A review of Deadly Gambits: The Reagan Administration and the Stalemate in Nuclear Arms Control, by Strobe Talbott
Strobe Talbott’s Deadly Gambits is putatively a definitive account of the Reagan Administration’s arms control record for the first term. The book has been praised as “brilliant” and “authoritative” and as a “masterly account of the Reagan record” by such prominent men as McGeorge Bundy and George Ball. Walter Mondale referred to Talbott during the televised Kansas City debate with President Reagan on foreign policy as “perhaps the nation’s most respected author” in the field of arms control. The Mondale campaign even let it be known that much of their critique of the Reagan arms control record came from the pages of Deadly Gambits. For these reasons alone this is an important book to read. And yet they are probably the only reasons for doing so. Deadly Gambits is more notable for what it fails to address than for what it does address.
But first, a word about the author. Talbott is a diplomatic correspondent for Time magazine and an experienced observer of the arms control process. In 1980, he published a book on the recently concluded U.S.-Soviet strategic nuclear talks,Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II. This year he has written The Russians and Reagan under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations. Earlier in his career he translated and edited two volumes of memoirs by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In short, the reader has every reason to expect Talbott to be a competent chronicler of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Force (INF) and Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) negotiations.
But what the reader must also know is that Talbott is himself an advocate, not an objective observer, and that Deadly Gambits has a clear political purpose. Talbott is a member in good standing of what Henry Rowen (in a controversial Wall Street Journal review of the book) calls “the old SALT gang”-the community of moderate and liberal officials (former and current), academics, and analysts that supports the type of arms control which dominated U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s and 1970s. As for the book’s purpose, it is no accident (as the Russians would say) that the book was published during the heat of the 1984 presidential campaign. One may agree or disagree with Mr. Talbott’s opinions and purposes, but it is essential to understand them before reading Deadly Gambits-especially since the author rather carefully avoids exposing his specific views on particular substantive issues.
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 represented a defeat for “the old SALT gang,” although many moderates did support his candidacy against Jimmy Carter. The intellectual vitality of Mr. Reagan’s campaign, in at least its national security component, came from critics of the SALT II Treaty who also attacked the general policy of detente (whether the Nixon, Ford, or Carter variety) that was the foundation of arms control. The center of the resistance was the Committee on the Present Danger, many of whose prominent members besides Ronald Reagan subsequently became key policy-makers in the new Reagan Administration-e.g., Eugene Rostow, Richard Pipes, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Richard Perle. But other administration officials-e.g., Alexander Haig, Lawrence Eagleburger, George Shultz, and Richard Burt-who were not charter members of the “anti-SALT fraternity” and who did not play a major role in the 1980 campaign, believed that arms control of some sort was both possible and necessary.
Talbott, quite rightly, portrays the Reagan administration as being divided between these two camps. Unfortunately, the author never seriously attempts to come to grips with the substantive merits of either group, to probe their fundamental assumptions, or to explore how these circumstances relate to the larger political divisions over the conduct of American foreign policy. Talbott is keenly aware of the importance of this debate, but he chooses to portray the conflict largely in terms of “bureaucratic infighting” and “personal antagonisms.” This is the stuff of prime-time soap operas and movies, of the nasty J. R. Ewing fighting his nice brother Bobby for control of the oil company, of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker battling with the fate of the universe at stake. One learns very quickly from the content who the good guys and bad guys are, and, from that, one presumably learns to associate the good (or bad} guys with good (or bad) policies.
The chief bad guy in this melodrama is one Richard Perle, Assistant Secretary of Defense for international Security Policy, who as a former assistant to Senator Henry Jackson, was one of the most effective critics of SALT II. Talbott very helpfully informs us in the Prologue (p. 15) that “Perle’s many enemies called him the Prince of Darkness,” a man who “sometimes saw himself as a lonely, beleaguered warrior in a righteous but losing cause.”
