Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Arms Control

By Strobe Talbot. Knopf, New York, 1984.

By M Clark (reviewer) | 1985-08-01 12:00:00

IN DEADLY GAMBITS, Strobe Talbot presents a study of the arms control bureaucracy in the Reagan Administration -- the policymakers, the various policies they have proposed, their conflicts with Soviet arms control negotiators, and, perhaps most important, their conflicts with each other. For those who want to go beyond the basics, who want to understand why the arms control pro-cess has been so difficult and generally unproductive, this book is fascinating and rewarding.

Strobe Talbot is diplomatic corres-pondent for Time magazine. He has written before about arms conrol (Endgames: The Inside Storv of SALT II) and about Reagan (The Russians and Reagan). He knows his subject well and he seems to have access to many past and present US government officials. I was continually amazed by his knowledge of the private actions, opinions, and motives of such people as Alexander Haig and Paul Nitze. Talbot writes in the style which literary critics call third-person omniscient" as if he had perfect information and perfect objectivity. No one, of course, has either. and Talbot's bias does show if you look for it. Clearly he believes in arms control, but I'm not sure what he thinks about real disarmament; in this book, at any rate, he seems unaware of any peace movement critique of the arms race and arms control; although he doesn't think much of Reagan and the Reaganites, he is predisposed in favour of the US and US policy, and against the USSR and Soviet policy. In short, he's a liberal. His bias leads him into error from time to time, I think; it's important to read this book, but it~s important to read it critically.

Talbot begins with a discussion of the political and military background of the decision to deploy cruise and Persh-ing II missiles in Europe. The reasons for the deployments, he suggests, were primarily political, not military. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, US ballis-tic missiles had been deployed in Bri-tain, Italy, and Turkey, but they were removed, because they were vulnerable to (and invited) pre-emptive attack, and because whatever tasks they were expected to do could be done by U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs.

Some Western planners, however, believed that the emerging rough balance of US and Soviet strategic nuclear forces would leave Europe vulnerable, on the assumption (which seems bizarre to me) that the Warsaw Pact would be in a position to subdue

Western Europe (assuming that it would want to) and frighten the US into holding back its own nuclear for-ces. (Talbot, by the way, seems to assume, without discussion or argu-ment, that WTO conventional forces are superior to the conventional forces of NATO, although there is consider-able evidence to the contrary.)

Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles increased the worries of those who believed that the Soviet Union might be able to detach the US from European defence. They wanted a "tangible guarantee that the US would not sit out a European conflict." What they got was cruise and Pershing II missiles, which were intended to irrevocably commit the US to active nuclear participation in European defence. Again, this commitment is a matter of political symbolism, not military hardware; the US ICMBs and SLBMs are militarily adequate today (assuming that nuclear weapons have a military function), just as they were when US missiles were withdrawn from Europe in the early 1960s. Talbot quotes Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Securi-ty Advisor:

"I was personally never persuaded that we needed [the new weapons] for military reasons. I was persuaded reluctantly that we needed [them] to obtain European su~ port for SALT This was largely because Chancellor Schmidt made such a big deal out of the s~called Euro-strategic imbalance that was being generated by the Soviet deployment of the SS-20. To keep him in line we felt that some response in Europe on the immediate level would be necessary.

And Talbot himself notes that without the deployments of missiles in Europe, from the standpoint of hardware alone, the US still had plenty of warheads to cover Soviet targets. It was the software of intra-alliance self-confidence that was showing wear and tear."

Many Europeans, however, were worried by the increasing number of European weapons in Europe, so, as a result of some political pressure, the NATO decision to deploy new US mis-siles in Europe was coupled with a decision that the US and the USSR should negotiate limits on intermediate-range nuclear weapons. These two decisions taken together constitute the famous Two-Track policy.

The Soviet and American negotiating positions were very far apart on a num-ber of points. Perhaps the most impor-tant was the Western refusal to count British and French intermediate-range nuclear systems in the negotiations. This issue, and others, made the negotiations difficult even during the last days of the Carter Administration; with the inauguration of Reagan, arms control policy was taken over by people who were fundamentally opposed to arms control.

