Zbigniew Brzezinski is a fan of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, with important caveats.
He supports most of the policies of the past three months in the turbulent Middle East, thinks the president has improved relations with the Europeans and the Russians, and believes the summit meeting in January between Obama and President Hu Jintao of China was a success.
At the same time, he faults the administration for dragging its feet on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And he says while Obama has been “eloquent and intelligent” in his pronouncements on the unrest and clamor for democracy in the Middle East, there needs to be a more “overarching and pointed sense of direction coming out of the presidency.”
Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter more than three decades ago, is one of a handful of octogenarian wise men with a strategic worldview; others include former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, 87, and the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, also 87.
Brzezinski, 83, has been attacked by the right and the left in a career that began when he led a foreign-policy advisory team for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election. When he left government in 1981, as Americans were held hostage in Iran and the Soviet Union was occupying Afghanistan, he and the Carter administration were seen as feckless and ineffective.
In subsequent years, his reputation has soared in foreign policy and Democratic political circles. He provided an important early endorsement to Obama, though objections from pro-Israeli advocates sidetracked him from any role in the administration.
He has praise for the current top policy makers. The Obama team is of “really top-notch quality,” he says. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who worked for Brzezinski in the Carter administration, is “superb.” Although he was very negative about Hillary Clinton when she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, he said she has “proven to be surprisingly good” as secretary of state.
The chatter about Gates’ departure possibly as early as this summer, along with the retirement in October of Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and speculation about Clinton moving on, too -- all in the midst of foreign-policy crises -- seems “unsettling” to Brzezinski.
“I don’t understand why they’re making it into such an agonizing process,” he says. “If somebody leaves, they leave, and someone else gets appointed. But this kind of protracted shuffling of chairs inevitably creates some degree of uncertainty.”
He approves of the basic Obama policy on Libya, though thinks America should be more assertive in getting rid of Muammar Qaddafi.
“I’m glad the British and French are taking the lead, but time is of the essence, and requires a more decisive input than the French and British are capable of generating on their own,” he says, adding that he “assumes we’re doing more than we’re saying, but we should be doing even more.”
He’s cautiously optimistic on Egypt, though he says the unseating of Hosni Mubarak means that country inevitably will be less of an automatic U.S. ally. In five years, Iran, Brzezinski says, will probably look “more like it is than less like it is,” though he thinks Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely to be pushed out, as even internally he’s viewed as “kind of a nut who’s done a lot of damage.” The Iranian ayatollahs “are losing steam, but they’re not yet totally discredited.”
Whatever transpires elsewhere, without some resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Brzezinski says, America’s “influence almost certainly will be further diminished” in the region. The centrality of this conflict in the Muslim world shows up not just in polls, but also in its use as a rallying cry for bad guys like Osama Bin Laden, he adds. “Most of his speeches give his reason for enmity to Americans: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
He praises Obama’s memorable address in Cairo two years ago. Though the administration “has not done anything” since then. “We started on speeches, and then we sort of quit,” he says.
Without U.S. involvement, he believes the Israelis are “too strong” to make concessions, and the Palestinians “too weak.”
A critical test will occur later this year when the United Nations General Assembly takes up a resolution declaring an independent Palestinian state.
“We were historically correct in voting for Israel’s independence in the UN in 1948. It was a courageous and proper action,” Brzezinski says. “Are we going to vote against Palestinian independence?” That probably is what the U.S. will do, policy makers say.
With the prospect of declining American influence, he expects China will look to play a bigger role in the Middle East.
“If there’s a vacuum, they will just move in,” Brzezinski says. “Historically, they’ve had a lot of contacts in the Middle East centuries ago, before America even existed.”
Without playing down tensions in the most important bilateral relationship in the world, or China’s expansionary designs, he gives the Obama administration high marks; he was particularly pleased with the January summit.
“What emerged was a communiqué outlining eight major, shared, common objectives for cooperative partnerships,” he says, noting that the press largely ignored the substance of this achievement.
Whatever criticisms he offers of other Obama policies, he sees a vast improvement from those of President of George W. Bush. He’s dismissive of Republicans such as Senator John McCain of Arizona and presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who accuse the president of denying America’s exceptionalism.
“That is a high-school debating trick,” Brzezinski says, “a ridiculous argument, really.”
“America is exceptional, and there is this special aura,” says one of the foremost geopolitical experts, who came to the U.S. at age 22. “But at the same time, America is also a state with national interests, armies, economic investments.”
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)