Against the Neocons

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national-security adviser and the author, most recently, of The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership, spoke with Michael Tomasky on January 31 about the Iraqi elections and plausible alternatives to neoconservatism.

MICHAEL TOMASKY: Will the Iraqi elections validate the neoconservative view?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I don't think it's going to be validated in the sense that it will demonstrate the proposition that democracy can be spread through force. I think what we will get from it is an arrangement that will be quite short of anything like, for example, what we have seen recently in the Ukraine, but will still be tolerable -- namely, a more complicated semi-confederal structure in Iraq with Shiite predominance (in effect rather theocratic), and some limited, partial accommodation between the dominant Shiites and the resentful Sunnis. That is not a democracy in my understanding of the word, but it is an improvement over what we have been seeing.

    Consolidation in turn is more likely to happen if we disengage sooner rather than later. Therefore, a great deal depends on whether the neocons who engineered the war against Iraq will be overruled by the realists in the Bush administration.

MT: You mentioned a relatively quick withdrawal. But I have read that [Iraqi Prime Minister] Iyad Allawi made a deal that any party that could plausibly win the election would not make that demand.

ZB: I think that once politics becomes the dominant reality of Iraq and the elections facilitate that, there will be pressures on individual Iraqi politicians to say that “we are authentically patriotic and nationalist,” and that “we would like the foreign invaders to leave.” To thank them nicely for their role, but say to them that “your role as occupiers is no longer necessary.”

MT: What does all this leave internationalists and realists to say about the world?

ZB: It leaves the realists still with the reality of other practical problems for which neoconservative solutions have been discredited. One would have to be close to insane to say that our experience in Iraq has been an unqualified success. If the Iraqis are smart enough to ask us to leave, and if we are smart enough actually to leave, the fact remains that the Iraq operation has gravely undermined American global credibility. It has even more seriously compromised us morally. It has shown the limits of our warfare capability for dealing with political conflict. It has cost tens of billions of dollars more than originally estimated. And it would take a very naive president to again succumb to the same people who first demagogued about the need to go to war, who vastly exaggerated the welcome we would receive, who mismanaged the political dimensions of the war.

MT: You wrote in The Choice that the war on terrorism is a mistake. It's been bruited recently by some that we should think of the war on terrorism and the post–September 11 period as analogous to the 1947–48 period when the Cold War started. Do you think that's a reasonable framework to think about terrorism, or is it not?

ZB: Terrorism to me is a symptom of a much deeper problem we confront. We live in a world that has become, and is becoming, politically awakened on an unprecedented scale. This is an altogether new reality. It creates turmoil, conflict, and animosity, and it is often expressed by terrorism. Our own involvement, particularly in the Middle East, has turned some of that terrorism more directly against us. But terrorism doesn't define the totality of the problem.

     So, in my view, we are not in a phase of a global struggle against terrorism. That formulation, in my view, tends to unite our enemies and divide our friends, instead of uniting our friends and dividing our enemies. It makes it more difficult for us to encourage the moderate Arabs, and it increasingly pits us against all of Islam. And, most importantly of all, it is not responsive to the reality of billions of people for the first time in the history of mankind becoming politically activated.

MT: Let's say John Kerry had been elected president and brought you back into the National Security Agency. What would you have done?

ZB: I would have addressed on a broader front immediately the three major issues we confront in the Middle East, because it is out of the Middle East that the terrorist threat is directed against us. And those three are the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the need for a more credible and predictable disentanglement from Iraq, and normalization of relations with Iran -- all as the beginning of the process.

     And secondly, a more energetic re-engagement with the Europeans and the Japanese as the richest parts of mankind in trying to deal with the problems of the politically awakened populace, which is obviously resentful of the inequities which it now perceives very sharply because of mass communications, and is beginning to be politically assertive and needs to be engaged with responses that, in some fashion, truly begin to address some of the resentments and the problems. That is not an agenda which could be resolved in one year or even four years, but it is an agenda that could focus us on dealing with the political and even moral dilemmas of the inequalities in the human condition.

MT: So what would be some politically feasible, specific steps the United States could take toward ameliorating the effects of globalization in the poorer countries?

ZB: I think much more willingness to give privileges to some of the less-developed countries in terms of economic arrangements and more emphasis on humane treatment of workers in these countries. Essentially, not using globalization as an opportunity for pressing marginal advantages, but using it as part of a global social policy that tries to deal with problems that are increasingly self-evident to many people in the world and which intensify the social ferment that the new political consciousness stimulates.

MT: And how could American public opinion be marshaled to support such measures?

ZB: By leadership which doesn't rely so much on propagating fear of the outside world, particularly a fear that can be presented in almost satanic terms, but appeals to the good side of the American tradition and exploits the demonstrable preference of the American people for multilateral solutions. To translate that into programs, public opinion has to be led, and the challenge has to be articulated.

MT: Do you think John Kerry did a good job in the campaign of articulating that alternative and saying things that would appeal to that better side of Americans?

ZB: I think that [George W.] Bush was beatable, but his liabilities were not sufficiently, forcefully, clearly, and repetitively exploited. At the very least he misled the American people by demagoguery. At the worst, he lied. He wasn't pressed on that issue. The conduct of the war, particularly events such as Guantanamo [Bay] and Abu Ghraib, discredited the moral aspect of the war. Who set the tone and who started the process? That issue wasn't pressed. These were the kinds of issues regarding which there was not a sustained, repetitive, clearly focused attack.

MT: More broadly than Kerry, about the Democrats: Is the Democratic Party today articulating a forceful and plausible foreign-policy alternative?

ZB: I think since 9-11, the Democratic leadership has been in disarray and essentially following the president's lead, with some of its top figures actually acting as cheerleaders for the president's demagogically defined war. I still have pictures in my own mind of a couple of them appearing in the Rose Garden with him, literally cheering while he was demagoguing. I think that made it much more difficult for the Democratic Party to challenge the fundamental premises of the strategy the United States adopted after 9-11 -- which, in the course of a single year, was transformed into a neocon crusade.

MT: A lot of what you talk about certainly won't happen for the next four years. How much harder will it be after four more years?

ZB: I think in some respects, though for America's sake I hope I'm proven wrong, it may be easier. Because if the president sticks with the neocon line and there is no course correction, our credibility will be even lower, we'll be even more isolated, and we'll probably be more vulnerable to terrorist attacks motivated by intensified hatred. At some point the public will begin to make a connection between such policies and our vulnerability.

     I think the real problem is that an enlightened foreign policy -- which respects the necessity of American leadership, which knows that it has to be based on power first of all but which also recognizes that legitimacy and moral support are necessary ingredients -- is more difficult to reduce to a single slogan than a policy derived from fear.

     Since I am basically an optimist, and I believe in the fundamental common sense of this country and don't want to succumb to pessimism, I still believe it is possible there will be a course correction, in part because we will be forced into it. And if the Europeans speak with a single voice and encourage us to be more active in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and if we are able to engage the Iranians in a protracted dialogue on security issues which allows us to mitigate the problems inherent in their nuclear program, then I think we could have a situation that is less pregnant with potentially dire consequences.

MT: Why normalize relations with Iran?

ZB: Iran is a serious, historically defined country with a significant history and a sense of its own worth. It is not an artificial state. It can be a factor of stability in the region. I would prefer a moderate Iran with nuclear weapons to a violently hostile Iran making every effort surreptitiously to acquire nuclear weapons in reaction to some military intervention by the United States, because I think the consequences of the latter would be far more dangerous than the effects of the former.
Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Propsect.