Brzezinski Assesses Obama's Foreign Policy

President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize has sparked conversation about the his foreign policy aspirations and achievements. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski appraises Obama's first year in the foreign policy arena.

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NEAL CONAN, Host:

And now, the Opinion Page.

Last week, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama noted that he is at the beginning rather than the end of his service to the world, and acknowledged that his achievements do not measure up to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

B: peace in the Middle East, Iran's nuclear ambitions and the war in Afghanistan.

TALK OF THE NATION: talk@npr.org. And you could join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Zbigniew Brzezinski joins us now on the phone from his office here in Washington. Nice to have you back in the program.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It's nice to be back with you.

CONAN: And you do give the president credit for what you describe as a comprehensive reconceptualization of U.S. foreign policy. What's he done? How has he reframed things?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, basically he has recast the way America should approach the world. And I think in doing so, he has also helped enormously to improve America's standing in the world. He, in effect, does re-committed America to collective security and not to unilateral actions. He hasn't disowned the necessity of war sometimes, but he has made it very clear that America should avoid pursuing single, solitary wars without international support.

He has urged a process of reconciliation with the Islamic world. He has articulated the need for greater commitment to the achievement of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He has committed the United States to an effort to find, if possible, a peaceful solution to the challenge posed by Iran. I could go on and on and on, but basically, all of that cumulatively meant that American foreign policy, was in some fashion, re-linked to the fundamental dynamics of the 21st century.

CONAN: Well, let's take those three great challenges you mentioned, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Iran. And start with the Middle East, doesn't the president - he's demonstrated a commitment and he's certainly donated the time of George Mitchell as special envoy, and now Secretary of State Clinton has gotten involved, as well. Nevertheless, partners there seem to be in short supply.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, that's quite true, and that's been a fact for a long time. And this is why there hasn't been real progress towards peace. Since the days of almost 30 years ago. of Camp David I. And the reason is a very simple one and one that the president has to face, namely: that left to themselves, for different reasons, neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can take decisive steps towards peace.

The Palestinians, the bottom line is, they're too divided and it's too weak. The Israelis, the bottom line is they're too strong and also divided. So neither side has any incentive to make the initial concession. It takes, really, active involvement by the United States and within the United States by the president himself to push the peace process forward.

Clinton came close to achieving it, but then he had to leave office and that was that. Obama has to try if he doesn't want things to get worse. Because they get worse, not only our interest in the region will be in great jeopardy, the Palestinians will suffer more, and Israelis in the long run would be profoundly threatened. So there are good reasons for doing more.

CONAN: The president does not seem to have - the one thing the Israelis do seem to be united on is they don't like Barack Obama.

BRZEZINSKI: Yes, although that's been, you know, exaggerated. I have seen citations to the fact that only four percent like Obama. I have read, just yesterday, much more detailed public opinion polls, and these have now been reported in the American media and also in the Israeli media. And he has the support of about 40 percent of the Israelis. That's not a majority, but it's certainly is hell of a lot more than just four percent.

CONAN: Four percent, which was the previous number we got. Our guest, of course, you recognize the voice, is Zbigniew Brzezinski, councilor for strategic and international studies, professor of American foreign policy at the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and his current article on foreign affairs, "From Hope to Audacity Appraising Obama's Foreign Policy;" 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

Charlotte's(ph) on the line from Cedar Rapids.

CHARLOTTE: Yeah. Hi. Thank you very much for taking my call. Dr. Brzezinski, I know you are a big fan of Obama, but I would like you to comment objectively on the view that he should have declined the peace prize since it is a peace prize and he really is doing the opposite quite a bit. Thank you.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, I would take issue with you. I do feel that he hasn't yet - and I have been cited on this already on the program - made any real strategic breakthroughs. But redirecting the foreign policy of a great country, re-identifying it with certain broad issues that are of global concern, whether it's strategic, such as the Middle East, or human survival type issues, such as climate control, these are very major accomplishments. So I think he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for that. The war in Afghanistan...

