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How (not) to maintain and manage power

By Reg Little - posted Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Robert Gates and Vladimir Putin are the outstanding personal successes produced respectively by the intelligence services of America and Russia over the second half of the 20th century. Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA offers many insights into the culture from which Gates emerged and raises even more questions about the culture that produced Putin.

Legacy of Ashes documents much of the dissipation of resources and goodwill caused by American preoccupation with the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century. It illuminates also the need for a War on Terror to provide a focus and rationale that was lost with the end of the Cold War.

Weiner leaves aside the theme of his earlier book, namely the vast waste of resources by the American Department of Defence. In passing, however, he highlights the achievement of Robert Gates, the only officer to rise through the ranks to become Director of the CIA.


The achievement of Gates is, of course, magnified by his subsequent progress to an even more demanding role. As the Secretary of Defence at a time when America is posed with multiplying challenges abroad, and increasing divisions at home, he is likely to need to draw deeply on knowledge derived from his exposure to the hidden realities of the world’s political contests. He will, however, have to contend with an American defence system that has been shown by archives from the KGB to be easily penetrated by foreign interests through its dependence on private contractors, a painful reflection on the peculiar limitations and inadequacies of the CIA.

Above all else, Legacy of Ashes makes vividly clear the realities of great power and the messy business of maintaining and managing it. Clearly, there are many problems in reconciling the realities of that power with the ideals espoused by modern democratic states. Legacy of Ashes offers a timely and troubling account of these problems and clarifies the forces that obstruct any easy resolution of deep-seated contradictions between idealistic and practical imperatives.

Legacy of Ashes is a flawed but immensely readable and instructive book. It is flawed in revealing the profound failings and deficiencies of the CIA without explaining or evaluating in sufficient depth the imperatives that shaped the course of its development. Even so, it illuminates 60 years of American history in a manner that makes George W Bush look like a victim of historical and cultural forces that had long preordained the misadventures of his presidency. This is achieved through a detailed account of aspects of many decisive events since 1945.

It is a tragic story. Moreover, it is hard to escape the sense that the book has been inspired by a concern to address failings in America’s approach to the world that have become agonisingly transparent in the first years of the 21st century. It is equally hard to escape the conclusion that the Central Intelligence Agency reflected accurately the character of the community it sought to serve. The neglect of considered personnel, training, language and control policies by an ever-changing and uncertain parade of Agency Directors, in favour of a spirit of camaraderie, adventure, privilege and conviction makes a statement about the character of 20th century America.

Accounts of the CIA’s activities suggest that many of its apparent successes had the backing of little serious policy consideration and often came to do as much harm as good to American interests.

A chapter headed “CIA’s Greatest Single Triumph” recounts the almost comic accidents that led to success in engineering the coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadeq, in 1953. This responded to the wishes of Winston Churchill after the British failed in a coup attempt and stood to lose their oil interests in Iran. It was, however, in conflict with official American policy to support Mossadeq.


It was the product of exchanges between the British and American intelligence services that did not involve a White House focused on the transition between Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and reflected a sense that the “CIA makes policy by default”.

With other more recent activities, it still contributes to widespread popular suspicion and hostility in the Middle East. This leaves American interest in the region’s energy reserves increasingly dependent on the exercise of military might and financial persuasion at a time of declining capacity on both fronts.

Perhaps even more anomalous was the success of the CIA in Japan, the first place where it picked the future leader of a world power.

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First published in the Spring 2008 edition of the Canadian publication Pacific Rim Review of Books.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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