- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2002

On July 1, Strobe Talbott, the self-styled arms-control expert for more than a quarter-century, assumed the presidency of the Brookings Institution. As it happens, Mr. Talbott's arrival at Brookings occurred within six weeks of two momentous events in arms-control history. And as the historical record indisputably demonstrates, Mr. Talbott had spent the better part of his adult life insisting that these essentially simultaneous arms-control developments could never happen in tandem. Rarely in human history, it is fair to say, has one man been so wrong about so many facets of such an important issue in international relations.
The two recent developments that must so baffle Mr. Talbott were these: On May 24, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an arms-reduction treaty that would slash long-range (i.e., strategic) nuclear warheads by two-thirds. Over 10 years, the pact will reduce the operational deployment of these weapons from the roughly 6,000 strategic warheads in each arsenal to between 1,700 and 2,200. Three weeks later, on June 13, the United States, having given the requisite six-months notice in December, formally and unilaterally withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Two days later, the United States broke ground in Alaska for silos to house ABM interceptors, beginning what Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has described as the "robust development" of a land-, sea-, air- and space-based program to "deploy effective layered defenses."
That was not the first time that arms-control realities utterly disproved Mr. Talbott's theories and arguments. In fact, developments over the past 15 years, beginning with the 1987 signing of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, have repeatedly confirmed the prescience and the wisdom of the arms-reductions policies pursued by President Ronald Reagan, whom Mr. Talbott incessantly criticized and ridiculed in Time magazine articles and in his 1984 book, "Deadly Gambits."
The ABM Treaty, which now joins the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history, was the indispensable document that Mr. Talbott had relentlessly characterized as the "cornerstone" and the "foundation" of strategic stability during his eight years in the Clinton administration. Not surprisingly, the Russians felt likewise. During a White House briefing in Moscow in June 2000, Mr. Talbott, having long been in the habit of taking everything the Russians assert in negotiations as immutable, thusly summarized the Russian position relating to the relatively small changes in the ABM Treaty being sought by President Clinton: "President Putin made absolutely clear to President Clinton that Russia," Mr. Talbott told the press, "believes that [national missile defense] will undermine strategic stability, threaten Russia's strategic deterrent and provoke a new arms race." In other words, a blustery Mr. Putin was huffing and puffing in 2000 in the same way that Mr. Talbott had been huffing and puffing in a Time article dated the day Mr. Reagan was inaugurated for a second term: "If Reagan holds firm on Star Wars, he might as well abandon his pursuit of drastic reductions in existing Soviet weaponry." Mr. Talbott could hardly have been more wrong.
Less than three years after Mr. Talbott wrote those words, Mr. Reagan and Soviet Communist Party General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty, completely vindicating Mr. Reagan's negotiating strategy. That treaty required the destruction of all Soviet and U.S. intermediate-range missiles, essentially embracing Mr. Reagan's "zero option," which Mr. Talbott had spent more than six years criticizing. Gone were the 405 triple-warhead SS-20s the Soviets had aimed at Asian and Western European targets, as well as the Pershing II ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles NATO had deployed in December 1983 in response to the SS-20s.
Mr. Reagan proposed the zero option in November 1981. "As soon as the zero proposal was made," Mr. Talbott noted in his 1984 book, "everyone would see that achievement of zero was an impossibility." In his incessant attacks upon then-assistant secretary of defense for international security policy Richard Perle who led the charge in the bureaucracy for the zero option and whose nickname, Mr. Talbott told his readers, was the Prince of Darkness Mr. Talbott argued that "Perle's position would preclude genuine and productive negotiation." Mr. Perle's "boldness was inversely proportional to negotiability."
If Mr. Perle's position was "extreme" and "simple and compelling as long as one did not dwell on the question of negotiability," then Mr. Reagan's understanding of the zero option was "fuzzy, rambling." Indeed, Democratic elder statesman Clark Clifford once characterized Mr. Reagan as "an amiable dunce" and Mr. Talbott mocked the president's "obsessive" distinction between ballistic missiles, which Mr. Reagan called "fast-flyers," and cruise missiles, which he called "slow-flyers." Moreover, "Reagan was not a diplomat," Mr. Talbott asserted; rather, "he was a politician, and the zero option was a politician's dream."
