Whether or not one should argue with people who do not argue in good faith is an interesting question. My view, for what it is worth, is that one should.
However, it is both true — and important — that many of those who are commonly called ‘neocons’ do not argue in good faith: that they prefer, rather than confronting the arguments of others, to use smear tactics, and also that they are remarkably unwilling to consider evidence that calls into question their preferred theories. This is a crucial fact about them which is still very inadequately appreciated — not least because of the deference which has been paid to their views in the mainstream media. So, on the many occasions when they are clearly either in bad faith or plain wrong, it is important to point this out.
If this seems over the top, I can perhaps illustrate by reverting to an earlier discussion on this blog.
A good example of familiar neocon approaches was the hatchet job done on Sherman Kent, a pivotal figure in the wartime R&A branch of the wartime OSS and in shaping the analytical side of the CIA, by Carl Schmitt and Abram Shulsky — the latter of whom headed the Office of Special Plans, through which much of the bogus intelligence used to justify the Iraq War was channelled. Their article Leo Strauss and the World of Intelligence suggested that Kent’s conception of intelligence as research involved a naïve faith in the ability of a ‘social science’ method to generate reliable predictions about the behaviour of adversaries — and this, they claim, led him to discount the importance of espionage, and the interception and deciphering of enemy communications.
When I read Kent’s book, I discovered that most of their charges were based upon a total misrepresentation of what Kent said. Certainly some of this may be due to intellectual incompetence. Anyone with any grasp of the context in which Kent was writing should be aware that the last thing he could have been expected to produce was a candid discussion of the crucial contribution of codebreaking to victory against Germany and Japan. A generation after he wrote people who had worked at Bletchley Park still did not talk about it even to their immediate families. It could be that the inability of Schmitt and Shulsky to grasp this is simply a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the Straussian disbelief in the importance of context — who can say? However, some of the distortions are so flagrant that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that one is dealing with people utterly devoid of the standards of intellectual integrity that university education is supposed to instil.
What Kent was actually stressing was a very simple and crucial point — that in intelligence gathering as in other forms of intellectual inquiry, it is important to get clear the questions you want to answer, and then look at all the available means by which you can answer them. He also argued that, commonly, ingenuity in the exploitation of open sources yields far more information than espionage — although he never said that this was necessarily the case. He stressed that the relative importance of secret intelligence and open sources depended upon the specific problem you were confronting.
In attacking Kent’s fundamental argument, Schmitt and Shulsky were not making useful criticisms of the inadequacies of the CIA — they were striking at the basic foundations of good intelligence practice, and thereby doing their level best to turn the United States into a kind of self-blinded giant: a danger to others and to itself. And their appalling theory was reflected in Shulsky’s absysmal practice — the fact that the neocons were led by the nose by Ahmad Chalabi, who may well have been in the instrument of a well-planned Iranian deception operation.
I developed the argument at some length in a piece which Colonel Lang posted — see http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2005/11/habakkuk_onleo_.html
Another extraordinary feature of paper by Schmitt and Shulsky I did not perhaps discuss adequately. It appeared to be their view that the CIA had been easy meat for the deception tactics of those cunning criminal masterminds in the Soviet Union. But the available evidence suggests that this is patent nonsense — and a form of nonsense which has done a great deal to land your country and mine in the mess in which we now find ourselves.
Shortly before the invasion of Iraq, a long article appeared in the Financial Times, in which a prominent commentator for the paper, John Lloyd, hailed Richard Pipes as a prophet vindicated on Soviet nuclear strategy. Largely on this basis, Lloyd went on enthusiastically to endorse the enthusiasm of Daniel Pipes and his fellow neocons for remaking the Middle East. As Lloyd is a former leading intellectual light of the British Communist Party — insofar as that is not a contradiction in terms — his enthusiasm was perhaps unsurprising. The succumbing of what was once a great newspaper to neocon delusions is much more so. But, unfortunately, the pattern is representative of what has happened in much of the American and British media.
In fact, if one looks at the publicly available evidence in a reasonably dispassionate way, it is clear that Pipes — and the Team B project in which he played a central role — got almost everything wrong: and in particular failed to spot indications of a fundamental change in Soviet thinking about nuclear weapons in Soviet writings available to American intelligence analysts. One of the great exponents of the research approach to intelligence has been Raymond Garthoff — the most important pioneer of the academic study of Soviet military strategy, and the man who, according to Allen Dulles, got rid of more Soviet divisions ‘than anyone since Hitler.’ (Actually this was not strictly accurate — he simply established that only about a third of Soviet divisions were at full strength.)
In his 1978 paper ‘Mutual Deterrence and Strategic Arms Limitation in Soviet Policy’, Garthoff took issue with the famous paper published by Richard Pipes the previous year on ‘Why the Soviet Union Believes It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War.’ He pointed to evidence in Soviet writings of a shift from contingency planning based upon nuclear preemption to launch on warning. His argument was developed in the 1987 study of Military Objectives in Soviet Foreign Policy by Garthoff’s Brookings Institution colleague Michael MccGwire. Before turning academic, MccGwire had been a seminal figure in post-war British intelligence, having headed the Soviet naval section of our Defence Intelligence. Rather than starting out with Plato or game theory, he had begun with practical questions like why were the Soviets building so many submarines with 100mm guns and no anti-aircraft capability? This hardly seemed a promising pattern of armament for attacking NATO’s transatlantic communications. Eventually MccGwire realized that it was a pattern of armament very well suited to countering possible D-day type operations in the Baltic and the Black Sea: and that this was what a large part of the Soviet submarine programme which had started at the beginning of the Fifties was designed to do. This provided an invaluable window in the actual planning assumptions on which Soviet military strategy as a whole was premised — giving some basis for making sense of the inherently ambiguous information provided by available Soviet writings.
