Let me start by making it clear that I have absolutely no specific evidence to support the following assertions. My views are based purely on intuition, developed I suppose over several decades of experience in observing and participating in covert actions of every imaginable variety.
There is an obnoxious but deeply-imbedded subculture in the US intelligence community that began to appear most noticeably during the period when “Cowboy Bill” Casey was director of the CIA, and is probably most clearly exemplified by the amateur antics misrepresented as professional covert action that we remember as Iran-Contra. I call it the “can-do conceit”. It is a peculiarly American cultural phenomenon. It springs from the dangerous illusion that any challenge can be overcome and any objective gained if you approach the problem with enough good old red-blooded American machismo. It’s the image that Don Rumsfeld was posing for when he declared that the threat of terrorism could only be overcome if the United States mounted an unremittingly ”forward-leaning” campaign to kill all terrorists everywhere, and it is the same American conceit to which President Bush and others like John McCain are appealing when they continually insist that only by aggressive offensive action “over there” can we defend our own homeland against the subtle and elusive foes whom we call terrorists. Absolute rubbish — the antithesis of sensible and professional treatment of the infinitely complex variety of threats we face today all over the globe.
You will all remember that it was very shortly after we first began to hear reports of Iranian covert assistance to anti-American militias and insurgents in Iraq that U.S. forces boldly snatched five Iranian officials at Irbil — an action that has since been almost universally recognized as an offense to the sovereignty of both the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish regional authority — to say nothing of its provocative consequences in the specific area of US-Iranian bilateral relations. Despite cheers for our chutzpah at the time, the incident has since become, in fact, a petard on which we never should have hoisted ourselves. I suspected immediately that this was a calculated retaliatory action on our part, mistakenly intended to frighten off the Iranians by demonstrating that they would pay a heavy price for messing around in Mr. Bush’s private little war, and I think most of you agreed with me then that starting a tit-for-tat competition of dirty tricks with the Iranians was a foolish and dangerous game that we would surely regret having started. But we succumbed to our own worst instincts, and allowed our macho compulsions to override cooler professional judgments. Some too-smart young officer, either from the CIA or from the Army’s newly-empowered covert action arm, ambitious to make a name for himself as a “can-do kind of guy”, probably suggested the operation to his superior officer, who was also eager to appear “forward-leaning”. As these things often develop, the excessive zeal of these young men ignited the fires of ambition at higher ranks, and before anyone could think clearly about possible unintended consequences, everyone agreed that it would be a dandy idea to teach the meddlesome Iranians a well-deserved lesson by snatching a bunch of their people in a brilliant, daredevil coup. I can clearly visualize the whole scene. That started the foolhardy tit-for-tat game — for which we are now paying a heavy price.
So if you want my vote on the question at hand: “Did the U.S. Incite the Iranian Crack-Down?”, my answer is yes, we probably made a major contribution to the present impasse by outsmarting ourselves right at the outset. Now we’re stuck. Do we exchange our captives for theirs? That would represent no loss of face for the Iranians. That’s their game, being played on their turf, after all. They invented the rules, and they control the arena of competition much more than we do. But for the United States, and especially for the Bush team, a prisoner exchange would be an ignominious, and thus unacceptable, contradiction of all our own proudly declared principles of never dealing with “terrorists”. (Today, even old veteran Joe Lieberman, not one to be underrated if we are measuring “can-do conceit”, has thoughtlessly joined the chorus of those wanting to raise the temperature of confrontation with Iran — asserting that we should seriously consider taking overt military action against suspected secret bases in Iran that support the killing of Americans in Iraq.)
This is how small minds and small acts of mischief can snowball into major hostilities.