Perle’s principal mission was to stop things from happening. . . . To the dismay of his critics, he turned out to be a masterful bureaucrat. As a rule, naysayers have an advantage in a struggle over policy. It is relatively easy to block progress by raising objections and diverting debate. Also, the government as a whole is usually looking for a consensus, and that often means accommodating the more recalcitrant if not obstructionist elements of the bureaucracy. But in addition to these natural advantages, Perle had the benefit of intelligence, ingenuity, determination, and an unswerving, passionate conviction that he was right. (p. 16)
In the other corner was Richard Burt, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs and former national security correspondent for the New York Times:
Burt was a man of exceptional intelligence. . . . He was also one of the few people in a high position in the new order who respected the need not to tear down the old order. He was genuinely devoted to achieving progress in arms control and not just for the sake of his own career. . . . [He was regarded as] talented, tenacious, and fundamentally a moderate, a pragmatist, and an Atlanticist. That orientation, along with his grasp of arms control issues and his rough-and-tumble instinct for bureaucratic machinations, made him the State Department’s best weapon against more extreme elements in the Administration. (p.13)
Such disputes exist at the third or fourth echelon of government in any administration, but Talbott argues that the lack of leadership by President Reagan has made the bureaucratic infighting absolutely disastrous for any possible progress in arms control. Reagan is portrayed as a man completely removed from reality, without any knowledge of or interest in the goals or tactics of arms control, the befuddled patriarch being manipulated by one or the other Richard. To make this point, Talbott places us inside the head of Henry Kissinger, who occasionally met with Reagan on arms control matters.
. . . [O]n a number of those occasions, Kissinger noticed something unsettling about the President: Reagan seemed strangely uninterested in international relations as such. . . . Kissinger found that, when he advised Reagan on what the government ought to be doing, the goals it should set and the methods it should employ, Reagan seemed to tune out. The best way to get Reagan’s attention was to suggest to him what he personally should say publicly about a foreign problem or policy. Then the President would sit up and his eyes would come back into focus. What he cared about was speeches – particularly his own speeches. . . . If the speech worked as a speech, then the policy must be a good one. If the speech came off, the policy could be sustained. (p. 76)
Deadly Gambits, then, attempts to explain the alleged failure of the Administration’s arms control policy on these grounds: a bureaucratic deadlock caused by obstructionist hardliners committed to a policy of unremitting opposition to the Soviet Union, a deadlock that the passive Chief Executive was unwilling or unable to break. Talbott makes a persuasive case that the Administration had no coherent arms control policy; and who one chooses to blame for that fact depends on which side one believes to be the most sound. There are few neutral arms control experts in Washington, and Talbott is certainly not one of the uncommitted. Indeed, Talbott writes in the language of the Washington insider-the dialect of the bureaucrat, the well-connected academic or policymaker-in-exile-to drive home his points. Judging from the enthusiasm with which Deadly Gambits was greeted by the Mondale campaign, the defeat of President Reagan might well have been one of those points. But even with the President’s reelection, the Talbott book will (to use an unseemly Washington expression) impact upon the Great Arms Control debate, Part II.
Already, the Administration has proposed a vague “umbrella” under which various arms control negotiations can resume or be initiated. The State Department is even now cheerfully thinking about various approaches to place in Secretary of State George Shultz’s pocket for his upcoming meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Richard Perle and his allies are no doubt looking for ways to influence that process. And the Committee on the Present Danger has recently issued a major report, “Can America Catch Up?”, the conclusions of which will hardly be welcomed by those in the Administration who see arms control as a method to justify a ceiling on or a moderation of defense spending.
In an October, 26 article published in the Los Angeles Times, Talbott gave his prescription for what ails the Administration on arms control:
Reagan has said on numerous occasions that he wants to break out of the stalemate and have an agreement and summit in his second term. But two things have to happen: Either he has to have a dramatic conversion into an extremely knowledgeable, activist decision-maker in these matters, or he has got to get himself a team of advisers who will close ranks around realistic policies and proposals.
Talbott does not seem inclined to think that Reagan will be struck off his horse by a blinding light on the road to Damascus. The President, we are told in Deadly Gambits, is not exactly standing tall in the arms control saddle to begin with: “It was common for the President to doodle during long meetings on subjects about which he was less than passionate, and horses and cowboys were two of his favorite subjects” (p. 250). Mr. Reagan, according to Talbott’s sources (perhaps the White House garbage man) outdid Frederic Remington during all those NSC meetings devoted to arms control.
The answer for Talbott, then, lies rather in “a team of advisers” advocating “realistic policies and proposals.” Recalling his earlier, carefully worded portrayal of Perle (“naysayer,” “obstructionist”) and Burt (“moderate,” “pragmatist,” “Atlanticist”), there can be little doubt whose side Talbott would take-although it should be noted that Talbott has his reservations about Richard the Pragmatist, perhaps related to Burt’s inability to fend off Richard the Ideologue. In any event, if one can believe the Washington Post, the moderates (“tough-minded pragmatists,” if you will) clustered primarily around Shultz and National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane are currently making their move to dominate the arms control policy-making process. Whether they read Deadly Gambits or not, they have accepted its premise that the Administration’s approach to arms control has failed, and a new one is needed.
