BOOK REVIEW / Wise owls, dangerous asses: We all lost the Cold War - Richard Lebow & Janice Stein: Princeton, pounds 32.50

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AS THE Cold War recedes into the past, powerful beliefs both about why it never escalated into nuclear conflict, and how it ended, are beginning to set into concrete. One is the assumption that war was prevented because American 'resolve', as demonstrated most notably by President Kennedy in the missile crisis of 1963 and by Henry Kissinger in the Middle East crisis of 1973, forced an aggressive Soviet leadership to back down. Another is the conviction that the Soviet Union lost the struggle because the United States, by standing firm and cranking up the arms race while Ronald Reagan was President, forced the Soviet leadership to surrender by subjecting the Soviet economy to stresses it could not stand.

The orthodoxy, in other words, is that deterrence worked and the arms race defeated the Soviet Union. Hitherto there has been little dissent from those positions, apart from those 'revisionist' historians who merely turned the whole orthodoxy on its head. Influenced in most cases by their revulsion at US behaviour in the Vietnam War, they argued that a restrained and even peace-loving Soviet Union had deterred an aggressive America. Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein are not revisionists in that sense. They are far too sensible for emotional nonsense of that kind. Yet their work is quite as unorthodox, probably as shocking to the closed corporation of Cold War 'scholars' but much more surprising than that of the Chomskyans.

Lebow and Stein have analysed the two most acute origins of the Cold War: the Cuban missile crisis of 1963 and the 1973 confrontation provoked by the worldwide alert ordered by Kissinger in response to Brezhnev's threat to intervene in Egypt. They begin with two deceptive questions: Did the Soviet Union lose because of the strategies of the US? And what were the consequences for the US of those strategies? They deal summarily with the second quesiton, pointing out that the US paid a heavy price in national indebtedness, declining competitiveness and trade imbalances. As for the first question, Lebow and Stein argue that the strategies evoked precisely the kind of behaviour they were intended to prevent.

In the Cuban Missile crisis, they point out, Kennedy did not heroically face down the ugly bully Khrushchev - he actually bought the Soviet Union off by offering secret concessions: first, by promising not to invade Cuba, and second, although this was hotly denied even when that meant doctoring the record, sending his brother Robert Kennedy to do a deal with the Soviet ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, involving the withdrawal of American Jupiter missiles from Turkey. They threatened the Soviet Union in much the same way that Russian missiles in Cuba threatened the US.

Even less did the 1973 crisis demonstrate the virtues of 'resolve'. (In strategic jargon, by the way, this word appears to have replaced the good old word, 'resolution', rather as the cookery term, 'mix', is replacing 'mixture'.) The Middle East war of 1973 was started by Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian President, out of desperation. When the initial Arab successes were reversed by the Israeli forces, Moscow was desperate to defend its ally, Egypt, all the more so because Leonid Brezhnev and his advisers were aware that Egypt might already be slipping out of their orbit.

Henry Kissinger, they argue, wanted Israel to win a limited victory so as to assure a pivotal role for the US, meaning for himself, in the postwar process, which he wanted to use to expel Soviet influence from the Middle East.

Both sides miscalculated repeatedly, largely because of their paranoid fear of one another - even though by 1973 the detente process had already made some progress. Kissinger reacted in a paranoid manner to his perception that Brezhnev was about to airlift Soviet forces to intervene against Israel. Brezhnev responded in an equally paranoid way to his perception that Kissinger had double-crossed him by delaying putting pressure on Israel to end the war long enough for the Israeli army to encircle the Egyptian Third Army and prise open the road to Cairo.

Lebow and Stein conclude that, whether or not deliberate double- dealing was involved, there was 'a fundamental ambiguity in American' - read Kissinger's - 'strategy'. At the same time as the US warned Israel against destroying the Third Army, it 'tacitly acquiesced in its encirclement'. Interesting as their analyses of these two specific crises are, however, the real virtue of their book is that it turns upside down the self-serving conventional wisdom of the school of thought that would interpret the end of the Cold War as an endorsement of American policy.

The Cold War ended, they argue, not because nuclear deterrence worked, nor because the Reagan build-up (begun, as a matter of fact, by Jimmy Carter) worked, nor yet because of the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI, or 'Star Wars'). On the contrary, they say, the limited evidence argues the opposite. Gorbachev came to power with a sense of urgency about domestic reform and the imperative of reducing military expenditure. Reagan's commitment to SDI and his rhetoric about the 'evil empire' hindered Gorbachev in his resolution to end the Cold War, rather than motivating it.

There is, they point out, no evidence that Soviet defence expenditure either rose or fell in response to the level of American spending from Stalin's day until 1989. What bankrupted the Soviet economy was not American pressure, but the inherent incompetence of the command economy fastened on the Soviet Union by Stalin before the Cold War ever began. If anything, they conclude, 'the strategy of deterrence . . . prolonged the Cold War.' It is an arresting and to my mind a persuasive case, argued with admirable clarity and restraint. It deserves to be widely confronted. If it is accepted, appropriate consequences will have to be drawn.

Among them, surely, is the inescapable conclusion that many of those who have been accepted as the wise owls of the strategic woods were in reality dangerous asses.