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June 16, 2003
Exaggerating The Threats
Iraq is part of a pattern. Saddam was assumed to be working on a vast weapons program to the end because he was an evil man.
By Fareed Zakaria

It is too early to conclude that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. A little history might provide perspective. Since 1991, United Nations weapons inspectors found and destroyed the following in Iraq: a supergun; 48 Scud missiles; 40,000 chemical munitions; 500,000 liters of chemical-weapons agents; 1.8 million liters of precursor chemicals, and large quantities of equipment related to biological warfare.

Still, inspectors were sure that large quantities of weapons remained missing. In July 1998, for example, U.N. inspectors found a document showing that Iraq had deliberately overstated--by 6,000--the number of chemical bombs it had used in the Iran-Iraq War. (The document was immediately snatched from their hands by Iraqi "minders.") The 6,000 chemical bombs--manufactured but not used--are still missing.

But it is also clear that the United States government overstated the threat posed by Iraq. It exaggerated what it knew and made definitive statements where the intelligence was murky. Richard Butler, the United Nations' chief weapons inspector during the late 1990s and a supporter of the war, wrote last week in The Australian, "Clearly a decision had been taken to pump up the case against Iraq."

This should not surprise us. For decades some conservatives, including many who now wield great influence, have had a tendency to vastly exaggerate the threat posed by tyrannical regimes.

It all started with the now famous "Team B" exercise. 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.

In the 1990s, some of these same conservatives decided that China was the new enemy. The only problem was that China was still a Third World country and could hardly be seen as a grave threat to the United States. What followed was wild speculation about the size of the Chinese military and accusations that it had engaged in massive theft of American nuclear secrets. This came to a crescendo with the publication of the Cox Commission Report in 1999, which claimed that Chinese military spending was twice what the CIA estimated. The Cox report is replete with speculation, loose assumptions and errors of fact. The book it footnotes for its military-spending numbers, for example, does not say what the report claims.

Iraq is part of a pattern. In each of these cases, arguments about the threat posed by a country rest in large part on the character of the regime. The Team B report explains that the CIA's analysis was flawed because it was based on too much "hard data"--meaning facts--and neglected to divine Soviet intentions. The Chinese regime is assumed to be a mortal danger because it is Leninist. Saddam was assumed to be working on a vast weapons program because he was an evil man.

Let's never forget that these regimes are nasty, and that does matter greatly. But threat assessment must be based not simply on the intentions of an adversary, but on his capabilities as well. This is an important lesson as we move forward to deal with repressive regimes like those in North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria. They are evil and may need to be confronted. But let us do so with a clear and accurate picture of the threat they pose, not some figment of our fevered imaginations.

What we discovered about the Soviet Union after the cold war was that it was every bit as evil as we had thought--indeed more so--but that it was a whole lot less powerful than we had feared. That is what we will probably discover about Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

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