CHARLOTTE: It's a peace prize.

BRZEZINSKI: ...is something that was...

CHARLOTTE: He's a war leader. He's a warrior.

BRZEZINSKI: Yeah. Well, he's a leader, a war leader because he inherited the war. The question is how to end that war.

CHARLOTTE: He's escalating it, sir. He's escalating it.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, if you will let me answer - I'm trying to answer. And the question is how to end that war so that everyone will not be in greater jeopardy. That is the issue. After all, we didn't go in that war because we wanted to be in Afghanistan, but in reaction to the fact that al-Qaida operated from there. And he has tried to narrow the objective down to al-Qaida. And otherwise, he has emphasized that the Afghans have to more or less handle the problems on their own. And I think that's reasonable. It's not perfect, but we don't live in a perfect world.

CONAN: And he also does not see Afghanistan simply as Afghanistan but as the great enormous influence of the country next door in Pakistan which...

BRZEZINSKI: Exactly. I mean, I could go on and on, but I wanted to answer the lady...

CONAN: Yes.

BRZEZINSKI: ...briefly, because I know that you have quite a few other things you want to talk about.

CONAN: Sure. And let's see if we can get Jeff(ph) to talk about some of them. Jeff is talking - calling us from Portland.

JEFF: Hello and thank you. What a privilege. I wondered Dr. Brzezinski, now, as we know that China wants the oil that could come from Russia through a pipeline through Afghanistan, as we know that Iran wants to build nuclear energy generation sites, as we know that Afghanistan has a lot of opium poppies, what are the chances that we could work with China, with Russia, with Iran to provide electrification and modernization in western and southern Afghanistan? And what are the chances we can work with pharmaceutical companies around the planet to make a market for the opium in Afghanistan for palliative care among the developing - of the developed world where people are dying in pain? And I'm interested in your response to this possible answer, to issues of Afghanistan including modernization, electrification and an actual market for the opium and working with China, with Russia and with India. Thank you.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, do I have the next five hours?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRZEZINSKI: Because it would take that much time to really answer your fully - you have quite an agenda there. I think the chances are a mix, to be perfectly frank. On some issues, I think we can make more progress, on others less. Some problems are more manageable just by us, other problems require a great deal of international consensus.

So I think we have to parse your agenda in terms of how we can respond on our own and where and on what issues we really have to mount an international consensus. I think once you do that, we'll see that some problems can be addressed immediately, others are longer term duration. But I think your agenda is very sensible. And I think that generally speaking to the extent possible, we are to be pointed that way.

CONAN: Jeff, thanks very much. And let me ask you about - the one we've not focused on at all yet is Iran. And more evidence over the weekend, if more were needed, that Iran appears to be - its nuclear ambitions include nuclear weapons and that's the direction it seems to be going no matter what the international community says or does.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, we don't know how true this so-called evidence is. As you know, there are a lot of parties that are interested in the United States and Iran not reaching an agreement. So we have to be absolutely certain that this is not a repetition of the Iraq case when there was also a lot of parties that wanted us to go to war with the Iraq and kept insisting that there is evidence that the Iraqis already have nuclear weapons.

I think the picture with Iran is more mixed. I think there are reasons to be suspicious, but we don't have enough reasons to be conclusively convinced that they're actually actively seeking nuclear weapons. The last comprehensive U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that currently, they are not. Secretary Gates recently said that he didn't think that would have any effective nuclear arsenal before 2014.

CONAN: One, be patient and not to try to force the issue immediately, because if we do it's a prescription for failure. Secondly, to the extent possible we should be negotiating not just about the nuclear problem, which is a very serious and complex problem, but we should always be negotiating about regional security in which we'd have a common stake and maybe even about financial economic arrangements. If we do that, there's a greater chance of quid pro quos emerging from the different negotiating tables. And I think that's in our interest.

