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Brzezinski: 'America Lacks International Credibility'

Interviewee: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Counselor and Trustee, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 17, 2003

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Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, sharply attacks the Bush administration’s handling of foreign policy, asserting that despite its worldwide power, the United States lacks “international credibility” and U.S. standing in the world is at “an unprecedented low point.” Counselor and trustee for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., Brzezinski says what’s needed is “a return to a foreign policy based on moderation and derived from bipartisan consensus.” He also is scornful of the administration’s peace-making efforts in the Middle East, saying that, “in the name of fighting terrorism,” Washington has lent “totally one-sided support for the most repressive Israeli government.”

Brzezinski, the author of a forthcoming book, “The Choice,” was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 17, 2003.

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In a speech you gave in October, you said that “American power worldwide is at its historic zenith,” but that “American global political standing is at its nadir.” Why that contradiction?

It is self-evident. After the U.S. military success both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, the United States is the only power today with a military capability that is literally worldwide. There is no other country with such a credible capability. But at the same time, from every indication that we have— from public opinion polls, foreign government reactions, and from the reports of American journalists— today America lacks international credibility and the United States’ standing in the world, in the political sense, is at an unprecedented low point. The categorical assertions that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction destroyed the trust that others had in our word. That is a serious development which detracts from America’s world role.

You have made the point that the United States is very isolated. If you were asked by the Bush administration, what would you suggest to repair this problem?

There are several steps that would help to ameliorate what is clearly a very unfortunate development. The first and broadest would be a return to a foreign policy based on moderation and derived from bipartisan consensus. Moderation and bipartisan consensus go hand in hand. American foreign policy lately has been formed largely by a rather extremist orientation within the Republican Party itself, dominated by the outlook of Christian fundamentalists and the strategic views of the so-called neoconservatives. That does not provide the basis for serious bipartisanship.

Beyond that, we have to do a great deal to consult much more with foreign governments and not operate on the premise that if someone is not with us, he is automatically against us. That is a self-destructive approach which eliminates the possibility of consensus. Thirdly, I think we have to do a great deal to reactivate an intelligence service that can give us reliable information that would provide the basis for intelligent decision-making, not decision-making based on worst case scenarios. That in turn would mean that other governments, in particular friendly governments, will again rely on our judgments and assessments as the basis also for their own policies.

On the intelligence problem, you have had a lot of experience in your years in and out of government working with intelligence agencies. Why do you think the intelligence community is in such poor shape right now?

I can’t give you a detailed answer because I’m not a student, so to speak, of their internal bureaucratic dynamics, but I would hazard judgments. First, the nature of the threat has become quite different from what it used to be. It used to be highly focused, based on a totalitarian regime and expressed largely through science and technology-based acquisitions of military power.

You’re talking about Soviet missile threats and the like?

Yes. The CIA, as a consequence, over the years became increasingly effective in deciphering the nature and the dimensions of that threat. I think today we have a far more diversified, vague threat in which reliance on human intelligence is far more important than ever before. We simply have failed to develop the necessary clandestine service with the necessary clandestine culture of operations. And the second reason is political pressure, which I think clearly took place in the course of the last two years to provide support for the kind of highly alarmist assessments policy makers were making on their own regarding the nature and scale of the Iraqi threat.

Talking about Iraq, in your speech, you made the point that the United States should transfer sovereignty to Iraq as soon as possible. You said that “sovereignty is a word that is used often but it has really no specific meaning.” Now the Bush administration has said that essentially sovereignty will be given to the Iraqis by June of next year. Is that a step forward?

Yes, it certainly is a step forward. My concern is that it may be a little late in the sense that we will be less likely to get the credit that we would have gotten had we taken this step somewhat earlier. I remember participating in some very top level meetings in which the argument for that kind of initiative was being made by some outside advisers, including myself, and it was summarily dismissed.

What was the argument against it?

That it would dilute our control.

Now the administration looks like it is in a rush to exit Iraq as quickly as it can.

Well, there is a risk in that as well. It increases the incentive for the insurgency to persist until and beyond that deadline.

