Comment: Spreading Democracy Involves Routine Bribing
December 26, 2008 2 Comments
Online pundits appear immensely amused by a recent article in The Washington Post, which reveals that Viagra is among numerous “novel incentives” handed out by CIA officers to Afghan warlords in efforts to “win [them] over” to the American side. The article cites an unnamed CIA agent who confirms that pharmaceutical treatments for erectile dysfunction are occasionally dispensed by the Agency to “aging [Afghan] patriarchs with [several young wives and] slumping libidos”. Unlike most, I find the article’s revelations to be neither novel nor amusing.
To begin with, the employment of sexual favors (the incentives category under which the dispensing of Viagra pills must inevitably fall) to solicit information from potential intelligence sources is as old a method as espionage itself. American female agents employed it during World War I; French resistance groups were notorious for using it on German occupation forces during World War II; the Soviets turned it into a science (called ‘honey trap’ in intelligence lingo) during the Cold War. The CIA has in the past employed prostitutes (and, sometimes, hidden surveillance cameras) to lure or blackmail potential intelligence sources. That Viagra pills are now utilized by the CIA as a form of non-monetary bribe in Afghanistan fits well within the historical norm of the Agency’s operating style. After all, US President George Bush was quite explicit about the methods to be used in the so-called “Global War on Terrorism”, when he stated on September 20, 2001, that “[w]e will direct every resource at our command –every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war” (emphasis added).
What is more interesting is that nobody seems to be bothered about the broader context of The Washington Post article, which is that bribing (either in kind or in monetary form) has become a crucial weapon in what US government leaders have described as a war to “defend […] the freedom of people everywhere to live and raise their children free from fear”. Apparently Afghan tribal leaders are so addicted to raising their children in fear that they “expect to be paid for their cooperation” with the forces of democracy “and […], for some, switching sides can be as easy as changing tunics”, as The Washington Post article states. This is because “[i]f the Americans don’t offer incentives, there are others who will, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and even Iranian agents in the region”. The article proceeds to justify these “creative” bribes as “necessary”, since “the usual bribes of choice” in the war to spread democracy, such as “cash and weapons aren’t always the best options, Afghanistan veterans say. Guns too often fall into the wrong hands, they say, and showy gifts such as money, jewelry and cars tend to draw unwanted attention”.
What goes unstated in this analogy is the half-ton gorilla in the room, namely the understanding that the benefits of American democracy are so difficult to discern in Afghanistan that local tribal leaders have to be routinely bribed in order to recognize them. In fact, bribing appears to be such a prevalent method of spreading democracy that CIA officials have had to come up with new and creative methods of concealing it, so as to safeguard the reputation of local warlords among their own people. The latter have long learned to detect signs of going over to the enemy, namely locals who “suddenly come into a lot of money”, in the words of former CIA covert operations officer Jamie Smith. The key, Smith says, “is to find a way to meet the informant’s personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace”.
It appears that the Viagra trick works, for now: the Washington Post article cites a blissful CIA agent saying that “after [giving Viagra pills to an Afghan tribal leader] we could do whatever we wanted in his area”. Evidently, the question of whether Afghan leaders who let US forces “do whatever [they] want” in their area on account of a few Viagra pills can be trusted in the long run to help defend “the freedom of [their] people […] to live and raise their children free from fear” is not examined. After all, this is how freedom is instituted in the “Global War on Terrorism”: native tribal leaders are taught right from the start that American-style democracy goes hand-in-hand with bribes that “meet [one’s] personal needs in a way that […] leaves little or no visible trace”. Recent exemplars of American democracy (the reason “why they hate us”) such as former longtime Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich might have something to share on the matter. [IA]