Zbigniew Brzezinski, the quick-witted national security adviser who served under President Jimmy Carter, died on Friday at the age of 89. One thing Brzezinski never lacked was strong opinions. In this interview, on the eve of George w. Bush’s exit from the White House, I spoke with him about the Bush legacy, America’s relationship with the world, and why he was voting for Obama.
Mother Jones: What would you consider the Bush administration’s most notable failures?
Zbigniew Brzezinski: There are two that stand out. One is the totally self-destructive war in Iraq, which has greatly undermined American global standing, and, even worse, America’s global influence. It will take a long time to undo that. Second, the economy, which has now not only damaged the livelihood of thousands of Americans, but is also damaging national self-confidence. The combination of the two is a pitiful record.
MJ: What part of that legacy will be the easiest to fix?
ZB: The symbolic perception of America, because if a new president personalizes a rather different concept of America and a different sense of America’s mission in the world than has been the case with president George W. Bush, then that almost automatically will help to improve America’s global image. But the tangibles involving the war and the economy are not going to be easy to fix.
MJ: Is any of it irreparable?
ZB: That’s really hard to say. It certainly would be possible for America to redefine its role in the world, especially if, in the short run, America is able to cope effectively with the ongoing dilemma in the Middle East.
MJ: So what about the war on terror at home? How do we back away?
ZB: By becoming more rational. We are waging a war on terror, but we’ve been very fortunate in not having any act of terrorism committed against the United States since 9/11. It’s partially luck, partially the consequence of America’s semi-isolation, and partially the consequence, perhaps, of some reasonably good intelligence and counterintelligence work.
But very little of that is due to the consequences of the self-generated atmosphere of fear in this country, which has produced some ludicrous reactions, many of which have no bearing at all on either deterring or preventing terrorism. In Washington, DC, you can’t even go into a regular business building without some pretentiously uniformed people with labels on their shoulders indicating they’re security guards checking your ID occasionally, and asking the purpose of the visit in a manner—and sometimes tone—which indicates a rather phlegmatic attitude toward their responsibilities. And if you were to indicate that you were in the building for the purpose of blowing it up, chances are they would say, “The suite 908 is on the ninth floor, elevators are to the right.” We have a situation that some obscure law firm in a building is protected, but the main department stores, music halls, Kennedy Center, department stores, cafeterias, and restaurants are unprotected. What is the logic of this?
MJ: What should the next president do first to start undoing the damage of the Bush administration?
ZB: Obviously you got to strive energetically to terminate the war in Iraq; set negotiations with Iran on a reasonable course, with a sense of confidence and appreciation for the fact that deterrence has worked in the past, and there’s no reason to assume it wouldn’t work with Iran; and last, but not least, engage America more actively in pursuit of a reconciliation between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
MJ: What do you make of the idea that engaging Iran would legitimize Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
ZB: It’s an absurdity that people mindlessly repeat. Were we legitimized when we talked to Stalin? To Mao Zedong? The legitimacy of the leadership depends on what that country thinks of its leaders. When we lay off, more and more Iranians tend to be critical of Ahmadinejad. The more abusive we are and the more pressure we put on them, the more nationalism fuses with fundamentalism in Iran.
MJ: How else is Bush’s Iran position flawed?
ZB: We have adopted a policy of sanctions, abuse, and threats while demanding that, in order to negotiate with us, Iran has to concede in advance the principle issue at stake, namely its right to enrich. Is that a serious position or a proscription?
MJ: Do you think Iran will get nuclear weapons?
ZB: Almost certainly, if we continue the current policy. The alternative, then, is a larger war in the Persian Gulf with calamitous consequences for the United States, in the region and in the world.
MJ: Under what circumstances might Iran be willing to forsake nuclear weapons?
ZB: Only if it feels secure and benefits—serious benefits—economically in doing it.
MJ: If we engage Iran and those talks don’t work, where do we go next?
ZB: If they don’t work, but in the process the tensions are somewhat reduced, and yet Iran continues to seek nuclear weapons, then we rely on nuclear deterrence as we did with China and the Soviet Union. And, for that matter, with North Korea, Pakistan, and India.
MJ: We talked to you last October about Iraq. Has your take changed since then?
ZB: The people who perpetrated this calamity argue that we cannot disengage when things are going badly. And if things improve, for example, because of the surge, the argument is we shouldn’t disengage because things are getting better.