The opinions of these people -Alexander Haig, Eugene Rostow, Richard Burt, Richard Perle, and Paul Nitze, among others - have been collected by US journalist Robert Scheer in his excellent book With Enough Shovels. (Many of these officials have since left the govern-ment.) No doubt many of these people are, in some sense, intelligent and knowledgeable, but (as Scheer demonstrates), their fanatic anti-communism seems to have reduced them to irrationality and incompetence in nuclear policy. with Enough Shovels is essential reading; if it has a fault, however, it paints all of the Reagan officials as pretty much identi-cal. Strobe Talbot carefully dis-tinguishes moderates, like Haig and Burt and Nitze, from extremists, like Perle. (It is a fair comment on the Reagan Administration that someone like Haig is a moderate.)

From the perspective of the disarma-ment movement, the differences seem small, but they were large enough within the spectrum of the Reagan Administration to paralyze the process of formulating arms control policy for many months. When a position finally was formulated - the Zero Option -its ambiguities were sufficient to fuel the bureaucratic battles for many mon-ths more. Much of Deadly Gambits details these disputes.

The one US official who seemed interested in an agreement was Paul Nitze, who was given the job of actually carrying on the negotiations with the Soviets. Nitze's background is complex; he was a major proponent of the anti-ballistic missile system, but as a member of the SALT I negotiating team, he wrote much of the treaty limit-ing ABMs. He had opposed SALT II. He was known privately to disagree with the Two Track policy, but once he was given the job of reaching an agree-ment within that policy, he seemed determined to do his best, despite the narrow limits of the US position. In fact, he went considerably beyond his instructions. He and the Soviet negotiator, Yul Kvitsinsky, managed to formulate a compromise agreement out-side the formal negotiating sessions, while taking a walk in the woods. I don't have space here to detail the compromise, but Talbot's summary (p. 128) makes it clear that the proposal would have been, as he says, "a very good deal for the US." Five substantial Soviet concessions would have been matched by one major concession from the US.

Some confusion has surrounded the fate of the Walk in the Woods pro-posal. US Government officials now claim that the Soviets turned it down first. Talbot's account does not substan-tiate their' claim. Nitze took the pro-posal back to Washington. After a lengthy debate within the Administra-tion, he was told that the compromise was unacceptable and that he should not pursue it any further; the Zero Option was still the US position.

The Soviet government also rejected the compromise (at least in the form presented; there was some indication that they might have considered the proposal a basis for futher negotiation). Their rejection, however, may have resulted partly from rumours in Washington's diplomatic circles that the proposal had been rejected by the US and that Nitze had been repriman-ded for exceeding his instructions.

After the failure of the Walk in the Woods compromise, both the US and the Soviet Union offered a number of alternative proposals. The Soviet Union moved rather more than did the US. They offered to reduce their intermediate-range systems to match Western system warhead for warhead (counting French and British systems), and they urged a mutual moratorium on new deployments. They also clearly indicated that they would end the negotiations as soon as the US missiles began to arrive in Europe.

The US was determined to deploy; the new missiles began to arrive in mid-November, and the negotiations ended a few days later.

One might wonder where President Reagan was during this story. In fact, he played only a rather minor role. Accord-ing to Talbot's informants, Reagan didn't know much about the issues, didn't understand what he did know, and didn't really care. For example:

"Kissinger noticed something unsettling about the President Reagan seemed strange-ly uninterested in international relations as such. He displayed little knowledge or even curiosity about the interaction of states and forces in the world arena.... The best way to get Reagan'5 attention was to suggest to him what he personally should say publicly about a foreign problem or a policy.... What he cared about was speeches - particularly his own speeches.

The one serious flaw I find in Deadly Gambits is the assumption that the language of arms control is correct and adequate. For example, Talbot seems to accept the US position that Soviet SS-20s cannot be fairly matched against Western aircraft, which fly more slowly and are more vulnerable. This critique makes sense, however, only in the con-text of warfighting; even within deter-rence theory, all the West needs is confidence that a certain, rather small number of weapons would survive for a second strike. The peace movement, of course, rejects warfighting and also ques-tions the long-term reliability of deter-rence. Somehow these weapons must be eliminated; Talbot's study does not give one much reason to believe that the current arms control process will be much help.

Peace Magazine August 1985

Peace Magazine August 1985, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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