But what about these “realistic policies and proposals”? Here Talbott is silent, although he repeatedly if indirectly chides the “hard-line ideologues” for advocating arms control proposals that lack “negotiability.” Talbott does not tell the reader that there are serious doubts among arms control specialists-including some of the moderates that he favors-whether the search for significant negotiated agreements will ever be anything but political theater.
Talbott says little about what arms control should be, of what it should (or can) do to promote U.S. national security. Early on we are told that arms control is a “critical enterprise” and that inevitably an administration would be “judged” by the nation, legislators, and the world by its arms control record. The only reference to what arms control is supposed to do is in the Prologue when Talbott states that:
. . . arms control cannot work wonders at all, least of all by itself. It can only be useful as a component of a larger strategy for Soviet-American relations. Arms control is not a substitute for defense. It is defense conducted by other means. (p. 6)
But we are not told what that larger strategy is or ought to be, or how arms control should relate to it.
Arms control is treated throughout the book, the above quotation notwithstanding, as a valuable commodity, like gold, that has intrinsic worth. There is rarely a mention of what the objectives of arms control should be (except getting an agreement) or what would constitute a good or bad agreement. Deadly Gambits contains little discussion of the strategic requirements of the U.S., the overall objectives of arms control, or how the various proposals the U.S. put forward in Geneva were designed to promote those objectives. Although he alludes to both previous SALT agreements, he never tells us how the alleged benefits of those agreements stack up against history. Without such a framework one cannot be expected to judge intelligently whether Richard Perle is a hero or a knave, whether Richard Burt is a wise man or a fool. The protagonists in Deadly Gambits are serious men, in a deadly serious business, and surely they-and the reader-deserve better.
For example, Talbott virtually ignores a central element in the arms control equation: the Soviet Union. Indeed, he all but confirms the standard criticism of arms control that the real negotiations and concessions take place within the American bureaucracy. But there is no Soviet equivalent to Talbott writing from Moscow to inform us about the infighting within the Soviet bureaucracy (if any) so that we might judge the seriousness and intent of Soviet policy. The Reagan Administration is (and the reader of Deadly Gambits should be) concerned with the spectacle of an apparently divided and weak Soviet leadership at a time when the Soviet military buildup and modernization-conventional as well as nuclear-continues apace. Is the Soviet hierarchy at present even capable of negotiating seriously (by anyone’s standards)? When a relative youngster such as Gorbachev or Romanov consolidates his position in the Politburo, what will he do with his many new toys? We are given little if any guidance on this point by Talbott.
Nowhere are the shortcomings of this book more obvious than in the discussion of “throw-weight.” Simply put, throw-weight is the weight a missile can “throw” to its target, the warhead(s) plus the attached guidance devices. It is important because it is a true index of the destructive potential of each side’s missile force and is far more relevant than the number of launchers deployed.
Talbott’s view throughout is that throw-weight, which was not used as a measurement of strategic power in SALT, was a device employed by those opposed to arms control to prevent an agreement from being reached. Throw-weight was “non-negotiable” in Talbott’s view; that is, there was no way the U.S. could get the Soviets to accept it as a unit of account in arms control.
Talbott criticizes the Reagan Administration’s attempt to make throw-weight a central part of its negotiating position in START. He does so by trying to downplay the importance of the Soviet throw-weight advantage, by playing back to the reader Soviet interpretations of why they built ICBMs capable of delivering so much payload, and, most of all, by claiming that, since throw-weight was a “non-starter” from the Soviet perspective, the Administration was being disingenuous by attempting to limit it.
Talbott prefers the SALT framework of counting launchers (while not defining them). For an ICBM, the SALT framework assumed that a launcher was the silo in which the missile was placed and fired from. For a submarine-launched missile, it was a tube in a submarine capable of firing a ballistic missile. Critics of this approach point out that SALT did not limit the number of total missiles on both sides. (The Soviets supposedly have in excess of 1,000 extra ICBMs that are not counted by SALT because they are not in silos.) Even if one were to assume that each silo has only one missile, there is a greater problem with this approach. It assumes that the missiles on each side are of equal capability. In truth, U.S. and Soviet missile forces look almost nothing alike.
The Soviets have built a force of large ICBMs capable of delivering a much greater payload than U.S. ICBMs. This high throw-weight allows the Soviets to place many accurate and large-yield warheads on one rocket booster. The strategic significance of doing this is that the Soviets can use a small percentage of their ICBM force to destroy most or all of the U.S.; land-based missiles and other strategic forces in a disarming first strike. Talbott does not see fit to examine this problem seriously.
