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Capsule Review

Two Books on Espionage and Covert Operations

In This Review

Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy
Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy
By Rory Cormac
Oxford University Press, 2018 416 pp. Purchase
Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics
Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics
By Austin Carson
Princeton University Press, 2018 344 pp. Purchase

Policymakers are often tempted to use covert operations as a way of limiting risks. If plans go wrong, leaders suppose they can deny responsibility, avoiding retaliation and escalation. Yet in order to stay secret, covert operations are often too small to make a real difference. In his history of British covert operations since 1945, Cormac covers a wide range of activities by British spies and special forces, including training saboteurs in Albania, working to undermine the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, acting with U.S. forces to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in Iran, and dealing with insurgents in Oman. Cormac’s history shows more misses than hits, and he demonstrates that even some apparent successes, such as the Iranian coup, backfired in the long run. He suggests that over the last 75 years, the United Kingdom’s covert efforts were largely about compensating for, or masking, the country’s declining power. In particular, the British were eager to demonstrate to the United States that they could still contribute to joint overseas endeavors.

Carson picks up on a striking feature of covert operations: they are often remarkably transparent, especially to the enemy. In an intriguing analysis, he focuses on instances when both sides of a confrontation appeared to collude in sustaining the fiction that nothing happened. This has occurred even in major operations, including Nazi Germany’s intervention in the Spanish Civil War; Soviet air missions in the Korean War; Chinese, Soviet, and U.S. operations in Vietnam; and the CIA's missions in Afghanistan. Carson argues that it often suits both sides to maintain the pretense that nothing has happened in order to prevent a conflict from escalating. Governments do not dispute their enemies’ denials, even when those denials are implausible, because to do so would lead the public back home to demand retaliation. Carson makes a convincing case, although he somewhat overdoes the theory. The book would have been more interesting if he had used the space devoted to theoretical considerations to explore other examples of this trend, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Israel’s nuclear weapons program, both of which he mentions but does not examine in detail.

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