Thursday, January 24, 2008

Forward Into the Past

Via John Cole, we learn that Paul Wolfowitz will be named to a State Dept. advisory panel on arms control and disarmament. Now, Wolfowitz's last two stints in public service have not gone well, as he left the World Bank under a cloud of impropriety and was, of course, a central actor in the Bush administration's drive to war in Iraq. But what you might not know or recall is that this isn't the first time that Wolfowitz has served in the capacity of arms control and disarmament, or been in a position to make mountains out of molehills. Early in his career, Wolfowitz was an aide to Fred Ikle, who was appointed to head the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1972. In that capacity, Wolfowitz was appointed to the now infamous "Team B", whose role in hyping the Soviet threat is detailed here by Fareed Zakaria:

During the early 1970s, hard-line conservatives pilloried the CIA for being soft on the Soviets. As a result, CIA Director George Bush agreed to allow a team of outside experts to look at the intelligence and come to their own conclusions. Team B--which included Paul Wolfowitz--produced a scathing report, claiming that the Soviet threat had been badly underestimated.

In retrospect, Team B's conclusions were wildly off the mark. Describing the Soviet Union, in 1976, as having “a large and expanding Gross National Product,” it predicted that it would modernize and expand its military at an awesome pace. For example, it predicted that the Backfire bomber "probably will be produced in substantial numbers, with perhaps 500 aircraft off the line by early 1984." In fact, the Soviets had 235 in 1984.

The reality was that even the CIA’s own estimates--savaged as too low by Team B--were, in retrospect, gross exaggerations. In 1989, the CIA published an internal review of its threat assessments from 1974 to 1986 and came to the conclusion that every year it had "substantially overestimated" the Soviet threat along all dimensions. For example, in 1975 the CIA forecast that within 10 years the Soviet Union would replace 90 percent of its long-range bombers and missiles. In fact, by 1985, the Soviet Union had been able to replace less than 60 percent of them.

So, in the run-up to the Iraq war, Wolfowitz was merely reprising an earlier role, though in a considerably more prominent and influential position this time. Essentially, the last time Wolfowitz had anything to do with "arms control" he was busy overstating the threat of our enemies and pushing the United States on a path to confrontation and generally getting everything wrong. Which I suppose is a plus, not a minus, when it comes to being considered for a position in the field again thirty years later, at least in the Bush administration.

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