Sunday, March 09, 2008

How we got where we are today

A few weeks ago, an article about nuclear weapons by Joseph Cirincione in The New York Review of Books briefly cited a book called Killing Détente, by one Anne Hessing Cahn, dealing with the 1970s controversies over the Soviet threat. I had never heard of that book and couldn’t find a copy in any local library, but, as usual, came through. Dr. Cahn, who held jobs relating to arms control at the time, is now a scholar in residence at American University, and her book deserved a lot more attention than it got. It deserves even more now, because the story of the 1970s and 1980s that she described was replayed during the 1990s and 2000s, with even more devastating results, and it is still going on today.

Like most of the important foreign policy disputes of the last forty years, the fight over détente in the 1970s was essentially a family fight among Republicans, with a few conservative Democrats like Scoop Jackson joining in. For all their many faults, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger clung to one fundamental truth: no one could win a nuclear war between the superpowers, and arms control agreements simply recognized that fact. They had negotiated (albeit rather sloppily, as many have shown) SALT I by 1972, and immediately went to work on SALT II. They also rather foolishly signed a declaration of principles in Moscow in 1972, in which they and the Soviets promised never to seek advantages or act unilaterally in the future and to live happily ever after—a step no Democrat would have dared take, and which took only a couple of years to come back and bite them in the ass. That was enough to enrage more conservative elements, symbolized, perhaps, by Paul Nitze, who had been arguing since 1950 that the Soviets were seeking strategic superiority (the claims began, let it be noted, several years before the Soviets had a single deliverable nuclear weapon), and that they would not hesitate to begin war if they believed they could get away with it. Without Watergate, Nixon might have been able to face down such opposition, but his well-meaning and sensible successor Gerald Ford could not. Ronald Reagan announced against him in late 1975, Ford rapidly found himself on the run, and by the spring of 1976 Ford had announced that our foreign policy was no longer “détente,” but “peace through strength.” He had also put SALT on ice.

The conservatives, meanwhile, had identified another critical enemy: the analytical branch of the CIA, which they argued was systematically underestimating both Soviet capabilities and Soviet intentions. In part they were taking advantage of the rhythm of history. During the 1950s the CIA, American politicians, and the American press had repeatedly overestimated the Soviet threat, most notably after Sputnik, and by the early 1960s the United States had achieved overwhelming strategic superiority. But it was during that same decade that the real Soviet strategic build-up began, and thus, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Agency had underestimated the future size of Soviet forces somewhat. Ironically, Cahn points out, the surge in Soviet spending was coming to an end in 1975, just as this controversy was peaking.

Using a mixture of declassified documents and interviews, Cahn in the 1990s wrote an extraordinary study of a bureaucratic battle. The conservatives out of power had allies on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, including Edward Teller, the founder of the H-Bomb, Admiral George Anderson, a former Chief of Naval Operations whom Robert McNamara had relieved in 1963; and others. Other allies were Alfred Wohlstetter, a long-time alarmist about the Soviets, who had publicly criticized the CIA for underestimating their threat during 1974, and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger. The conservative attack was already having some impact within the Agency by 1975, but the conservatives were not satisfied, and were insisting upon the appointment of a team of outside experts that would examine key issues independently. William Colby, the director in 1973-5, resisted this, but Colby (as well as Schlesinger) was dropped by Ford in November of 1975 and replaced by George H. W. Bush. Bush’s response initially showed the low-key evenhandedness that later characterized his Presidency: he agreed to the formation of what became known as “Team B,” but only as a gesture, and he had no intention either of letting it taking over the process or, crucially, allowing its findings to become known. Once he had agreed, however, the project ran away from him.

Originally the PFIAB wanted three team Bs to examine three specific technical issues: Soviet air defense capabilities (a potential threat to American strategic bombers), Soviet missile accuracy (a potential threat to the Minuteman land-based missile via a first strike), and Soviet anti-submarine warfare capabilities (a possible threat to Polaris and Trident missile submarines.) The first two panels convened as planned, but partly because the Navy refused to provide necessary data on anti-submarine warfare, the third panel mutated into something entirely different—a group that would re-analyze Soviet strategic objectives. Harvard Professor Richard Pipes became its leader. Pipes was not a scholarly expert on the Soviet Union, but rather a distinguished historian of imperial Russia who, like so many academics of his generation, had also become a foreign policy activist. A Polish Jew whose family had reached the United States at the beginning of the Second World War, he was an early neoconservative with a highly alarmist view of the Soviet Union. His team also included 43-year old Paul Wolfowitz, who, Pipes explained, had been recommended by Richard Perle, then an aide to Senator Jackson, and a number of retired military officers, including Air Force General John Vogt, who had commanded the Christmas bombing in 1973 and who believed as late as 1986 that one more week of that bombing would have forced the North Vietnamese to withdraw all troops from South Vietnam and won the war on American terms. (I heard him say so publicly at a conference.)

