Friday, January 15, 2010

'Team B' Revisionism

I think Yglesias did a good job knocking back David Frum's bizarre claim that the Team B hawks were right about the Soviet threat, but the fact that Frum thinks he can get away with such an assertion helps explain why some conservatives have been calling for a Team B revival, this time "to reassess the threat the U.S. faces from Islamic terrorist networks":
"The Team B concept has been successful in previous administrations when fresh eyes were needed to provide the commander in chief with objective information to make informed policy decisions," Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. wrote in a letter to President Obama on Tuesday. "I believe it can work now, too."

By June 1976, the middle rounds of the Cold War, the Soviet Union had exceeded the U.S. in several key weapons categories, leading an alarmed CIA director, George H.W. Bush, to create "Team B," which included a number of future aides in the Reagan administration. Among them, a young arms control officer named Paul Wolfowitz and a former Pentagon official named William Van Cleave.

"We were all known as the so-called hawkish element of that time, but we let the conclusions stand on their own," Van Cleave told Fox News. [...]

"Team B got it right," said Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the Center for Security Policy and a Defense official in the Reagan administration

This is, to use a political science term, just plain nuts. As Fred Kaplan wrote in 2004, "In retrospect, the Team B report (which has since been declassified) turns out to have been wrong on nearly every point." Or, as Larry Korb wrote, Team B was right about only one thing:
The CIA estimate was indeed flawed. In 1989, the agency published an internal review of the threat assessments from 1974 to 1986. The report concluded that the Soviet threat had been "substantially overestimated" every year. In 1978, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that the selection of Team B members yielded a flawed composition of political views and biases. Consequently, the Team B analysis was deemed a gross exaggeration and completely inaccurate.

So the CIA had "substantially overestimated" the Soviet threat. The Team B assessment, on the other hand, was simply a work of science fiction. Or, to be more specific, a work of political advocacy, with the authors deriving conclusions of Soviet capabilities from their own apocalyptic beliefs about the Soviet ideology, and then using those deeply flawed conclusions to justify more defense spending and more foreign policy adventurism. Which is precisely what they would like to do again in regard to the threat of Islamic extremism.

I should also highlight this from Yglesias:
Incidentally, the whole [Team B] report is full of amusing accusations that the CIA has erred in its analysis of the Soviets by engaging in “mirror-imaging”—basically assuming that the Soviet state is prudent and risk-averse—by not recognizing the Russians’ inherent and insatiable thirst for conquest.

In December, I attended a screening of the pro-missile defense documentary "33 Minutes" (which warns of the nuclear missile threat of countries like Iran, which has neither nuclear weapons nor missiles capable of delivering them) hosted by the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies. During the post-film discussion, I suggested to FDD president Cliff May that the film had failed to demonstrate either that any nuclear weapons state would be inclined to give away to terrorists a weapon in which it had invested considerable resources and borne considerable international opprobrium to develop, or that a state like Iran would use a nuclear weapon itself, given the huge consequences to a regime that has placed the highest premium in self-preservation.

May responded -- I kid you not -- that unlike during the Cold War, where we were dealing with a rational enemy that could be deterred, it's unclear that the Iranians are likewise rational. Furthermore, May said, there was a real danger of "mirror-imaging," of assuming that our Iranian enemies think like we do.

Just in case you wondered how deep the revisionism goes.

Cross-posted from Wonk Room.

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