IF you had been reading United States intelligence assessments for the past 35 years, you would have a hard time believing what you are seeing in the newspapers and on television about the aftermath of the earthquake in Armenia. What we are supposed to be seeing is the most elaborate, best organized and equipped civil defense system on earth - so elaborate that it might provide the Soviet Union with a major, perhaps decisive advantage in a nuclear conflict.
What we are seeing, in fact, is inefficiency on so vast a scale that any US state governor or federal official who presided over such chaos would have been lucky to escape lynching by now.
That is not to say that a catastrophe of this magnitude can be managed in any way neatly and without vast confusion, tragedy, and recriminations. But what we are seeing in Armenia exceeds that by a degree that is staggering in its implications.
Put aside for the moment the question of why, 60 years after Japan learned to build concrete and steel office buildings that could sustain severe tremors, the Soviets built high-rise apartment buildings in a known quake zone that collapsed with the first severe shock.
What is simply almost beyond belief is that a nation with hundreds of thousands of soldiers located close to the disaster area and equipped with modern motorized and engineering equipment could not have been deployed so as to clear roads, repair railways, build emergency landing fields, and rapidly evacuate the survivors, or at least get them under tents.
Six weeks before the earthquake a paper was presented at a US Air Force intelligence conference on Soviet affairs in Washington warning that internal Soviet mismanagement and reemergent nationalism may be a greater threat to world peace than the threat of calculated Soviet aggression as it has been portrayed for the past 40 years.
Citing the experience of German officers who had fought the Soviets in World War II, and such examples of Soviet ineptitude as the shooting down of a Korean airliner in 1983, it was posed that a Soviet leadership that saw carefully laid plans going awry and the fires of nationalism spreading throughout the realm could panic into a desperate international venture.
That view was denounced, indeed ridiculed, by a former Reagan administration National Security Council staff member. The Soviets are far too well organized and far too ruthless, he maintained, ever to let domestic affairs get so far out of control.
Yet the day before, Sallie Wise of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty had presented a paper on the domestic Soviet impact of the war in Afghanistan that raised doubts about the ability of the Kremlin ever again to control its own population to the extent that Stalin and his immediate successors did. If utter ruthlessness could not prevail in Afghanistan and was at least partially responsible, as Ms. Wise found, for turning even some of the Soviet political elite against the war, how ruthless can the Soviets be in dealing with their own dissident nationalities when hundreds of thousands of the sons of those nationalities wear Soviet uniforms?
Is that what Mikhail Gorbachev had in mind when he said of resurgent Armenian nationalism encountered in the earthquake zone that, ``This is the edge of the abyss. One more step and it's the abyss''?
The simplistic ``bean-counting'' of Soviet tanks and airplanes and the naive belief that everything the Soviets say in their military manuals represents capability has dominated US intelligence and military policy for too long. We need an overhaul of our own assessment process if we are to protect ourselves against a Soviet assessment process that could all-too-quickly degenerate into panic in the face of internal political catastrophe.