Monthly Archives: May 2021

Richard Perle

Much of my early career at the State Department was spent dealing with Richard Perle’s office at the Pentagon on nonproliferation and technology transfer issues.  Perle was Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs under President Reagan. 

Perle’s political career started with a job as a staffer for Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington.  Perle was one of several Jewish staffers for Jackson who went on to have long, influential careers in Washington, including Paul Wolfowitz, Eliot Abrams, William Kristol, and perhaps others.  Their most notable accomplishment was their work on the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which eventually enabled hundreds of thousands of Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel and the United States. 

He is most famous as the reputed leader of the advisers who persuaded President Reagan not to agree at the summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to eliminate all nuclear weapons in the US and the Soviet Union.  However, some claim that Perle’s role is an urban myth, and that Reagan would not have agreed in any case. 

The two issues on which I clashed most frequently with Perle and his staff were missile proliferation and the COCOM regime which controlled exports to the Soviet Union.  Perle was a hawk on both of these issues; he wanted an agreement that allowed zero missile proliferation, and wanted the allies to approve zero high tech exports to the Soviet Union.  These issues came together because they both involved very specific lists of hardware and technology that could not be exported. 

My connection to the issues was supplying intelligence on potentially damaging high tech exports by other countries and by American firms involved in illegal transactions.  My first introduction to Perle was when he tried to end the US participation in IIASA.  IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) still exists, but was much more controversial in the 1970s because it served as a meeting place between Soviet and American scientists in Austria.  Perle was concerned that technology was leaking to the Soviets.  I first heard of it because the Secretary of State’s science adviser came down from the seventh floor to ask me to help him research IIASA and hopefully defend continued American participation in it.  Since IIASA still exists, Perle lost, but I presume he restricted US participation while he was focused on it. 

COCOM stood for Coordinating Committee, a group of export control experts who met periodically in Paris to coordinate guidelines for exports to the Soviet Union.  For me, the main intelligence focus was on whether a member was exporting something on the controlled list.  Perle would have sold nothing to the Soviets, but American businesses were interested in selling, as were companies in other countries that were members of the committee.  There were a lot o gray areas about whether something was covered or not, and how restrictive should the controls be.  Should they cover all computers, even small, personal ones, or only big, powerful ones?  There was a lot of argument about sophisticated, numerically controlled machine tools.  What tolerances should be allowed? 

My main interaction with Perle’s office was regarding missile proliferation.  President Jimmy Carter’s adminsitration had been working on a treaty that would apply to missiles the same kind of limits that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) applied nuclear weapons.  When Carter was defeated, the Reagan administration picked up the idea and pursued it.  A big problem was that the NPT was in deep disfavor among the nations that we most wanted to join it, potential proliferators like India, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, North Korea, Israel.  They saw the NPT as highly discriminatory, allowing nations that already had nuclear weapons to keep them, while preventing non-nuclear states from getting them.  This perception of unfair treatment of the haves versus the have-nots carried over into the issue of missile proliferation.  Other friendly, developed countries like the G-7 were reluctant to try to push a new, similar treaty down the throats of the developing countries.  Gradually the idea of an arms control treaty evolved into a suppliers’ agreement not to sell missile hardware and technology to problem countries.  Perle and his office wanted the absolute maximum controls, while American businesses and other countries wanted to be about to sell items that were less sensitive.  Arguments over lists went on endlessly. 

The head of the COCOM office in the State Department was Bill Root, who had been doing export control for years.  Before Richard Perle arrived on the scene, his office was probably somewhat of a backwater, routinely working with the military, American businesses and other interested parties on what should be controlled.  When Perle arrived, his office was suddenly front and center.  Perle’s intransigence led to many disputes with our allies in Paris, who wanted a less restrictive regime. 

Because I was working on developing lists of controlled items for the missile proliferation agreement, I sometimes worked with Bill Root and his office because they had similar lists for COCOM.  The specifications in the COCOM list were a good model for the missile list, so that they would be understandable by businesses who wanted to know what they could sell.  One day while Bill Root was helping me with the lists, he got an urgent call.  It turned out to be Richard Perle.  I left so that he could take the call.  When I came back later that afternoon, his office told me that he had retired from the State Department and left. 

Covid Was Not a War

The Covid pandemic was often compared by news media to a war. The war analogy has been used to justify the huge expenditures and budget deficits associated with the response to Covid.  However, Covid was not like a war.  Wars kill young people in the prime of life; Covid killed unproductive old people a few years before they would have died anyway.  Covid took much less of a toll on the economy than a war involving the same number of people would have.  You could even argue that Covid was a net plus because it reduced the amount that would have been expended to care for old people in nursing homes and other care situations.  There was a corresponding increase in medical payments for end-of-life treatment in hospitals by doctors and nurses.  But overall, the effect of Covid was much less than a war would have caused. 