The Team B report was an important episode in American history for two reasons. First of all—and this is Cahn’s point—it was a big step towards the reversal of American foreign and defense policy that took place beginning in 1979 under Jimmy Carter, and accelerating under Ronald Reagan. But it also introduced a maximalist way of thinking which Wolfowitz and his patron Perle, in particular, revived in 2002 to sell the war against Iraq. Pipes managed to expand the team’s mandate so as to examine more than a decade’s worth of CIA estimates of the Soviet Union, in order to argue that they had consistently been too sanguine (and pre-emptively discredit the next one.) But in so doing, they consistently exaggerated what the Soviets had or would do. They argued that the Soviets had a robust ABM program in place, including laser and particle-beam weapons, despite the 1972 ABM treaty—but we now know that they never did. They had to admit that they could find no evidence of sophisticated Soviet anti-submarine capabilities, but added, “the absence of a deployed system by this time is difficult to understand. The implication could be that the Soviets have, in fact, deployed some operational nonacoustic systems and will deploy more in the next few years. [emphasis added.] Most importantly they insisted (as conservative academics still do) that world domination remained a real, rather than merely a rhetorical, Soviet objective, and that they might easily seek it through war. “While hoping to crush the ‘capitalist’ realm by other than military means, the Soviet Union is nevertheless preparing for a Third World War as if it were unavoidable. . .Within the ten year period of the National Estimate the Soviets may well expect to achieve a degree of military superiority which would permit a dramatically more aggressive pursuit of their hegemonial objectives, including direct military challenges to Western vital interests, in the belief that such superior military force can pressure the West to acquiesce or, if not, can be used to win a military contest at any level.” [emphasis in the original.]

With the Presidential campaign in progress, some one—probably General Daniel Graham of Team B, who later became the director of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project—leaked its conclusions to William Beecher of the Boston Globe. One cannot help but wonder if team members were willing to sacrifice President Ford in order to eliminate their greatest rival, Henry Kissinger. Interestingly enough, CIA Director Bush was initially incensed by the leak. After Carter had won the election, however, and after Bush had tried and failed to save his job, he joined in the leaking. Meanwhile, Pipes, whose role was known, had published his principal conclusions in an article in Commentary explaining that the Soviet Union was perfectly capable of fighting and winning a nuclear war. And in early 1977, Team B alumni were prominent in forming the new Committee on the Present Danger, designed to warn the country about the growing Soviet threat. Jimmy Carter’s own diplomatic and political ineptitude, the 1979 revolution in Iran, and the Soviets’ catastrophic (for everyone involved) decision to invade Afghanistan combined, bizarrely, to vindicate the hard-line view and sweep Ronald Reagan into office. Within a few months, Team B’s views had become official American policy and a huge American defense build-up had begun.

In fact, Cahn argues briefly, the seeds of Soviet collapse were already well advanced, and the enormous, debt-financed increases in our defense budget during the 1980s were generally wasted. Incredibly, conservatives claimed, and still do, that a mere five years of the Reagan build-up, forty years into the Cold War, sufficed to wreck the Soviet economy and bring down the Soviet regime. More importantly, they had learned how to take advantage of public opinion and the political process to change U.S. policy, and in the 1990s they did it again.

The Project for a New American Century was a kind of Baby Boomer version of the Committee on the Presesnt danger, and it focused on a lesser danger, Iraq, which it called upon Bill Clinton to overthrow. Clinton, like Carter, caved in rhetorically to that pressure in 1999, announcing that regime change had become the goal of our policy. Saddam’s behavior in the late 1990s, when he expelled UN inspectors, was equivocal, and Kenneth Pollack, a Democrat, stepped forward to argue that he obviously had a thriving WMD program, including nuclear weapons, underway. The neoconservatives formed an alliance with George W. Bush before his election and began working on their new project early in 2001. 9/11 served the same function as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979: it was used to validate extreme views about an entirely unrelated issue—Soviet strategic goals in 1979, Iraqi weapons and goals in 2002. And most importantly, “Team B” was now installed within the Pentagon, in Douglas Feith’s Office of Special Plans, which turned out blood-curdling estimates of Saddam’s intentions, capabilities, and connections to Al Queda, based not upon data, but upon what the “analysts” thought a tyrant like Saddam would do. The GIs of Team B had been content merely to increase the American defense budget. The Boomers of the Bush Administration wanted war—and they got it.

In the late 1970s, Theodore Draper wrote an interesting article about the aftermath of the Vietnam War, pointing out that hardly any of the early opponents of the war had won increased power or influence as a result, while none of its supporters seemed to have suffered very much. That phenomenon has continued. For psychological reasons that I have no time to go into here, hard-liners have had the emotional initiative for the last 60 years of American foreign policy, and never more than in the last seven years. Once again we have run up a huge new national debt to deal with a threat that did not really exist—and this time, because we resorted to war, we have actually made the threat much worse. I do not believe the United States can afford much more of this. I have less than no confidence that Hillary Clinton would reverse the current trends in American foreign policy and that is the main substantive policy reason why I continue to hope for the election of Barack Obama.


Anonymous said...

A question is, why did both Clinton and Carter cave in? Was it because Dem presidents are always embattled, and these to Presidents wished to take a little pressure off? Was is because of their Southern world view?

The American people were so desperate that they put two total outsiders into power but when the time came to stand up to the hard liners, these men blinked and caved. Is it because they held no convictions?

Thus they came to the Potomac and sunk in the fens of extremism.

Anonymous said...

Excellent synopsis and discussion of Cahn's book and her findings, as well as their implications both for the Iraq catastrophe, and the future - thank you, David! - nh

George Buddy said...

RE: they had learned how to take advantage of public opinion and the political process to change U.S. policy, and in the 1990s they did it again.

Thank you for your great analysis.