The CIA’s Tragic Error

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Zbigniew Brzezinski; drawing by David Levine

Four years ago Jimmy Carter talked about banning nuclear weapons and cutting the defense budget by seven billion dollars a year. Today, he promises to develop the capacity to fight limited nuclear wars and to increase defense spending each year. Détente and arms control are almost dead. The hawks in Moscow are reinforcing the predilections of the hawks in Washington and vice versa. Most of the American advocates of negotiation, and of a balance of forces with the USSR, such as Cyrus Vance, Paul Warnke, Leslie Gelb, Marshall Shulman, and Andrew Young, have resigned. Zbigniew Brzezinski is ascendant. If Reagan wins, people who think like Brzezinski will continue to hold power.

This has happened partly because Soviet policy makers have made it possible. Soviet support for the intervention of foreign combat forces in Angola, Ethiopia, Cambodia, and South Yemen was obviously inconsistent with détente. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan removed any remaining illusions that there were hopeful prospects for US-Soviet agreements. This use of Soviet combat forces showed that the Russians were willing to risk direct intervention in territory beyond the boundaries established by World War II, much as the United States had done when its combat forces were sent to Vietnam.

Even when détente was launched at the Moscow summit in 1972 the Soviets made clear their intent to support liberation movements in the Third World. But no American political leader would have accepted a concept of détente which acquiesced in intervention by combat forces from the outside. The Russians clearly went beyond the understandings of Nixon and Kissinger. These Third World adventures have been combined with a steady buildup of Soviet military forces. The Soviet Union, as we are continually reminded, will soon be capable of threatening the survival of our ground-launched ICBMs.

It has not been difficult, under these circumstances, for the American hawks to have their way. They long for the return of US nuclear superiority that would allow the threat of nuclear confrontation to force the Soviets to back down—the kind of threat that is widely claimed to have worked in the Cuban missile crisis. Even though some hardliners acknowledge that nuclear superiority may not be attainable again in any meaningful sense, they believe that by exploiting our technological advantages we can exert decisive political pressure on the Soviet system.

American polemicists, with Soviet help, have succeeded in creating an atmosphere in which Soviet strength is consistently and sometimes hysterically exaggerated. The origins of much of this exaggeration can be traced back to December 1976, three weeks before Carter’s inauguration, when the newspapers featured disturbing leaked reports about rising Soviet military strength. This was the so-called “Team B” estimate. George Bush, the CIA director at that time, had appointed a panel of ten military experts and Soviet specialists from outside the government to review the CIA’s own estimates of Soviet military power and intentions. Led by…

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