There is a distressing history of foreign insurgent groups manipulating U.S. political figures, policymakers, and opinion leaders into supporting their causes.  Frequently, that support goes far beyond rhetorical endorsements.  On several occasions during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, foreign lobbying efforts have led to U.S. military and financial aid being given to highly questionable organizations.  Sometimes those efforts have even entangled the United States in bloody, unnecessary, and morally dubious wars.

Recent developments confirm that the problem persists.  At the height of the Syrian civil war, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) traveled to rebel-held areas of the country, expressing strong U.S. support for the armed campaign to overthrow dictator Bashar al-Assad.  His sojourn proved more than a little embarrassing when he was photographed with a group of insurgent leaders that included a notorious terrorist.  That gaffe did not seem to deter the senator, however.  In subsequent months, he stepped up efforts to have the United States increase financial and military aid to the insurgents, establish a no-fly zone to neutralize Assad’s air power, and even launch cruise-missile strikes on government targets.

The Obama administration was moving in the same direction until overwhelming evidence began to emerge that the Syrian insurgent movement contained a large and increasingly powerful contingent of Al Qaeda fighters.  Even that revelation, though, has not caused the administration to stop providing financial and military aid to “selected” rebel groups—supposedly those composed of moderates.  As critics of that policy point out, the term “moderates” in the Syrian power struggle hardly means the same as it does in a Western political context.

Indeed, even supposedly pro-freedom movements in Europe sometimes contain unsavory factions and policies.  That point became apparent during the violent demonstrations in Ukraine that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych in early 2014.  Once again, prominent Americans portrayed the episode as a Manichaean struggle.  Yanukovych was the designated villain, while ostensibly pro-Western demonstrators in Kiev and other cities were noble freedom fighters seeking to establish democratic governance.  John McCain showed up once again to lend his support to the latter faction, as did other U.S. officials.  Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was even caught on tape expressing Washington’s preferences for personnel in a post-Yanukovych regime.

It would be dubious enough for prominent U.S. political leaders implicitly to encourage mob violence to overthrow an elected (albeit corrupt and rather autocratic) government, even if the opposition forces were all pro-Western democrats.  But that was far from being the case.  The opposition contained some authoritarian and ultranationalist elements, especially members of the Svoboda party.  Even worse, there were some decidedly antisemitic, neo-Nazi factions within the anti-Yanukovych coalition, most notably Right Sector.  Those individuals were not just minor players, a point that was confirmed when Svoboda and Right Sector received eight posts in the new government.  Yet U.S. supporters of Yanukovych’s ouster either ignored or downplayed the role of such repulsive figures.

Unlike recent policymakers and opinion shapers, the first two generations of American leaders made a sharp distinction between the legitimate interests of the republic and foreign causes that purported to seek the overthrow of tyrannical rule and enshrine democratic polities based on respect for fundamental rights.  No one made that distinction more emphatically than Secretary of State John Quincy Adams.

In a celebrated Fourth of July address in 1821, Adams implicitly rebuked those who were calling for Washington to support republican independence movements in places ranging from Greece to Latin America.  The United States, Adams noted, “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings.”  He added,

Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.  But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.  She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.  She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.

He stressed the imperative reasons for such a stance.

She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.

That is an essential lesson that recent generations of policymakers have forgotten, at great cost to the nation.  It is a problem that has been building for decades, but has become worse since the early 1980’s.  Ronald Reagan’s administration took an especially fateful step in adopting the so-called Reagan Doctrine of providing aid to anti-Soviet insurgents in the Third World.  U.S. policymakers used the term “freedom fighters” in a disturbingly promiscuous manner.  Secretary of State George Shultz and other administration officials even applied the label to the Afghan mujahideen, though the word mujahideen translates as “holy warriors,” not freedom fighters.  Indeed, a disproportionate percentage of insurgents in Afghanistan were Muslim extremists.  Many of them migrated to terrorist movements around the world, including Al Qaeda, after the Soviets were expelled from Afghanistan.  The imprimatur that Washington gave to the Afghan insurgents proved not only embarrassing but tragic.

