Saturday, June 04, 2005


I’ve always resented President Reagan getting so much credit for the end of the USSR. The legend is that he cannily engaged the Soviets in a bankrupting arms buildup, but it’s also well known that Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev was an unprecedented reformer; U.S. intelligence was clueless to the degree to which the Soviets were faking their economic might; and Soviet-style communism is fiscally and in all other ways untenable in the long term.

Given all these factors, which are undisputed, Reagan pretty much deserves cameo credit in the epic Fall of the Evil Empire, not the starring role he’s been granted by his cult of personality.

As Steve Coll confirms in “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001” (Penguin Books, 2004), even analyst and agency director Robert Gates says “We monitored specific events [in the Soviet Union] but too often did not draw back to get a broader perspective.”

This included the basic insight that the Soviet Union was so decayed as to be near collapse. Some of the agency’s analysts were relentlessly skeptical of Gorbachev’s sincerity as a reformer, as were Reagan, his vice president, George Bush, [Central Intelligence Agency director William] Casey, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and other key presidential advisers. All evidence that Soviet power might be weakening seemed to be systematically discounted in Washington and at [CIA headquarters in] Langley even as the data mounted in plain view. The CIA’s Soviet analysts continued to write reports suggesting that Moscow was a monolithic power advancing from strength to strength, and during Casey’s reign there seemed little penalty for tacking too far to the ideological right. CIA analysis had been at least partially politicized by Casey, in the view of some career officers. Besides, in the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, especially in the Soviet/East Europe Division, all the analysts’ working lives, all their programs, budgets, and plans for the future were premised on the existence of a powerful and enduring communist enemy in Moscow. The Reagan administration was bound by a belief in Soviet power and skepticism about Gorbachev’s reforms.

Coll, citing interviews with intelligence officials, books by insiders, declassified CIA documents and Politburo transcriptions provided by the Gorbachev Foundation, makes it clear why Reagan deserves little or no credit: He stumbled into greatness, yes, but only by stumbling onto the picture just as an empire crumbled. He dared the enemy to tear down that wall, and the enemy shrugged and said, “Okay.”

U.S. intelligence, which in 1987 had just succeeded in running the Soviets out of Afghanistan, also refused to believe its own success and, incredibly, rejected Soviet overtures to help limit Islamic fundamentalism. It also refused to learn anything from any of these missed signals, even as each sunk irrevocably into history and turned into fossilized fact.

So no surprise that less than two decades later, as it fought a great war against Islamic fundamentalism, U.S. intelligence would again refuse to believe a great success — preventing Iraq from creating and storing weapons of mass destruction; again be unable to spot a nation boasting without reason of possessing great weaponry; and again be guilty of politicizing intelligence.

It not only doesn’t learn from history; it clearly doesn’t even learn from cliches.

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