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When covert action is successful

In the debate over covert action in Central America, a familiar cry of American frustration is once more heard, ''The Russians do it. Why can't we?'' Blame is placed on the mass media and on the Congress both for opposing and for revealing plans and details of CIA activities. The causes of America's dilemma and of its frustration are deeper than that.

An understanding of the problems must begin with a look at the basic premise: '''The Russians do it.'' In its simplest form, the theory is that revolutions against friendly authoritarian regimes around the world have started with a conscious effort by the Soviets or their surrogates to bring down a government friendly to the United States as part of a global strategic plan. A deeper examination of revolutionary situations suggests that the seeds of revolt are present in corruption, acquisitiveness, brutality, or weakness. Except for outright military actions, if there is a Soviet or Marxist role, it is that of exploiting existing grievances in an organized, determined, and often ruthless manner.

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Recognition of that fact then leads to another question: ''But the communists are just as undemocratic and may be even more brutal than the government in power. Why should the dissatisfied see salvation in them? Why can't we organize a better way?''

The fact is that, in several efforts at covert political action over the years, the US has not been able to convince dissatisfied populations that those it supports provide a ''better way.'' It is often because those with whom it is working represent to the population of a country those who originally planted the seeds of discontent. Such populations are more attracted to a devil they do not know than to one they do.

Effective political action by the US in situations of political change is only possible where there is strong support in the affected country and in the US. Opposition to such action in the Congress and leaks by dissenters occur because there are strong doubts in the US body politic, not so much toward the involvement as toward those with whom the US is involved. The ''Vietnam syndrome'' is not just a concern over renewed military engagement; it is over once more being associated with those whose acts appear to contradict what we say we stand for.

It is not surprising that there are concerns in the US and questions in Central America when the US must turn to a country such as Argentina for help. Not only is the situation in that country a travesty of human rights, but Argentine military officers played a key role in overturning a democratic government in Bolivia not so long ago in favor of a corrupt, narcotics-peddling military regime. The US faces the same questions in supporting the former Somocistas in Nicaragua.

In seeking, especially through covert action, to blunt the efforts of the Soviets and the Cubans in Central America, the US cannot seem to avoid the temptation or the necessity to use elements eager for their own reasons to work with the US. These elements, unfortunately, turn out to be those that are so tainted by their association with the hated regimes of the past that they create insoluble contradictions that doom support for covert action from the start.

We avoid those noncommunist elements that have already thrown their lot in with a revolutionary left, even though they may be the ones with the greatest support among our European allies. We look for centrist elements that will give respectability to our efforts. These elements are too often either weak or without military assets or shy away from the risks of being associated with an unpopular US effort.

America's frustration is heightened by the reluctance of most other democratic countries in the region to support or, at least, condone its effort. Swayed by the enticing rhetoric of those elements that seek our support and seek to work with us, we pay too little attention to the deep opposition to unilateral US actions in the area and to some of the elements with which we are tempted to work. Without the support of these other democratic regimes in the area, it is not surprising that US efforts are in trouble.

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As the growing unhappiness with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua shows, Marxist revolutions ultimately reveal their true character of single-minded totalitarianism. It is difficult to make that point understood, however, when, in the height of a revolution, the US appears reluctant for tactical reasons to repudiate the support of those still associated with a brutal past. We have yet to prove that we can effectively sustain the contradiction between those we choose to support and our own proclaimed ideals.

The US should not give up the possibility or the capacity for covert action. Such action can be effective when there is a consensus in the area and in the Congress that we are on the right side. If the press reports of American help to the Afghan rebels are true, the US has demonstrated in that country that covert help can be effective. We can only do so in Latin America if we can find those to work with who enjoy broad support in their own country and in ours.

Where that consensus does not exist, chances of success are slim. A man is known by the company he keeps. So is a nation.

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