President Reagan himself was effusive in his praise of various anti-Soviet movements.  That lack of healthy caution and skepticism reached telling levels in his assessment of the Nicaraguan Contras, who were trying to overthrow the pro-Soviet Sandinista regime.  On one occasion, he even stated that the Contras were the “moral equal of our founding fathers,” and that “we owe them our help.”  Years later in his memoirs, Reagan still referred to anti-Sandinista forces as “freedom fighters.”  He railed against American journalists for being far too negative toward the Contras. 

Perhaps after Vietnam when many reporters had cast Uncle Sam in the role of the villain, they didn’t want to put white hats on the Contra freedom fighters because the U.S. government was supporting them.

Reagan apparently never considered the possibility that many of the Contras weren’t wearing metaphorical white hats.

The central problem with the Reagan Doctrine was that most of the so-called freedom fighters were not, by any definition, advocates of freedom and democracy.  Anti-Soviet and anticommunist insurgent groups were a diverse collection of secular authoritarians, religious zealots, and genocidal psychopaths, with a sprinkling of genuine, Western-style democrats.  Even in a country such as Nicaragua, which shared in the culture and heritage of the West, bona fide democrats constituted a minority of the fighters.  In such places as Afghanistan and Angola, they were almost entirely absent.

Angola was an especially odious case.  Leading conservatives hailed Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) as a charismatic, pro-Western political figure and a genuine freedom fighter.  Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, went so far as to call him a “true hero for our time.”  When Congress repealed the Clark Amendment (which had banned U.S. aid to insurgents in Angola) in 1985, Sen. Steve Symms (R-ID) celebrated the vote and looked forward to providing assistance to UNITA.  Angola, he asserted, was a place in which the United States “can achieve victory, not only an actual victory on the field but a moral victory, psychological victory, which will give strength to free men all over the world.”

Savimbi’s checkered past and disturbing, sometimes even horrifying, behavior did not warrant such enthusiasm.  Critics noted that UNITA’s official seal proclaimed it to be a socialist organization and that Savimbi started out as a loyal client of Red China.  He also publicly advocated widespread government ownership or control of most economic sectors.  Even worse, it was evident already in the late 1970’s and early 80’s that Savimbi encouraged a cult of personality that equaled or exceeded anything found in countries run by megalomaniacal dictators.  There were also allegations, since confirmed, that Savimbi had ordered the assassination of rivals in UNITA to preserve his own dominant position in the organization.  There were more than enough signs to warn U.S. officials and conservative proponents of the Reagan Doctrine that the person they portrayed as a democratic freedom fighter was nothing of the sort.

Yet he continued to get glowing endorsements from U.S. admirers.  During a high-profile visit to Washington in 1989 Savimbi was fêted at the Heritage Foundation, where he assured an audience that UNITA was “fighting for democracy, for a free market.”  Concerning his meeting that same morning with President George H.W. Bush, Savimbi affirmed that the meeting “went well because the President has reassured us that the U.S. will continue to give effective support to our struggle.”

It might have been understandable for Reagan Doctrine supporters earlier in the decade to have succumbed to the illusion that Jonas Savimbi and UNITA embodied the values of democratic capitalism.  But by 1989, a substantial body of evidence had emerged affirming that he was a thug.

Wishful thinking about so-called freedom fighters did not disappear with the end of the Cold War.  That point became apparent with the Clinton administration’s military interventions in the Balkans during the 1990’s.  One aspect was the de facto alliance between the United States and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an insurgent force seeking to gain independence for Serbia’s restless, predominantly Albanian, province of Kosovo.

Washington’s bias in favor of Kosovo’s Albanian Muslim community and its political agenda became ever more pronounced.  Clinton administration officials and their supporters in Congress, the think-tank community, and the news media typically portrayed the secessionist war as a morality play featuring noble Albanian “Kosovars” and their evil Serb oppressors.  Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s attitude was typical, blaming almost all of the violence on Belgrade.  Albright wrote in her memoirs that “there would have been no KLA had the Kosovars not been deprived of their rights.”  That shockingly simplistic interpretation ignored, among other things, the harassment and discrimination that the Kosovar authorities had perpetrated against Serbs and other minorities when the province enjoyed extensive autonomy.