The administration says U.S. troops will remain in Iraq until the mission is over. Do you suspect this timing is related to the 2004 presidential elections?

I think perhaps the readers of this interview can make their own judgment on that.

You are a long-time Democrat, but you’ve also been a proponent of bipartisanship in foreign affairs. Are you planning to get involved with any Democratic candidate in particular?

First of all, let me say that I am a long-time Democrat who consistently supports the Democratic position on domestic affairs, but I am also of the view that in foreign affairs the president makes a lot of difference, and there have been occasions when I have actually voted for Republican candidates for the presidency. In other words, I do discriminate in the area of foreign policy, though I favor, as a general proposition, a bipartisan foreign policy. I do have a candidate toward whom I strongly lean, but I don’t want to give my public views the imprint of political opportunism by relating my views and my position to some candidate.

I speak out now because of very genuine concern for America’s role in the world. I think that role is being undermined by some recent policies and the way those policies are projected, the kind of language that is being used to explain it, the kind of narrow focus on one issue alone, namely terrorism as the central obsession of the United States in the world. These are dangerous tendencies.

Can you talk about that a bit? Are you concerned by what you call an obsession with the “war on terrorism?”

That’s correct. Terrorism cannot be isolated from its political, historical, and even social context. A lot of countries have dealt with terrorism over the last 150 years. In some cases, it has beset countries for years. What makes it more urgent now, of course, is the potential risk of terrorists becoming armed with increasingly destructive weapons. But that makes it all the more urgent that [terrorism] should be addressed intelligently and in a larger context. It should not be theologized about, dogmatized, and also certainly [not made] a focus of periodic waves of domestic panic.

Since Iraq is so intertwined with the politics of the Middle East, what is your view on the progress made or not made by the Bush administration on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian question?

First of all, you are absolutely right in emphasizing that the problems of the Middle East are conflated, and certainly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq are interactive. That’s absolutely a fundamental truth. I think the administration has essentially abandoned the notion of any serious effort on behalf of peace. In the name of fighting terrorism, it has provided totally one-sided support for the most repressive Israeli government, which is pursuing policies that are in direct head-on conflict with the policies, for instance, of what Yitzhak Rabin [the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1993] pursued. I think if he were alive today, Israel wouldn’t be as isolated and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wouldn’t be as mutually destructive as it has become in the last two or so years.

I think the vagueness of U.S. pronouncements unfortunately provides an umbrella for a very negative turn of events. My only silver lining is my sense that both the Israeli and Palestinian publics are getting to realize that they have to turn away from extremism. I hope the Geneva accords, worked out by unofficial Israeli and Palestinian public figures, which will be made public on December 1, will win so much international support that this will give some momentum to peace. I happen to think that the vast majority of the American Jewish community is liberal and broad-minded and once there is a meaningful alternative, I think it would begin to support a more sustained effort to make peace.

If that doesn’t happen, then I think the option of an eventual two-state solution is going to be lost within a year. The combination of the colonial settlements and the new wall will make a two-state solution increasingly unavailable.

The idea of a one-state solution seems to be gaining some traction among some Palestinians.

I don’t think it is a solution frankly. It’s a dire prospect in the sense that there may be no alternative. Pretty soon, the condition of the West Bank and Gaza under Sharon’s rule is going to be an absolute imitation of the apartheid of South Africa: [so-called] Bantustans for the Palestinians, colonial fortified settlements for the Israeli settlers, a wall cutting up the West Bank into little islands of poverty and resentment. It is a tragic prospect and that is why it deserves serious attention.

Of course, you must look back at the original Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978 when you were national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. There was so much enthusiasm at that point, with everyone thinking the Middle East was on the road to a permanent solution. It is kind of sad, isn’t it?

It is sad, and I think the United States, starting with us, the Carter administration, which was then in office, just didn’t pursue hard enough the issue of settlements. I’ve always felt that settlements would make the attainment of peace increasingly difficult, and of course, in the subsequent 25 years, the number of settlements has dramatically increased, and so has, therefore, the difficulty of finding some kind of peaceful solution.

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