In Cocaine Politics, we learned about muddy waters and morally compromising actions of some U.S. agencies. Politics and diplomacy can be ugly, especially when the stakes are high.
In this light, were the actions of CIA understandable? Acceptable? Were its actions, in retrospect, successful?
This is a very loaded question. The reason why is because it seeks to establish moral or ethical standards to political decisions which were, at best, made out of pragmatism and necessity. I think that the nature of the question demands that there is some examination as to upon what the American government in the 1980s placed primacy in their efforts to work with known narcotics avenues.
In the context of Cocaine Politics, the U.S. government placed a great emphasis on developing multiple and varied avenues to defeat Communism. The election of Ronald Reagan and ascension of Republicanism in American political doctrine placed a heavy emphasis on facing down the Soviets in every possible venue. The governmental focus of the time frame was one in which the defeat of Communism was the most important goal. All other areas of focus became secondary in the name of a singular pursuit that dominated American foreign policy: "In country after country, from Mexico and Honduras to Panama and Peru, the CIA helped set up or consolidate intelligence agencies that became forces of repression, and whose intelligence connections to other countries greased the way for illicit drug shipments." The drive to eliminate pockets of Communism or even Communist- sympathetic governments was of tantamount importance to American foreign policy in the 1980s.
There was no other dominant approach and the entire intelligence apparatus was geared towards this end. Accordingly, it was deemed as not worthy to wage a concerted effort to removing narcotics distribution networks that could prove vital conduits of information gathering:
..far from considering drug networks their enemy, U.S. intelligence organizations have made them an essential ally in the covert expansion of American influence abroad. The most dramatic increases in drug smuggling since World War II have occurred in the context of, and indeed partly because of, covert operations in the same regions. CIA involvement in Southeast Asia contributed to the US heroin epidemic of the late 1960s, just as CIA involvement in Central America contributed to the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Although the CIA did not actually peddle drugs, it did form gray alliances with right-wing gangs deemed helpful against a common enemy.
Turning a blind eye to the dangers of facilitating narcotics proliferation in America and in other parts of the world in the name of defeating the monolithic enemy of Communism helped to form the rationale of CIA and intelligence community actions. The desire to eliminate Communism at all costs created a rather myopic vision when it comes to the issue of "cocaine politics."
If one accepts that the threat of Communism was as omnipresent as it was perceived to be, then perhaps the actions of the United States intelligence community can be, at the very least, understood. The singular fears that dominate government policy can prevent full sight of larger issues. This can be seen in different aspect of foreign policy in the last decade. The desire to eliminate Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq led to the rise of insurgents that still troubles the region, and the United States, to this day. American desire to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban for providing shelter to al- Qaeda after the September 11 Attacks facilitated agreements with members of the Northern Alliance and specific tribal leaders in Afghanistan, individuals whose crimes against women are on the same level, if not worse, than the Taliban. In both of these situations, similar to the American desire to eliminate Communism in the 1980s, an overarching principle (eliminating Saddam Hussein and the Taliban) moved foreign policy with a myopia that precluded seeing "the forest for the trees." In this light, one can see that governmental policy that is so narrowly constructed can create problems that later come back to haunt a nation.
While this might be understood, I still think that the American intelligence community's actions are rather deplorable. To be able to essentially facilitate the drug trafficking industry, no matter what the endgame might be, is abhorrent. What makes it more outrageous in my mind is that the cornerstone of Republican social policy of the 1980s was predicated upon "the war on drugs." The targeting of drug trafficking corners in the urban centers and the rather simplistic approach of "Just Say No" without paying any attention to issues of addiction and treatment proved to be hypocritical given the intelligence community's approach to narcotics facilitation in Latin America and Central America: "For the CIA to target international drug networks,"it would have to dismantle prime sources of intelligence, political leverage, and indirect financing for its Third World operations. If this book shows nothing else, it should indicate the folly of expecting such a total change of institutional direction." I think that the success of such endeavors are almost secondary to the lack of moral and ethical guidance demonstrated. A nation that is predicated upon justice and promoting the general welfare in its theoretical principles cannot really reconcile this basis with the actions of the intelligence community in its treatment of known drug networks in the 1980s.
If one really wanted to probe the issue, then the argument could be made that the threat of Communism was merely a front for the exertion of power. The United States government simply wanted to extend its sphere of control and influence into the region and used the reality of Communism as a veiled threat. The treatment of former allies such as Noriega would support such a position. It is in this light where I think that one has to conclude that while politics can be complex, twisted, and rather filthy, when it descends to a level of moral depravity as seen in Cocaine Politics, it cannot be suborned. You will probably get different answers to this. Take what works for you. However, some of the realities that emerge from the book illuminate that one cannot take solace in being the guardian of the gate if the rest of the kingdom is engulfed in flames.