Journal of Cold War Studies 6.2 (2004) 99-101
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David Arbel and Ran Edelist, Western Intelligence and the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1980-1990: Ten Years That Did Not Shake the World.London: Frank Cass, 2003. 338 pp. $69.50.
This is a puzzling book, beginning with its title and subtitle. Even after reading the book, I cannot be sure what the title is intended to convey. Initially it cites the collapse of the Soviet Union, which occurred in 1991 not 1990. It implies that no world- shaking events occurred from 1980 to 1990, but by the end of 1990 the Cold War was [End Page 99] over. If the end of the Cold War was not a seismic event on the geopolitical map, it is difficult to imagine what political development could ever merit placement in that category.
So, what is it that did not happen? Apparently the only thing, according to the authors, is that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) failed to predict throughout the 1980s that the Soviet Union was in terminal decline, was no longer a threat, and was about to collapse. Yet, even if this is a valid assessment of U.S. intelligence analysis, it is absurd to imply that what actually happened did not.
One should not let an infelicitous title destroy a good book. If this volume were based on sound research and reasoned conclusions, it would be churlish to make too much of a confusing title. Unfortunately, despite the authors' compilation of quotations from numerous former officials, the book contains more questionable assumptions, omissions of key facts, distortions of evidence, and jumps of illogic than are excusable in a work of serious scholarship.
The most fundamental assumption the authors make is that the Soviet collapse was predictable from the early 1980s and that CIA analysts failed in their duty to make this clear to decision-makers. Such an assumption, however, is as dubious in logic as it is in fact. No one could have reliably predicted in the early or mid-1980s that the Soviet Union would collapse when and as it did. For one thing, no one, including Mikhail Gorbachev himself, could have predicted with certainty that he would make some of the decisions he did or what their effect on Soviet institutions and other Soviet leaders would be. If intelligence analysts had been sufficiently irresponsible to make such predictions, their forecasts would have become public knowledge and most likely would have forestalled or greatly altered the liberalization process in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was not so weak that it would have collapsed absent reforms that destroyed the power of the Communist Party.
The authors also err by their concentration on CIA analyses, implying that U.S. policymakers had no other source of information. This is far from the truth. Besides the flood of reports in "open sources" by journalists and scholars, senior officials had access to voluminous reporting from the U.S. embassy in Moscow and, as diplomatic ties broadened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, extensive direct contact not only with Soviet officials but also with leaders of the growing opposition, nationalist and otherwise. The embassy reported regularly and in detail on the economic problems, the burgeoning nationalist movements, and—most important—the weakening of Communist Party controls over the country. In June 1990, when I was still the U.S. ambassador, I sent a top-secret message to the president and secretary of state advising them to make contingency plans for a possible breakup of the Soviet Union. The CIA circulated this message, without negative comment, in its briefing package to other senior officials.
Why, then, did the CIA not predict the Soviet collapse, even when it was close at hand? There were very good reasons for avoiding a formal intelligence assessment with that prediction. If the analysis leaked, as it certainly would have, it could well have precipitated a crackdown in the Soviet Union that reversed...