing to the atrocity-prone RENAMO.”
Shultz fretted that “President Reagan could be led to agree with the proposition that all freedom fighters,” even RENAMO, “deserved unquestioned support.” CIA director William Casey and other hardliners within the Agency, the secretary of state lamented, were more than happy to lead the compliant president in that direction, even if it meant undermining Shultz and other senior policymakers who favored a more moderate approach. Indeed, the State Department found its diplomatic initiatives subjected to repeated bureaucratic subversion. Not only did proponents of aid to RENAMO within the CIA misrepresent the behavior and ideological nature of the insurgent force, they wildly exaggerated its battlefield successes and the extent of support it enjoyed from the people of Mozambique. Shultz noted that in late 1985, briefers from the CIA “were showing their audiences in the administration and Congress a map of Mozambique to indicate—falsely—that RENAMO controlled virtually the entire country.”
The CIA’s sabotage was not confined to policy regarding Mozambique. Later that decade, during delicate negotiations to achieve a ceasefire and subsequent accord between Angola’s government and insurgent leader Jonas Savimbi, Shultz fumed that (emphasis added) “right-wing staffers from Congress, fueled by information from the CIA, were meddling—visiting Savimbi, trying to convince him that [Assistant Secretary of State Chester] Crocker and I would sell him out.”
Such behavior should debunk the notion that the CIA and other bureaucratic careerists are merely obedient public servants dedicated to executing policies that elected officials and their high-level political appointees have adopted. Such operatives have their own policy preferences, and they are not shy about pushing them, nor do they hesitate to impede or undermine policies they dislike.
Perhaps even more troubling, deep state personnel in the CIA, Pentagon, and State Department seem to have a distinct bias in favor of highly activist policies. CIA analysts and briefers regarded even the principal architect of the Reagan Doctrine as insufficiently committed in southern Africa. There is a noticeable parallel to the current bureaucratic opposition to Trump’s handling of Ukraine and Russia. The allegation that Trump has abandoned Kiev and pursues an appeasement policy toward Russia is absurd. His support for Kiev has actually been far more substantial than the approach the Obama administration adopted. Yet even that harder line is apparently not hard enough for establishment career diplomats and their allies.
Treating such saboteurs as heroic patriots is both obscene and dangerous. The honorable course for subordinates who disagree with a president’s policies is to resign and then express criticism. Adopting a termite strategy while working in a presidential administration is profoundly unethical. For Congress and the media to praise bureaucratic subversion is horridly myopic. The last thing defenders of a democratic republic should do is to encourage unelected—and in the case of the intelligence agencies, deeply secretive—bureaucrats to pursue their own rogue policy agendas.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the author of twelve books and more than 850 articles on international affairs.
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