With the passing on Sunday of Constantine Menges, whose hauntingly prescient foreign affairs columns have graced these pages for many years, the Free World lost a revolutionary strategist.
An academic by training, Mr. Menges was recruited by new CIA Director William Casey in May 1981 to be national intelligence officer for Latin America. It was not just Constantine’s impressive intellectual firepower that attracted Casey but his fierce independence, tenaciousness and overriding vision that it was America’s destiny to serve as the standard-bearer of freedom to the oppressed of the world. Casey wanted to challenge the corporate views of agency insiders, and saw Mr. Menges as the right man for the job.
Constantine’s goal in life was to devise strategies for defeating tyrannies, just as V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky had devised strategies to create them. He was a professional revolutionary on the side of freedom.
Just before joining the CIA, Menges proposed the U.S. government establish a “National Foundation for Democracy,” to promote nascent democratic movements in countries under communism and other forms of tyranny. President Reagan embraced the idea, and two years later convinced Congress to fund the National Endowment for Democracy.
While working for Casey, Mr. Menges urged the CIA to adopt a “pro-democracy” approach toward defeating communism in Latin America that skillfully blended support for pro-democracy political movements with selective use of force. When he moved to the White House in 1983 to become a special assistant to the president for national security affairs, his first assignment was to draw up plans to restore democracy in Grenada after a communist coup. It was this part of the Grenada mission, more than the military intervention alone, that marked the definitive end of the Carter era and demonstrated it was possible to “roll back” communism, surely Ronald Reagan’s greatest legacy.
When I met Constantine four years ago, I never would have imagined it would be in the “sunset” of his life. He had just turned 60; he and Nancy, his wife of 25 years, were enjoying Georgetown like a young married couple. Dining with them at restaurants, or in their home or in mine invariably became an intellectual fireworks display. Constantine was not only bursting with his own ideas, but knew how to inspire others.
Indeed, over the past two years, Mr. Menges has been more active than ever in warning of new threats looming just over the horizon. He warned the Bush administration repeatedly about the active infiltration of Iraq by thousands of Iranian government thugs and intelligence operatives.
Even as the U.S. was celebrating the end of major combat activities in May 2003, Constantine predicted the lull in violence would be only a respite. The Iranians had established 42 Arabic radio and television stations beaming anti-American propaganda into Iraq, he said, without an effective U.S. response. The results were predictable, and deadly.
In Iran itself, Constantine urged the Bush administration to aid pro-democracy groups to build a broad-based national movement capable of challenging the tyrannical rule of Iran’s clerics. As a strategist of freedom, he knew dictators could be defeated — but that it required hard work, good planning, training and dedication. Armchair revolutionaries, who ran for cover at the first shots, would never do the trick, he knew. But equally dangerous were armed Marxist-Islamic groups who sought to replace one dictatorship with another.
The son of German refugees from World War II, he had a special understanding of appeasement, and blasted the Clinton administration for caving in to Communist China. But in a just-completed book-length manuscript called “2008: The Preventable War,” he was scarcely gentler toward the Bush administration for failing to recognize the threat of growing military and strategic cooperation between Russia and Communist China.
Those whose loss is arguably the greatest, however, are those who have never met him and who don’t even know his name: freedom-lovers in countries such as Iran, who aspire to break the yokes of tyranny. They have lost not only a friend, but a revolutionary thinker and strategist who understood that if you failed to fight for freedom you inevitably die in chains.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is senior writer for Insight magazine (www.insightmag.com) and author of “The French Betrayal of America,” published in March by Crown Forum.