CONAN: Yet, there was the president himself who said, though, he wanted to see substantial progress with Iran by the end of his first year in office or else he would start moving towards more comprehensive sanctions.

BRZEZINSKI: He wasn't that precise. He says at the end of the first year, he will reassess how much progress there is and then make a decision. And I think he'd be very unwise if he concluded that there is not enough progress, therefore we should abort and move towards sanctions.

Let me give another example. Right now, we have negotiations with the Russians regarding a new START agreement that involves reductions in nuclear weapons. We didn't reach an agreement. And the agreement expired a few days ago. Should we now plunge into a immediate threats against Russia and adoption of sanctions?

CONAN: I don't think anybody would urge that.

BRZEZINSKI: Okay. Well, let's use that as a measuring stick for how we should negotiate with Iran.

CONAN: We're talking on the Opinion Page this week with Zbigniew Brzezinski who was, of course, national security advisor to President Carter. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to - this is Collin(ph). Collin with us from Oakland.

COLLIN: Hello. Hi. Yes. I think, in my opinion, I'm a citizen of the United States now. And I can say as a citizen that I would really rather our troops not be in Iraq and not be in Afghanistan. I believe Afghanistan and Iraq are completely irrelevant in some way. If our stated goal is to pursue al- Qaida, then it's very puzzling to me why we would stay in Afghanistan since al- Qaida is not a fixed entity and doesn't need any particular place to get along. So my question is, well, if we were to suddenly triumph over Afghanistan, suppress the Taliban entirely, what's next since al-Qaida is supposedly in Pakistan? Do we attack Pakistan next? Do we take over Waziristan? It seems absolutely pointless to me. This is a cover. The pursuit of al-Qaida is a cover for broad strategic aims whether they have to do with oil or sphere of influence or some such, a - the great gain, if you will.

CONAN: Collin, let's Zbigniew Brzezinski respond. And Dr. Brzezinski, as you know, the president has sent a stern warning to Pakistan that if they do not deal with the elements in their country, that are crossing the border to fight in Afghanistan, the United States will and more drone attacks and perhaps and even the soldiers going across the border.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, he didn't really say that in his speech. He said that he hopes and expects that Pakistan will make a serious effort to deal with the Taliban, in particular with that Taliban which shelters al-Qaida. He doesn't exclude some accommodations also locally with the Taliban. But I think the key issue is that we didn't go in there because of some great gain. We went in there because the Taliban regime in Afghanistan provide a safe haven for al- Qaida, which meant that al-Qaida had a command structure, training camps, other facilities in a large country and could act from it with a relative impunity. That is why there was a danger. And this is why the United States went in.

I think that President Obama now has indicated that he wishes to focus specifically on al-Qaida, making it impossible for - to operate from there. But that he's not planning to engage in some long-term indefinite effort to remake Afghan society, to rebuild it into a modern democracy. Nonetheless, at the same time, he knows that if we just pull out abruptly from Afghanistan, not only will al-Qaida have a prominent position there potentially, but it would strengthen the al-Qaida forces and the Taliban in Pakistan, a country which now has nuclear weapons, and that would potentially greatly maximize the risks. This is the reason why we're engaged. It's nothing that one wishes for. It's nothing the one did voluntarily. But we're really caught by the circumstances created by 9/11, and the very strong unilateral reaction that President Bush undertook and then neglected, because shortly thereafter he sort of got diverted to Iraq.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds with you left, but does not al-Qaida have those same kinds of facilities and structures now in those tribal areas in Pakistan?

BRZEZINSKI: Well, that's precisely why the danger involves not only Afghanistan but also Pakistan. And this is why we have to work at an outcome that both secures Pakistan but also makes Afghanistan unlikely to offer a safe haven to al-Qaida. Otherwise, we could be facing a much greater danger than the one that arose in 2001.

CONAN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, thanks very much for your time today.

BRZEZINSKI: Well, it's very good to talk to you. Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and a former national security advisor, with us today by phone from his office here in Washington.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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