"The structure of our intelligence organization is faulty. It makes no sense. It has to be reorganized and we should have done it long ago. Nothing has changed since Pearl Harbor. I have suffered an eight-year defeat on this. . . . I will leave a legacy of ashes. . . .''
Those words were spoken by a president of the United States, though not the present incumbent. It was Dwight Eisenhower. Legacy of Ashes is the title of Tim Weiner's history of the CIA. The thesis of the book is that this country has never had a functioning espionage agency. Its leaders either were incompetent or, like Allen Dulles and William Casey, over-the-top and round-the-bend rogues who lied to presidents and told them only what they wanted to hear. Its covert operations, like the Bay of Pigs, usually failed (Dulles lied in telling JFK that Eisenhower had approved the plan). Its intelligence analyses missed the invasion of Korea by China, the economic decline of Russia, the absence of a Stalin plan for war, the missiles in Cuba, the building of the Berlin Wall and its subsequent fall, the actual state of weapons in Iraq, the rise of the ayatollahs in Iran and the importance of religious conflicts in Iraq.
Its rare successes -- support for the Baath Party in Iraq and the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan -- prepared the way for Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Despite the many brave and intelligent people who have worked there, the CIA turns out to be a dysfunctional secret bureaucracy that, as one of its former agents says, produces $40 billion worth of crap every year. After reading Weiner's book, one is forced to conclude that the country would have been better off without the CIA.
One also concludes that the United States is not the great superpower that many of its leaders think it is. The CIA cannot collect good intelligence. It cannot provide adequate information to the White House, but usually gives a president the information he wants to hear and not what he needs to hear -- even to this day. It never figured out what was going on in Russia, and it still does not understand Islam.
Similarly, and despite the experience of the Philippines insurrection and the Korean and Vietnamese wars, the nation's military has never learned how to fight a small guerrilla war. Rather, it charges into battle with "shock and awe," just as George S. Patton's Third Army swept across Europe.
Nor has the political leadership learned how to mobilize national support for these small wars despite ever-increasing casualties. The populace supports the little war for awhile and then changes its mind and demands, ''Bring the troops home!''
Almost 800 English soldiers died in the Northern Island "Troubles,'' and the English government did not have to worry about public pressure of that sort. England is an old hand at imperialism. Still, after a hundred years, the United States should be able to play the game better than it has. Perhaps it never will.
When, then, will our leaders learn that, despite previous exercises into imperialism -- Mexico, the Indian Wars, Spain -- this country is doomed to fail when it tries to play the game, no matter how much hubris, arrogance and phony toughness ("Bring them on!") the leadership musters? This would be a great blessing.