Navigating U.S. Foreign Policy: An Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski

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Zbigniew Brzezinski served as National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. He is currently a Professor of American Foreign Policy at John Hopkins University and a counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. A frequent commentator on U.S. foreign policy, he is most recently the co-author of America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy.

RealClearWorld's Gregory Scoblete had a chance to interview Dr. Brzezinki. Below is the edited transcript.

RCW: What is your impression of the Obama administration's decision on missile defense in Eastern Europe?

Brzezinski: I think it was justified strategically and as far as I can judge, technologically. In that sense it was justifiable to make alterations. Moreover, it's important to reiterate from the U.S. view, it was directed at Iran and nobody else.

What was lacking was a certain sensitivity in the manner it was communicated. It was rather abrupt and [communicated via] late night phone calls. There was also an indifference to the symbolism of certain historic dates - Sept. 17 as far as the Poles are concerned.

RCW: The administration is claiming that it made the decision based on updated intelligence about Iran's capabilities, but there's also the subtext of their "reset" with Russia. Is it wise to link issues in this fashion?

Brzezinski: In fairness to the administration, it was not linking the two publicly. Obviously, some indirect linkages do exist. But the administration was certainly not stressing them. The Eastern Europeans invested too many of their hopes in the notion that somehow or other the missile shield, even if directed at Iran, would reinforce their security links with the U.S. vis-à-vis Russia.

RCW: You wrote in 2008 that "a successful approach to Iran has to accommodate its security interests and ours." Couldn't the same thing be said about Russia? Critics claim that we pushed them too hard with NATO expansion.

Brzezinski: We didn't really push them. Once the bloc collapsed, what I call ‘historical spontaneity' prevailed and the countries that were subject to Soviet control naturally gravitated to the West. That's where they sought their security; I don't think there was a way to avoid that. If we tried to exclude them, we would have today not one Europe, we would have three Europes: one in the West, one in the middle and one in the East, and the middle would be insecure and a tempting target. The insecurity felt [today] by Eastern Europe would be replicated on a much larger and more consequential scale.

RCW: On Iran, you've gone on record warning of the consequences of a U.S. military strike. But what about Israel? Do you think it's likely they'll take military action, and what would the consequences be if they did?

Brzezinski: The consequences in either case would be similar. Whether done by us or the Israelis, the Iranians will inevitably view us as complicit or perhaps even the instigators, [and] in any case the most likely target of retaliation is us. The Israelis have taken a lot of security measures which reduce significantly the ability of Iran to inflict truly severe pain in Israel. But we're vulnerable with 100,000 troops in Iraq and more than half of that in Afghanistan, and we depend heavily on access to Middle Eastern oil. We're sitting targets for debilitating Iranian retaliation.

RCW: On Afghanistan, you recently warned that the U.S. faces a Soviet style debacle if we're not careful. General Stanley McChrystal has just called for more troops. Is this the way to avoid such a debacle, or will it only get us in deeper?

Brzezinski: It's perfectly natural to desire more troops when engaged in a military operation facing serious obstacles, and the more troops you have, probably, the [lower the] risk of causalities. So I certainly don't fault the General for wanting more troops. Whether we have a strategy that points in the direction of a politically acceptable outcome rather than a straightforward military victory, we don't know.

RCW: In your book Second Chance, you graded three post-Cold War presidents. It's early still, but what marks would you give the current president?

Brzezinski: We do not issue marks this early. I would say [President Obama is] off to a very good start, but it's obviously too early to know.

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