Saturday, June 12, 2004

How We Lost Russia 

From the innermost bowels of the Zemblan archives to you: in the November, 2000 issue of Harper's, Melvin A. Goodman, a former CIA analyst on Soviet issues, reviewed At Cold War's End: US Intelligence on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe -- a book which attempted to whitewash the American intelligence community's astonishing failure to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union. In eerily prescient fashion, Goodman explained why the U.S. had no policy in place to exploit the "historic victory over communism" that Ronald Reagan, we are now told, singlehandedly won -- why, in other words, we lost Russia:
We mean something else by "lost," of course, when we ask this question; and the word implies a subtler interpretation of the Cold War--its stakes, and our reasons for fighting it--than can be described with the language of victory and defeat. Our real battle, if we can believe our own rhetoric, was always against Communism and its totalitarian tendencies, never against the people who lived under its yoke. The goal was not to defeat the Russians but to bring them the light and blessings of democratic capitalism. We lost Russia, so the logic goes, when we fumbled the opportunities, economic and otherwise, that a smooth transition to democratic reform in the formerly Communist nations might have presented, for them and for us. When Communism fell, we were supposed to be there waiting, taking the situation in hand, our superior system at the ready. That didn't happen.

The idea that Russia was ours to lose is probably arrogant and almost certainly self-deluding, but there is no doubt that we could have offered guidance at a crucial stage in that nation's history and that we failed to do so--indeed, that we failed to see a new stage coming at all.

The blame for this failure must be laid in large part at the feet of the Central Intelligence Agency. Throughout the Cold War, no other American institution was so closely identified with the struggle to monitor and contain Soviet influence and activity around the world. When American agents were restoring the Shah of Iran to the Peacock Throne in the 1950s, organizing an invasion of Cuba in the 1960s, and applying the Reagan Doctrine in Angola, Nicaragua, and Afghanistan in the 1980s, their real target was the Soviet Union. Yet prior to the Soviet collapse, the CIA, despite the agency's intense and decades-long preoccupation with Moscow, provided no strategic warning to U.S. policymakers that the Kremlin was changing and that our relationship with Russia would never be the same.

Former CIA director Stansfield Turner called this absence of strategic warning the greatest corporate failure in the agency's history. The cost of the blunder to the United States was enormous. It included the huge (unnecessarily huge, as was subsequently learned) defense budgets of the Reagan-Bush years, with the resulting expansion of the deficit; a prolonged confrontation with Moscow that delayed arms agreements and conflict resolution in the Third World; and a squandered opportunity to influence developments in the Russian Federation . . . .

What these documents reveal is that the agency failed to chart the decline of the Soviet Union and was dead wrong on the three most important intelligence questions of our time: Was Mikhail Gorbachev serious about reforming the Soviet Union and ending the Cold War? What was the extent of the defense burden on the Soviet economy? And what was the Soviet military threat to U.S. interests? The documents reveal that the CIA, created in 1947 for the express purpose of tracking trends abroad, provided no timely warning of either Moscow's retreat from involvements outside its borders or its vulnerability at home. Had the agency done so, U.S. policymakers might have reacted constructively. Instead, the CIA warned of a Soviet crisis only when it was much too obvious and far too late to do anything about it.
The massive increases in military spending did not arise from a need to outstrip the Soviets in technology, to defend ourselves against the threat they posed, or to bluff them into bankrupting their economy (Russian spending on defense was relatively flat throughout the eighties). It was the other way around: the Russian threat had to be massively overhyped in order to justify pouring billions into the coffers of defense contractors.
The reality is that the CIA abandoned its historical role of keeping the Pentagon honest in its assessments of the Soviet threat and instead concentrated on providing fodder for the Department of Defense's Soviet Military Power, which was published annually from 1981 to 1991 as part of the Reagan Administration's campaign to justify increased defense spending. Soviet Military Power consistently overstated Soviet military capabilities in order to gain congressional authorization for desired military programs (a conclusion reached in a 1993 General Accounting Office assessment).
Of course, Goodman's review was written four years ago, and many profound changes have taken place since then. Just ask George Tenet:
There is much to be learned from At Cold War's End, and it is perhaps unfortunate that so few ordinary citizens are likely to read it. The volume inadvertently demonstrates the ways in which intelligence products can be tailored to conform to political fashion or to the White House agenda. And given how wide of the mark the agency was on the Soviet Union, the book provides a useful narrative of intelligence errors. But what is most disturbing about this highly selective compilation is that it suggests how little the agency itself has learned from its mishandling of Soviet events. When the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held hearings on this issue in 1991, I was asked to testify. I described the politicization of intelligence that occurred during Casey's tenure, including estimates that were skewed to undermine Shultz's efforts to improve relations with Moscow. Little that I have seen from the agency since has led me to believe that things have changed in a fundamental way.

If, in the future, the CIA wishes to avoid mistakes like the ones it made when the Cold War was ending, playing games with the intelligence record is not a good way to start.

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