In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Bush singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as being part of an “axis of evil.” By pointedly using the word “axis,” the formal term used to describe the World War II alliance among Japan, Italy and Nazi Germany, Mr. Bush was suggesting that the present regimes in Tehran, Baghdad and Pyongyang were brutal dictatorships intent on using violence against anyone who opposed their expansionist policies. Together with “their terrorist allies,” Mr. Bush added, these regimes are arming in order to “threaten the peace of the world.” During the 1990s, the Clinton administration, under pressure from a bipartisan coalition in Congress, adopted the term “rogue states” to describe these governments. Shortly before Mr. Bush’s address, however, Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post wrote a number of articles apparently aimed at delegitimizing the notion that Iran, Iraq et al. ever constituted a serious national security threat to the United States and its allies. In fact, Mr. Dobbs seems to believe that this terminology emanated from a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Rodham Clinton would phrase it.
Predictably, Mr. Dobbs’ vast right-wing conspiracy involved the CIA, whose analysts, he argues, ignored all evidence to the contrary when they changed their assessments of America’s vulnerability to weapons of mass destruction delivered by ballistic missiles launched from “rogue states.” (When referring to Iran and North Korea, two of the most despicable regimes on earth, Mr. Dobbs places quotation marks around the words “rogue states” wink, wink.) Donald Rumsfeld, who chaired a bipartisan commission that unanimously concluded in 1998 that America would be vulnerable to ballistic-missile attack by a rogue state much sooner than the Clinton administration had projected in 1995, was obviously a major force in the conspiracy. And, of course, the “Republican-dominated Congress” of the late 1990s played an indispensable role. Making the conspiracy especially right-wing, Mr. Dobbs includes the Likud-dominated government of Israel, led by then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had expressed concern that the Iranian mullahs were attempting to develop a ballistic missile that could hit Tel Aviv.
According to Mr. Dobbs, the American conspirators, aided by Israel’s conservative government, engaged in “a concerted campaign” that greatly exaggerated “the leakage” of nuclear technology from Russia to Iran because “[c]ongressional Republicans wanted to build public support for a national missile defense system.” To demonstrate the obvious paranoia of the conspirators, Mr. Dobbs quotes at considerable length Vadim Vorobei, one of the very Russian scientists who were accused by the U.S. government of egregiously violating Russia’s commitment not to share nuclear technology with Iran. Not surprisingly, Mr. Vorobei insisted that American fears were exaggerated and that Iran’s ballistic-missile program was in fact “a huge mess.” (Even if true, the “mess” was certainly not for lack of effort on Iran’s part.) In any event, Mr. Vorobei’s self-serving dismissals seemed to settle the matter for Mr. Dobbs.
Mr. Dobbs also cites Joseph Cirincione, a former longtime Democratic congressional staffer who accused Republicans of mounting “a conscious political strategy” to attack the Clinton administration’s 1995 intelligence assessment. Mr. Cirincione laments that it was the Republicans who have politicized the intelligence process. It is a conclusion that is at the heart of Mr. Dobbs’ thesis. Yet, even Mr. Dobbs reports that it was the Clinton administration that “leaked details of the still-secret [1995 national intelligence estimate] to congressional Democrats, who used it to argue the case against missile defense.” So, which party politicized the intelligence process? Clearly, Mr. Cirincione’s lamentation is self-serving.
Over two days, Mr. Dobbs used 8,000 words to describe what he obviously believes to be an ill-advised and misguided Republican-Likud conspiracy to reverse U.S. policy in favor of deploying both theater and national missile defense systems at the earliest moment. Implicit in his argument is the belief that the 1995 intelligence estimate was far more accurate than more recent ones. Specifically, the 1995 estimate asserted that “no country, other than the major declared nuclear powers, will develop or otherwise acquire a ballistic missile in the next 15 years that could threaten the contiguous 48 states and Canada.”
As Mr. Dobbs knows as well as anyone, his past tenure as a foreign correspondent in the Soviet Union confirmed that the ash bin of history is filled with national intelligence estimates that proved to be totally in error. For years, the CIA severely underestimated the military’s share of the Soviet Union’s GNP and grossly overestimated the Soviets’ level of consumption. It’s also worth recalling that the group of independent, nongovernment experts commissioned by then-CIA Director George H.W. Bush in 1976 and known as Team B delivered a report on the projected growth of Soviet nuclear forces that proved to be far more worrisome and accurate than the CIA’s estimate. Anyone who traversed Checkpoint Charlie to spend time in East Berlin a few years before the Berlin Wall collapsed knows how utterly absurd was the CIA’s estimate in the mid-1980s that the East German standard of living exceeded West Germany’s.
In the Middle East, intelligence estimates have also been colossally wrong. The CIA did not know of the Shah of Iran’s seven-year battle with cancer, much less his imminent political mortality. Immediately preceding the Persian Gulf War, U.S. intelligence drastically underestimated how close Iraq was to developing an atomic bomb.
When dealing with threats that can destroy the American homeland, U.S. policy-makers must always be proactive, preparing for the credible worst-case scenario. Even Mr. Dobbs concedes that the prospect of a “rogue state” acquiring long-range missiles is “the nightmare scenario underpinning President Bush’s decision to push ahead with the deployment of a national missile defense system.” How credible is such a scenario? Well, in the final analysis, what difference does it make whether it will be 15 years or five years before rogue states will have the capacity to launch ballistic missiles to deliver weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological and nuclear) throughout America? Given the known intelligence failures of the past, prudence requires the United States to err on the side of caution.
In his superb essay in the Weekly Standard last year “The Bush Doctrine: ABM, Kyoto and the New American Unilateralism” Charles Krauthammer offered an analogy that leaves no question regarding what the U.S. response today must be to “the inevitable proliferation of missiles into the hands of heretofore insignificant enemies.” It deserves to be quoted at length: “Missile technology is to the 21st century what air power was to the 20th. In 1901, there was not an airplane in the world. Most people did not think a heavier-than-air machine could in theory ever fly. Yet 38 years later, the world experienced the greatest war in history, whose outcome was crucially affected by air power and air defenses in a bewildering proliferation of new technologies: bombers, fighters, transports, gliders, carriers, radar. It is inconceivable that 38 years from now we will not be living in a world where missile technology is equally routine, and thus routinely in the hands of bad guys. It is therefore inexplicable why the United States should not use its unique technology to build the necessary defense against the next inevitable threat.”
If Mr. Dobbs’ self-serving Russian scientist and, no doubt, Mr. Dobbs himself thinks Iran’s missile program is “a huge mess,” how messy does Mr. Dobbs believe the consequences for the United States will be when ballistic-missile technology becomes as commonplace in the future as airplanes were half a century ago?