MJ: At that time you had serious concerns this administration would try to provoke us into a conflict with Iran prior to the election. Still feel that way?
ZB: I think there’s a risk that the administration will try to heat up the atmosphere so that there is a sense of urgency, crisis, and even fear in the country. Because some people might calculate that would then give McCain an advantage.
MJ: How do you think having a black president, on its face, would affect global perceptions of America?
ZB: I think it would demonstrate that when we talk about truly pluralistic, tolerant, multiethnic global America, it’s not just verbiage and PR.
MJ: What’s your arrangement with Obama?
ZB: I have no arrangement. I am his supporter. I told him last September, before I was to introduce him to an Iowa audience for a major speech on Iraq, that I did not want to be listed as an adviser or as a member of any of his task forces because I am actively engaged in very public discussions regarding American foreign policy and I don’t want to have to start thinking as to what I should and should not say because it would possibly impact his campaign.
MJ: Does that make you too controversial for a role in his administration?
ZB: The fact that I’ve had roles in previous administrations probably eliminates that likelihood. Because every new president wants to have new people.
MJ: Would you consider it?
ZB: There’s no point considering something which is very unrealistic.
MJ: Let’s change gears, then. What can the next president learn from the Bush years about leadership dos and don’ts?
ZB: The basic lesson is that you don’t demagogue the American people because that backfires. Second, you have to inform and educate the American people if you want to have sustained support for foreign policy, and you have to be very careful not to mislead them because you lose their support eventually. And third, you have to be prepared to redefine America’s role, because the notion that America is powerful enough to dictate to the world has been discredited by the last eight years.
MJ: Can Obama do that?
ZB: He has a better chance than any other candidate. Do you think Nader has a better chance?
MJ: You’ve advised McCain in the past. Why do you favor Obama for president?
ZB: Because I sense in him an instinctive and cerebral understanding of what the world is about today, and how America should redefine itself in relationship to that world so that it is truly a genuinely constructive force, and that it inspires the world. That may sound grandiose, but I think the choice is either that or increased isolation, becoming a kind of gated global community, with the world gradually sliding into more and more chaotic conditions.
MJ: It does sound grandiose, and also very difficult, because even if the next president steps up, he’ll have the Pentagon’s momentum to contend with.
ZB: It’s going to be incredibly difficult. It will require a lot of statesmanship and, above all else, the ability to educate and mobilize the American people.
MJ: Speaking of statesmanship, how would you assess diplomacy under Bush?
ZB: It’s essentially nonexistent. I mean, look at the total failure of the efforts to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
MJ: What about the state of our military abroad? We have a huge overseas footprint—nearly 800 bases around the world. We’re the only country that does this. Do you think that’s necessary or wise?
ZB: It might be useful for the next president to take a broad look at the scale and thrust of our defense efforts. There’s something troubling about a condition in which one country alone, which has roughly 5 percent of the world’s population, spends more than 50 percent of the world’s defense budgets. There’s something weird about it. Maybe it’s inherent in the role we have to play in the world—that we have to have a very, very large defense budget. But one just has to wonder whether that’s really necessary. I have been struck by the pervasive frequency of pompously patriotic ads for the defense industry, usually accompanied by deferential salutations to our men and women who are heroically sacrificing their lives in our defense. Do we really need all of that for our security?
MJ: Regarding Iraq, we’ve built a number of what can only be called permanent bases.
ZB: Permanent bases can become impermanent.
MJ: Do you think that’s the plan?
ZB: That’s not the plan, but the fact that we build something doesn’t mean that we have to sit in it forever. I think if the Democrats win we’re not going to be sitting in permanent bases in Iraq in a scale and in a fashion that Bush is currently, maybe, designing. If he signs some agreement with Maliki, do you think the Democratic Congress is going to endorse it?
MJ: We’ll see.
ZB: I think we know.
MJ: What do you think might happen if we were to start eliminating our military footprint?
ZB: I wouldn’t eliminate our global footprint. There are a number of places in the world where it’s in our interest to be present, and where we’re welcome. The question is, do we need to be all over the world on the scale that we are now reaching, and do we need to spend as much as we’re spending on defense? Especially if you look at some other aspects of American society—the decaying character of our infrastructure, the increasingly primitive railroad system that we have, the overburdened air services that we have, etcetera. And if we add to it the potential consequences of the misguided policy with Iran, then before too long we’ll be thinking of the $4-a-gallon price as being a bargain. Because we’ll be paying $10 per gallon.