This dissertation investigates why states turn to covert action or overt military force when intervening abroad as a window into the dynamics of secrecy in international politics. The first task is to identify when leaders will be most attracted to covert tools of statecraft. I argue that the kinds of actions examined here — interventions to overthrow or rescue foreign regimes — introduce unique reputational concerns that often render secrecy tempting. Such concerns are not adequately captured by alternative accounts, which tend to focus on escalation and domestic-political constraints. While this step is important, a leader’s desire for deniability is not perfectly correlated with the decision to actually authorize secret missions. The reason is that covert operations typically require sacrifices in effectiveness. In short, they are more likely than overt action to fail. In order to understand how leaders make these trade-offs, I draw on insights from loss aversion in psychology. When pursuing gains-seeking goals like regime change, leaders tend to be more concerned about the risks from overt action than the risks of failure. As such, they will often opt for covert action even when doing so decreases the chances of mission success. Conversely, leaders pursuing loss-preventing goals like regime rescue tend to be more concerned with the risks of failure than the risks from overt action. The result is a greater willingness to act overtly, even when doing so increases the odds of incurring costs.
I test my argument against five interventions spanning two great powers throughout the Cold War. The empirical core of my project examines two cases of U.S.-sponsored regime change and two cases of U.S.-sponsored regime rescue. Each pair contains one episode of covert action and one of overt action. Together, these cases hold constant a number of possible confounders, including the intervener, the geographic location of the target, the ideological makeup of the relevant actors, geopolitical tensions, and, in some cases, the party of the president. As an external validity check, the penultimate chapter investigates the Soviet Union’s decision to first intervene covertly in Afghanistan in 1979 to rescue an ailing client and, later in the year, to intervene overtly. The existence of within-case variation makes it possible to examine the same intervener led by the same group of decision-makers intervening in the same country in the same year. Each case utilizes a mixture of secondary materials as well as a wide range of declassified documents from a variety of sources.
This project contributes to the scholarly literature on secrecy in several different ways. First, I showcase the important role that different kinds of reputational concerns play in motivating leaders to seek out quiet solutions. Second, I demonstrate that the actual decision to authorize covert operations is a function of both the incentives leaders have to pursue (plausible) deniability as well as the nature of the objective they are after. Given covert action’s inherent limitations, whether leaders are pursuing gains-seeking or loss-avoiding policy goals matters a great deal in their decision to actually authorize these missions. In short, this project shines a bright light on the difficult trade-offs leaders face, particularly between deniability and effectiveness, when contemplating whether and how to intervene abroad.