In his Military Objectives study, MccGwire built on Garthoff’s analysis by showing how changing patterns of Soviet procurement, deployment and exercising, taken in conjunction with the textual evidence, established a shift in the late Sixties and early Seventies from nuclear war-fighting strategies to strategies designed to keep a war conventional if possible and limit escalation if nuclear use could not be prevented. It is a classic example of the kind of thorough exploitation of publicly available evidence which Kent was recommending.
The different interpretations of Soviet nuclear strategy in the Brezhnev era led to completely different interpretations of the changes in Soviet security policy introduced by Gorbachev. If one adopted the Pipes interpretation, then Gorbachev’s anti-nuclear agenda naturally read off as a cunning strategy of deception. In terms of the Garthoff/MccGwire interpretation, it was simply a radical development of existing trends. On this basis, from 1987 onwards, MccGwire and Garthoff were arguing that the changes involved in Soviet security policy were likely to be radical. And they were proven right. Moreover, an enterprising young man called Kent D. Lee, with the aid of Garthoff’s advice, obtained the declassification and release of the entire back file of the confidential General Staff journal Military Thought, together with other formerly classified Soviet military publications. One consequence of this was when he wrote his 1990 study of Deterrence and the Revolution in Soviet Military Doctrine, Garthoff was able to write that there was ‘no strategic doctrine for waging intercontinental nuclear war in the available military strategic literature, open or closed.’ There was nothing — zilch, nada. Pipes and his associates were simply plain wrong.
When subsequently Bruce Blair — like MccGwire, someone who went from the particular to the general, having been a Minuteman launch control officer before turning academic — was able to study the Soviet nuclear command and control system with the help of candid interviews with informed Soviet sources, it became clear that this system was heavily biased towards the prevention of inadvertent launch and control of escalation. The whole focus of the strategy was on conventional warfare, just as Garthoff and MccGwire had suggested.
But, precisely because they are as brilliant at the manipulation of opinion as they are incompetent at intellectual analysis, the neoconservatives have managed to get themselves established as prophets vindicated on Soviet nuclear strategy. The belief that the demonstration of ‘strength’ and ‘will’ embodied in the Reagan nuclear buildup was decisive in ending the Cold War follows naturally. It is not only gullible former British Communists who have been led up the garden path by this. The fatal consequences of simplistic readings of the retreat and collapse of Soviet power have been brought out in the recent paper by Robert English entitled ‘Lessons from the Bloc’ in the National Interest (available at http://www.nationalinterest.org/Article.aspx?id=15426.)
Having noted the way that the non-military aspects of American success in the Cold War have been neglected, English goes on to write:
‘So when another major global challenge arose, the operative lessons were: Hard power is what really matters; allies are to be commanded and not consulted; concern for image and ideals only hampers our freedom of action; and the post-regime change will take care of itself. This is the neoconservatism that set its sights on another troubled world region, celebrated another military triumph (“Mission accomplished”, declared President Bush), dismissed early signs that something had gone very wrong (“Democracy is messy” lectured Defense Secretary Rumsfeld) and keeps faith with its historic mission by a near-Orwellian trick of turning bad news into good (“War and violence are the birth pangs of a new Mideast”, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice).’
I find myself here being reminded of the conclusion of the famous Long Telegram which the figure generally regarded as the architect of ‘containment’, George Kennan, sent from Moscow on 22 February 1946. As his final thought, Kennan stressed that ‘we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.’ The ‘greatest danger’ that could befall the United States in coping with the problem of Soviet communism, he wrote, is that ‘ we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.’ As regards the neoconservatives at least, his warning seems to have been to the point.
As a spoiled British child of the post-war Pax Americana, what staggers me about so many of the neocons is their patently inability to grasp that American success in the Cold War was in very substantial measure due quite precisely to the fact that your country did not behave as the Soviets did. Why then this sudden enthusiasm for Soviet-style thuggery? Allies are ‘to be commanded not consulted’ — precisely as in the Warsaw Pact. War and violence the ‘birthpangs of a new Middle East’ — sounds very Leninist, doesn’t it? This does not mean that military power was unimportant to the outcome of the Cold War — far from it. But it seems to quite extraordinary that the neoconservatives simply cannot understand that the moral authority of the United States was crucial to the success of the post-war Pax Americana, and also to the retreat and collapse of Soviet Communism.
It is still crucial to the international position of the United States. For one thing, the whole nuclear ‘double standard’ depends for such acceptability as it has on the belief that the existing nuclear powers can be trusted with nuclear weapons while others cannot be. In the light of the recent performance of the Bush Administration — and the Blair government — it is getting rather difficult to make this case sound persuasive! If people want to have moral authority, they must earn it. And one way of earning it is to insist on standards of intellectual integrity in argument — and here, to be frank, it helps to say clearly that knaves are knaves, and fools are fools.