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Multiple Layers of Fail


David Frum compares the conventional and Team B views of Soviet military spending and arms control.

The conventional view:

The Soviets could increase their arms spending, therefore arms control was worthwhile.

The Team B view:

Because the Soviets were spending so much, they probably could not spend more. This implied that arms control was a waste of time. The US was trading something it COULD do (build more) for something the Soviets could not do (build more).

We’ll briefly set aside the fact that a) Frum is simply wrong about Team B’s conclusions about the Soviet economy, and about the political positions of major Team B players (Richard Pipes, for example, argues that the greatest achievement of Team B was to prove that the Soviets were preparing for pre-emptive war, a view that Frum associates with Luttwak), and b) Team B analysis got Soviet domestic politics, Soviet military doctrine, Soviet military procurement, and Soviet foreign policy preferences terribly wrong, and that by “terribly wrong” we mean wrong in the sense that they bore no meaningful relationship with reality, and were deeply outclassed by the (also flawed) CIA analyses of the same questions. Instead, we’re going to focus on Frum’s rather odd interpretation of arms control. Arms control provides an opportunity for two players to eschew the payment of substantial costs in order to maintain the status quo; this is to say, arms control agreements tend to reaffirm the status quo at a lower cost than unconstrained competition. Every arms control agreement will involve one state that is economically more capable of increased military spending than the other, but this hardly means that there are no gains to be had from efforts to control arms. Money not spent on unconstrained arms races might, conceivably, be used to purchase things other than weapons. Or, to go all Tea Party, money not spent on unconstrained arms races might be returned to tax payers. I suspect that Frum is operating on the assumption, common to conservatives of all stripes, than money spent on defense simply isn’t money in the same sense that money spent on, say, social security or tasty, tasty bourbon. Moreover, even if arms control agreements don’t achieve the actual reduction of arms (and sometimes they don’t) their presence tends to reduce tensions.

I appreciate that Team B involved most of the major foreign policy luminaries of neoconservatism, and consequently that some effort must be made by conservatives to rescue the project from the diaper genie of history. I would suggest, however, that simply pretending that the project never existed, or focusing on its rhetorical and policy success (the Team B folks won the policy debate, after all) would be a better strategy that engaging in the pretense that Luttwak, Pipes, Wolfowitz, Nitze, and rest had the faintest fucking idea what they were talking about. didn’t make a series of dreadful, repeatable analytical errors. Because of course, it’s really not as if this collection of men had no idea what they were talking about; they really, genuinely knew a lot about Soviet and American defense policy. The problem was that they reached their conclusions before they made their analysis; having been created, Team B could hardly reaffirm the CIA, or come to the (correct) conclusion that the CIA was overestimating Soviet military and economic capabilities. This problem was compounded by another fundamental error, which was to characterized Soviet domestic politics as the simple, dyadic conflict between tyrants and dissidents. This led them to ignore the relevance of the Soviet Union’s own military industrial complex, and of differences within the CPSU. Wise fools, as they say. Tragically, almost all of these errors would be repeated verbatim when the same folks turned their attention to Iraq and Iran.

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