Washington’s official attitude toward the KLA itself underwent a dramatic transformation.  Robert Gelbard, President Clinton’s special envoy to the Balkans, once stated that the KLA “is, without any questions, a terrorist group.”  But that perspective was soon discarded.  Indeed, Albright’s view of the Kosovar cause and the role of the KLA was a model of balance and caution compared to the laudatory comments of some American admirers.  The most notorious, romanticized view of the insurgents was Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s statement in April 1999: “The United States of America and the Kosovo Liberation Army stand for the same human values and the principles,” Lieberman asserted.  “Fighting for the KLA is fighting for human rights and American values.”

Washington’s bias had important policy implications.  The United States led a 78-day air war against Serbia, which killed hundreds of Serb civilians.  Those air strikes compelled Belgrade to relinquish control of Kosovo to an international peacekeeping mission under the nominal auspices of the U.N. Security Council.  A new government, dominated by KLA leaders, took power in Pristina, and in February 2008, the United States and her allies bypassed the Security Council, recognizing Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence.

The aftermath has been far removed from the expectation that postwar Kosovo would be a model of multiethnic comity.  In the months following NATO’s 1999 war, more than 200,000 Serbs and other ethnic minorities fled or were driven from Kosovo.  Since that ethnic-cleansing campaign, Muslim Kosovars have systematically desecrated numerous Christian churches and other religious sites.  An investigation by an E.U. commission also found that the KLA had committed a wide array of war crimes, including murdering Serb civilians and prisoners of war and selling their organs on a gruesome international black market.  One suspects that not even Senator Lieberman believes that such conduct comports with American values, although he has yet to condemn the KLA for any of its actions.

Yet another insurgent group that beguiled U.S. officials, members of Congress, and journalists was the Iraqi National Congress.  Neoconservatives and other advocates of a U.S. campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein touted the alleged virtues of the INC and its leader, Ahmed Chalabi.  The underlying logic of the Iraq Liberation Act, which Congress passed in 1998, was that modest U.S. financial aid and political support would enable the INC to spark an insurgency that would topple Saddam and establish democratic rule.  Washington’s alliance with Chalabi and his associates grew even stronger during George W. Bush’s presidency.  Indeed, the INC provided the most important intelligence source (code name “Curveball”) for the allegations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The fear that Saddam had such weapons was the principal reason why the United States launched the invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The KLA had lured Washington into a small war to secure Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, but Chalabi and the INC lured Washington into a far larger, more destructive war in Iraq.  When Curveball’s “evidence” was debunked, Chalabi nonchalantly responded that he and his colleagues had been “heroes in error.”  Washington’s long-standing expectation that Chalabi would become Iraq’s first freely elected leader proved as erroneous as the INC-supplied intelligence.  When elections were held in 2005, Chalabi’s party received barely 0.5 percent of the vote and failed to win a single seat in parliament.  To add insult to injury, evidence emerged that a key INC member may have been an Iranian agent, and Chalabi himself soon adopted a stance that was noticeably friendly to Tehran.

The bruising experiences arising from supporting the likes of the Afghan mujahideen, the Nicaraguan Contras, the KLA, and the INC confirm the wisdom of earlier U.S. leaders in wanting to maintain a prudent distance between America’s values and interests and those of foreign insurgent movements.  The consequences of Washington’s embrace of those movements have ranged from embarrassing to disastrous.  The most charitable assessment of U.S. officials and opinion leaders who touted such organizations as being committed to the advancement of freedom is that they were astonishingly gullible.

Their lack of healthy skepticism is troubling.  Many of them seemed awestruck by the fact that foreign political activists professed support for Western political and economic values.  But what did American enthusiasts expect them to say?  That they really supported Islamic extremism or pervasive corruption?  Foreign activists told potential American sponsors exactly what they knew those sponsors wanted to hear.  Even modest “due diligence” would have revealed that the actions of most of the “freedom fighters” did not correspond with their inspiring rhetoric.  Unfortunately, as the simplistic endorsements of supposedly pro-Western factions in Syria and Ukraine indicate, there is little evidence that current policymakers and opinion shapers have learned appropriate lessons from the blunders of their predecessors.