The only corresponding increase in deficits and debt has been those incurred during World War II. In World War II, people made many sacrifices to support the country. Food and gasoline were rationed. People bought war bonds to finance the war.  Neither the Trump nor the Biden administration has asked Americans to sacrifice anything for the war on Covid.  Instead, the government has handed out more and more benefits, such as the $9,000 FEMA payment for funerals of people who died from Covid.  Medicare and Medicaid paid many of the Covid medical expenses.  In short, it was almost the reverse of World War II; instead of the people helping the government fight Germany and Japan, the government helped people fight Covid. 

The Treasury and Federal Reserve expended trillions of dollars to make sure than no one suffered economic hardship as a result of Covid.  In retrospect, they may have done too much because Covid was not as damaging as people thought it would be.  Information technology kept many businesses going.  The main losers were restaurants and in-person retail stores, but many retail stores successfully converted to on-line sales.  There were dislocations, but certainly not a depression, or even a recession.  It was pretty much business as usual but carried out in different ways.  At first, people thought the housing market would collapse because people would be afraid to show homes for sale or to visit them.  Instead, the housing market turned white hot, with sales and prices going through the roof, in part spurred by interest-free money made available by the Fed.  The stock market has also gone through the roof after the initial losses around March 2020 when the pandemic first began to hit the population.  Many investors make huge profits in the markets.  Again, people expected the devastation to be much worse than it was.  Many people died, but not so many productive people.  Service and travel industries were hit hard, but others not so much.  Gains in information technology largely made up for losses in the service industries, like restaurants and airlines.  Even many restaurants adapted by converting to take-out. 

After the initial losses in early and mid-2020, the US economy came though fairly well, with relatively few sacrifices required of the American people, except a request to wear masks.  It’s ironic that the supposedly patriotic Republicans were the most vocal resisters to the few sacrifices that the government requested, wear a mask and get vaccinated. 

While there are still questions about how Covid started in China, it looks like as soon as the government became aware of it, it cracked down strongly.  The epidemic stated just as the 2019 Chinese New Year would normally have created the biggest travel days of the year, but the government stopped or postponed it.  As a result, China came though the epidemic much better than the US did and in a much shorter time.  This has benefitted the Chinese economy significantly vis-à-vis the US economy. 

Although the US came through the pandemic much better than I initially expected, I remain worried about what comes next. The Fed and the Treasury have made sure that no one suffered terribly from it, but there may be a cost in out years.  There are now huge government debts that must be repaid somehow someday, and it looks like there will be further budget deficits into the foreseeable future.  One way to escape debts is inflation; if money is worth less, the debt is easer to pay off, because you are paying cheaper dollars.  This inflationary pressure is in addition to more normal wage and price inflation caused too much money in circulation, thanks to the largess of the Fed and the Treasury.  If US inflation increases significantly, it will undercut the world’s use of the dollar as the international currency, perhaps replaced by China’s currency if it becomes the world’s leading economy.  Cryptocurrencies will further complicate the situation, if not bitcoin, perhaps cyber currencies backed by national governments. 

The US dollar because the world’s currency partly because of World War II.  The US was much less affected than the other belligerent countries.  The Marshall Plan revived western Europe, and benign occupation of Japan and Germany allowed them to recover.  Meanwhile the US had suffered fewer casualties than many of the other warring countries, hundreds of thousands, rather than millions (Soviet Union, China, Japan, Germany).  The US became the factory and the banker for the world.  There is a possibility that the pandemic will do the same for China.  China may not be as generous following the pandemic as the US was following World War II. 

Nuclear Power and the Environment

If environmentalists were serious, they would embrace nuclear energy.  It has downsides, but it does not contribute to global warming.  Environmentalists oppose nuclear energy on political grounds, not scientific ones.  Wind and solar energy are becoming more productive and reliable, but they still cannot supply the base load for electrical power.  They are too dependent on the vagaries of the weather. 

Nuclear power cannot be made 100% safe, no power system can, but it can probably be 99.9% safe, and if well designed the 0.1% failures can be managed without great loss of life, while global warming could destroy a substantial portion of the world’s population through rising sea levels, crop failures, fierce storms and so on. 

Part of the new infrastructure plan could finance more research on safer reactor designs, and construction of new reactors because new nuclear power stations are needed sooner, rather than later.  New nuclear power reactors will be expensive and take a long time to build, so we need to get started sooner, rather than later.