At first, Talbott tries to suggest that the Soviets built these high throw-weight missiles to compensate for their inferior technology and to satisfy the traditional Russian penchant for artillery (ICBMs being the modern equivalent). The Soviet SS-19, for instance, is characterized as “an outgrowth of the Soviet affection for large missiles . . .” (p. 214). But this is not his primary case against throw-weight. He then tries to persuade us that the debate over the significance of throw-weight is nothing new and that it was dealt and dispensed with by a previous, and presumably wiser, administration.
Talbott describes how Henry Kissinger became “impatient” with Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger, for having “such a narrow-minded concern” with Soviet throw-weight. Kissinger, we are told, was a believer in the concept of “offsetting asymmetries” (p. 217). Offsetting asymmetries is arms control jargon for the idea that U.S. and Soviet advantages in different aspects of strategic power balance one another. Talbott uses it here to justify a Soviet five-to-one advantage in ICBM throw-weight. Although it is conceptually feasible that asymmetries in the U.S. and Soviet force structure could cancel each other out, in reality the Soviet Union holds a lead, and often a substantial one, in most relevant indicators of strategic power. An asymmetry that allows the Soviet Union to possess a potentially disarming first strike capability cannot be characterized as being offset by minor U.S. advantages.
Talbott then states the real reason Kissinger objected to: Schlesinger’s interest in Soviet ICBM throw-weight: “Kissinger questioned whether throw-weight was a problem that was amenable to solution in arms-control negotiations” (p. 217). Talbott seems to believe, like Kissinger, that it is too much to ask of American negotiators to get an agreement that measures “stability” in terms of throw-weight. This argument is specious. It is not a matter of achieving “stability as measured by throw-weight” but of achieving stability, period. The Soviet throw-weight advantage is a prominent measure of the current instability. It is a unit of account that accurately reflects the imbalance in U.S. and Soviet force capability in a way that limitations on launchers (as in SALT) never can. If the SALT experience demonstrates one thing, it is that equality in strategic offensive launchers does not necessarily beget stability. Proponents of the use of throw-weight limitations are not wedded to its use per se; they understand that it (along with warhead limitations) is a better measure for achieving stability through arms control.
Talbott asserts that, “Of all the many ways to measure strategic power, missile throw-weight represents the single largest advantage that the Soviet Union has over the United States” (p. 215). This statement reveals Talbott’s true motive. Despite its relevance to the strategic balance, despite the fact that limiting launchers makes less strategic sense than limiting throw-weight and warheads, the real reason Talbott objects to throw-weight is he knows that maintaining such a superiority is a fundamental Soviet goal. Limiting throw-weight to equal levels would make possible a stable strategic balance and hence meaningful arms control. The leading advocate of limiting throw-weight is, of course, Richard Perle, who believes that it “ought to be the principal unit of account in strategic arms control” (p. 234). As Perle saw it, the Soviet threat to U.S. strategic forces was a function of “too many warheads that were too large atop too many missiles with too much cumulative throw-weight” (p. 234).
Richard Burt and other State Department colleagues opposed using throw-weight as a unit of account in START. According to Talbott, “Underlying all of Burt’s arguments was the contention that, because of the great improvements in the accuracy of Soviet missiles, throw-weight as such was a ‘military indicator of declining relevance'” (p. 237). According to this view, accuracy had become the key determinant of strategic power, not throw-weight. Talbott also explains that nuclear weapon yields (the size of the explosion) are also not a function of throw-weight and that recent technological success in miniaturization now made it possible to get the “maximum bang out of small amounts of explosive materials” (p. 238). These developments supposedly contributed to the declining relevance of throw-weight.
Both of these arguments represent half-truths. It is exactly because Soviet accuracies have improved that throw-weight is of increasing relevance. With their improved accuracies, the Soviets can reliably destroy a hardened missile silo using one or two warheads. By building their behemoth missiles with great throw-weight, they can destroy a large percentage of U.S. strategic force assets with a relatively small percentage of their force. This is what creates instability. Miniaturization works the same way. Each missile can hold more warheads, and thus fewer missiles are needed to destroy the opponent’s force. The improvements Talbott mentions have taken place, but they enhance rather than diminish the importance of throw-weight.
As if this were not enough, Talbott then chastises Perle because “neither of these factors, increased accuracy or improved yield, figured in Perle’s proposed units of account for START” (p. 238). What is shocking is that Talbott does not take Richard Burt to task for the same thing. Burt’s proposed limitations on launchers and warheads, which appeal to Talbott’s sympathies, do not take into account improved accuracy or yield. Talbott wishes to have it both ways. He scolds Perle and others for proposing to limit throw-weight because it is not negotiable and then again for not including the equally stringent (and presumably just as non-negotiable) measures of accuracy and yield which he claims are increasingly relevant indicators of strategic power.
