Beware the neocon exaggerators: They were wrong on Russia and the Mideast before — and they're wrong about the threat now

Stop worrying about Putin: Russia is a second-tier economic and military power, and not a threat to U.S. interests

Published August 2, 2014 3:30PM (EDT)

William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney                         (AP/Janet Van Ham/Yves Logghe/Reuters/Larry Downing/Salon)
William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney (AP/Janet Van Ham/Yves Logghe/Reuters/Larry Downing/Salon)

As a former neoconservative, I am particularly sensitive to “threat inflation.” I spent the early part of my career as a neoconservative in the 1980s and early 1990s, when “neoconservative” still meant Truman-Kennedy-Johnson Cold War liberal rather than bloviating Fox News militarist. Before I broke with the neocons as they moved right in the early 1990s, I rose through the ranks of the second generation of neoconservatism to become executive editor of The National Interest, the foreign policy magazine published by the late Irving Kristol, the “godfather of the neoconservatives” and the father of the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol.

In hindsight, the neocons, along with many others on the left, right and center, were right about the tyranny and corruption of Marxist-Leninist regimes. But following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it became clear that the leading neoconservative foreign policy experts had greatly exaggerated the Soviet military threat.

By means of public pressure groups like the Committee on the Present Danger and “Team B” — a group of neoconservative foreign policy experts including Paul Wolfowitz assigned by CIA Director George H.W. Bush to second-guess CIA analysts on the question of Soviet power — the neocons in the 1970s and early 1980s convinced much of the American public and the policymaking elite that the USSR was on the verge of world domination, not internal dissolution. Here is my fellow former 1980s hawk Fareed Zakaria, looking back in 2003:

In retrospect, Team B's conclusions were wildly off the mark. Describing the Soviet Union, in 1976, as having "a large and expanding Gross National Product," it predicted that it would modernize and expand its military at an awesome pace. For example, it predicted that the Backfire bomber "probably will be produced in substantial numbers, with perhaps 500 aircraft off the line by early 1984." In fact, the Soviets had 235 in 1984.

The reality was that even the CIA’s own estimates -- savaged as too low by Team B -- were, in retrospect, gross exaggerations. In 1989, the CIA published an internal review of its threat assessments from 1974 to 1986 and came to the conclusion that every year it had "substantially overestimated" the Soviet threat along all dimensions. For example, in 1975 the CIA forecast that within 10 years the Soviet Union would replace 90 percent of its long-range bombers and missiles. In fact, by 1985, the Soviet Union had been able to replace less than 60 percent of them.

A decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, many leading neocons — including members of the original “Team B” exercise such as Paul Wolfowitz — were at it again.  They created a new version of the Committee on the Present Danger, called the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Promoting “regime change” in Iraq, they capitalized on post-9/11 hysteria, claiming that there was credible evidence that Saddam Hussein might have weapons of mass destruction that might -- notice the train of “mights” -- be used somehow in the U.S. (I attended one event at which a neocon claimed that Saddam would soon have drones that could bomb the U.S. from Mesopotamia). After George W. Bush and his neoconservative appointees toppled Saddam and turned Iraq into an ungovernable chaos, it turned out that the Iraqi WMDs had never existed, outside of propaganda by neocons inside and outside of the Bush administration. The neocons had abused intelligence data to inflate the Iraqi threat in the same way that the neocons of Team B had done to inflate the Soviet threat.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. (Or, in George W. Bush’s version: There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.")

So before we rush to wage Cold War II on the basis of Russia’s limited territorial revanchism along its borders in Ukraine and Georgia, let’s look at the data to see whether Putin’s Russia is really the dire threat to European security and world peace and American interests that many are insisting that it is.

In July 1991, shortly before its dissolution, the Soviet Union had a population of more than 290 million people.  The U.S. at the time of the 1990 census had a population of 248 million.

Today’s Russian federation, deprived of the republics of Central Asia, the Baltics, Byelorus and Ukraine, has a population of 142 million, according to the CIA Factbook. Despite a recent uptick, at present Russian population growth is negative. Meanwhile, the U.S. today has more than 318 million people.

In 1991, the Soviet population was around 14 percent larger than that of the U.S.  Today, the U.S. population is about 66 percent larger than that of the Russian Federation.

What about the relative size and strength of Russia and the European Union? In some circles, there seems to be concern that a poor, weak European Union could be terrorized into submission by a looming Russian colossus. But that perception, too, is a relic of the Cold War.

In 1990, following the incorporation of former East Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany, the population of the European Union was 273 million — slightly smaller than that of the USSR of the time. By 2013, thanks to successive rounds of accession by new states, the EU had a population of nearly 507 million — dwarfing the 142 million of Russia even more than the U.S. does with its 318 million people.

The truth is that post-Soviet Russia is different in kind from the Soviet Union. The USSR was a superpower with a population and economy rivalling that of Western Europe and the U.S. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a second-tier regional power, roughly equivalent in its economic weight and military might with any one of the four other European powers: Germany, France, Britain and Italy (five great powers, if Turkey, a member of NATO and a candidate for accession to the EU, is counted as a European power).

Russia’s economy, amounting to 2.5 trillion dollars according to the purchasing power parity (PPP) standard, is significantly smaller than that of Germany at 3.27 trillion. The Russian economy is comparable to that of the UK (2.4 trillion) and France (2.3 trillion) and somewhat larger than the economy of Italy (1.8 trillion).

But the fact that Russia has an economy the same size as those of Britain or France with more than twice as many people means that the median Russian is much poorer. Russia’s per capita income is only $18,100 — higher than that of Turkey ($15,300) but much lower than the per capita income of Germany ($39,500), the UK ($37,300), France ($35,700) and Italy ($29,600).

It’s true that Russia has inherited the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal from the defunct Soviet Union. But unlike the Soviet Union, which spent 15 percent or more of its national budget on defense in its final years, Putin’s Russia spends about the same share of its GDP on defense that the U.S. does — between 4 and 5 percent. Both the U.S. and Russia spend more on the military than do the other major European powers, among which Britain (2.5 percent) and France (2.3 percent) spend the most.

Because today’s Russia is so much smaller than today’s U.S., similar defense spending as a percentage of GDP buys much less military for Russians than for Americans. The Russian military budget, estimated to be about $70 billion, is dwarfed by that of the combined EU countries ($236 billion) and the U.S. (more than $600 billion).

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2013 the U.S. accounted for 36.6 percent of global military spending. Russia accounted for a paltry 5 percent — slightly more than France (3.5 percent), Britain (3.3 percent) and Germany (2.8 percent). Even if the U.S. were to completely abandon its European allies, Russia’s European neighbors would have more than enough combined economic and military resources to thwart the Russian regime if it tried anything more than limited territorial revanchism, of the kind it has pursued in Crimea and Ukraine.

President Obama was right last March when he said, “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness. They don’t pose the No. 1 national security threat to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.” Because the likelihood that a nuclear bomb deployed by terrorists will destroy Manhattan is next to nil, the U.S. is more secure than it has been at any time since the second half of the nineteenth century, notwithstanding tensions with China and Russia and upheavals in the Middle East.

A second Cold War is possible — but if Russia were to play a role, it would probably be as a junior sidekick to China, in a reversal of the Soviet-Chinese communist alliance of World War I. For now, the next time that a neoconservative hawk claims that because of Putin’s dismemberment of Ukraine the world is facing the greatest crisis since 1939 or 1914 or the Fall of Rome or whatever, you should ask two questions: Why was Team B so wrong about the Soviet threat? And where are Saddam’s WM’s?

By Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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