"The elimination of the SS-20 program," Mr. Talbott argued, "was unthinkable," a view that even the tough-minded INF negotiator Paul Nitze adopted. At a key September 1982 meeting of the National Security Council, Mr. Nitze told the president, according to Mr. Talbott, that it was "inconceivable that the Soviets would ever accept a proposal that would require them to dismantle every last one of their most-modern intermediate-range missiles," especially since NATO had not yet deployed the Pershing IIs and the cruise missiles as countermeasures. Yet, Mr. Reagan refused to authorize a change in the zero option. "Well, Paul," the president told his discouraged negotiator, "you just tell the Soviets that you're working for one tough son-of-a-bitch."
If the INF negotiations were destined for failure, the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) were in even worse shape, Mr. Talbott explained, because of "the absence in START of anyone in the role that Paul Nitze played in INF by trying singlehandedly to save the administration from itself." In START, Mr. Talbott argued that the Prince of Darkness played an even more destructive role, offering a proposal that was "even more audacious than his advocacy of the zero option in INF."
With Mr. Perle once again fighting the bureaucratic battles, the president's goal for START was to drastically reduce the increasingly destabilizing effect of the Soviets' rapidly growing arsenal of land-based "fast-flyers" (intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs) deployed with multiple warheads. These missiles and their warheads were sufficiently numerous, accurate and powerful that they provided the Soviets with a dangerous first-strike advantage. Even Mr. Talbott conceded that the Reagan administration's START proposal "would lower, if not shut, the 'window of vulnerabilty,'" making the world "a safer place."
As Mr. Talbott noted, each side had about 8,500 ballistic warheads deployed on their ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), though their distribution was quite different. U.S. ballistic warheads were disproportionately deployed on SLBMs, while the Soviets deployed most of their ballistic warheads on ICBMs. The primary purpose of Mr. Reagan's START proposal was to force the Soviets to reduce the 6,000 warheads on their ICBMs to as few as 2,500, an achievement that would require the Soviets to radically decrease the number of ICBMs with multiple-independently-targetable warheads. The U.S. START proposal would also limit total ballistic-missile warheads on ICBMs and SLBMs to 5,000. (The long-term START goal was to eliminate all ICBMs with multiple warheads.) Mimicking the Soviet position, Mr. Talbott described this proposal as "utterly non-negotiable."
"The administration's conduct in the INF talks and START brought about an unprecedented crisis in the already strained quarter-century old arms-control process," Mr. Talbott somberly observed as the Soviets walked out of each negotiation following NATO's deployment of the Pershing IIs and cruise missiles in Europe. "START, as such, was dead," Mr. Talbott concluded in his 1984 book, adding, "The Reagan revolution in arms control was over."
Well, not quite. Not only did the Soviets completely capitulate in 1987 to the zero option in the INF talks: Three and a half years later, in August 1991, Soviet President Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush, Mr. Reagan's successor, signed the START I Treaty, which reduced the Soviets' ICBM warheads from 6,595 to 3,028, or by 54 percent. START I also reduced total Soviet ballistic-missile warheads from 9,400 to 4,900, or to a level lower than the 5,000-ballistic-warhead limit Mr. Reagan proposed in 1982. In 1993, before leaving office, President Bush signed START II, which would have completely eliminated ICBMs with multiple warheads by 2003, an achievement that Mr. Talbott's boss, President Clinton, significantly relaxed in 1997 when he delayed the deadline until 2007.
When Brookings celebrated Mr. Talbott's arrival as president on July 1, one wonders if anyone was so indiscreet as to quote Brookings guest scholar Helmut Sonnenfeldt, who earlier served as chief State Department analyst on Soviet and East European affairs. In 1994, as Mr. Talbott was preparing to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate as deputy secretary of state, Mr. Sonnenfeldt told The Washington Times that Mr. Talbott "had views on American policy regarding the Soviet Union especially arms-control issues and the deployment of intermediate-range missiles [in Western Europe] that disagreed with American policy." Acknowledging the obvious, Mr. Sonnenfeldt added, "And on the whole, American policy" that is, President Reagan's policy "was vindicated."

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