This is the heart of the matter: Limitations on launchers and missiles have not been able to eliminate the current instability engendered by a Soviet first strike capability. Limiting throw-weight to equal levels would go far in correcting this problem. The real reason Talbott objects to throw-weight limitations is obvious. It can be summed up through his quotation from Soviet officials: “‘Throw-weight,’ they kept saying over and over again, ‘is not an acceptable unit of account'” (p. 311).
Another important set of issues that Talbott fails to come to grips with is verification and compliance. Verification is a judgmental process based on the evidence of whether each party is living up to its arms control commitments. The Reagan Administration has taken unprecedented steps, both in demanding more intrusive measures for verification (through on-site inspection) and by producing two major reports critical of Soviet compliance with arms control agreements. Talbott pays little attention to this issue, and, when he does, it is always in the context of the bureaucratic wars over arms control policies.
On the verification issue, Talbott states: “Verification does not become a central issue in arms control until there is some possibility of an agreement to be verified” (p. 293). But verification would seem to be a first-order issue in arms control because one has to decide what can be verified before one determines what to limit. If none of the relevant indicators of a particular weapon system can be verified, there is little reason to seek limits on them. Previously the scope of U.S. arms control proposals has exceeded both the U.S.’s ability to verify them and the Soviets’ willingness to accept cooperative measures of verification. This has put the U.S. in the position of not being able to verify treaties which we ourselves have proposed. Also, verification takes on added importance when one considers the Soviet compliance record, which Talbott neither reviews nor seems to have much interest in.
Talbott treats the raising of the issue of Soviet compliance as a thoroughly partisan concern. Those worried about compliance are said to be interested only in using it to hamper future arms control progress. As Talbott states, “If it could be established that the Soviets had already systematically cheated on arms control agreements, hardliners would more easily be able to question the wisdom of any future agreements and if, or political reasons, the U.S. had to keep up the appearance of seeking agreements, it would be all the more justified in insisting on the most intrusive, comprehensive inspection of facilities in the U.S.S.R.” (p. 227). Talbott apparently either does not believe that the Soviets have “systematically cheated” on arms control agreements or, if he does, he sees no connection between that cheating and the value of the arms control process to U.S. national security.
For the purposes of strategic arms control, one of the most significant violations concerns the ABM Treaty. The Soviets are building an early-warning radar which the Administration has concluded is almost certainly a violation of this treaty limiting both sides to very small anti-missile capabilities. Talbott brushes this off by stating: “While the incident was generally recognized as the most serious case to date of a possible Soviet violation, there were still ambiguities in the language of the treaty that might be used to excuse it” (p. 321). Those who think differently are only trying to use the issue to scuttle the arms control process. Thus in a recent Time magazine article on the compliance issue that was sparked by the imminent release of the Administration’s second compliance report, Talbott said that if the “[Reagan] Administration officially renders a guilty verdict against the U.S.S.R. on the issue of compliance, the prospects for the Shultz-Gromyko meeting and future negotiations and agreements may be bleaker than ever. The Soviets will take the accusations as proof that the U.S. is looking for a pretext to scuttle arms control once and for all, while making the Soviets take the blame.” This is an amazing statement. Talbott is impervious to the notion that the Soviets are “scuttling” the arms control process by cheating. Moreover, he has turned on its head the traditional arms control argument that nations will comply with agreements because the consequences of non-compliance might bring an end to the process which both sides supposedly want to maintain. If Talbott is correct, the pressure is not on the offender but on the injured party, which will refrain from going public with violations for fear of damaging the future of arms control. This seems to be the American approach to the problem of Soviet noncompliance.
But by far the most serious flaw is Talbott’s thesis that nuclear weapons have rendered the relationship between military power and political objectives meaningless. Talbott states,
Nuclear missiles and bombs are symbols of power. The way in which their custodians . . . manipulate these symbols is a key factor in how successful their other policies will be. In that respect, nuclear weapons exist to be talked about, not to be used. Largely for that reason, it is another central and, again, paradoxical part of their nature that they exist to be controlled. (p. 5)
He asserts this as though it were patent truth. No doubt many people in the U.S. believe this to be true, but U.S. policy for over thirty years has been based on the idea that nuclear weapons have military as well as political utility; that, in fact, the two cannot be separated.
Since as far back as the Eisenhower Administration, U.S. policy has been predicated on balancing traditional Russian conventional superiority with nuclear weapons. While one can argue the question, “How much is enough?” the link between military utility and basic U.S. political objectives is clear. By ignoring this and asserting his own view, how ever widespread, Talbott begs the most fundamental question of American national security policy today: “What role nuclear weapons?”