Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that President Barack Obama’s setting of a red line if Syria’s government used chemical weapons was made “without too much thought.”
(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)
AL HUNT: We begin the show with former national security adviser to President Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Dr. Brzezinski, let’s start with Syria. President Obama drew a red line, said if they use chemical weapons, we will respond. If it - if it’s conclusive that they did - that Assad did use chemical weapons, would U.S. credibility suffer in places like North Korea and Iran if we don’t take a strong reaction?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, it’s kind of a useful definition of a trigger, because if they use it - if they use it against two people, five people, 100 people, 10,000 people, does that make any difference? And if who uses it, a centralized unit commanded from Damascus or some unit somewhere out in the field, I mean, it just doesn’t help you to decide.
HUNT: So it’s not easy.
BRZEZINSKI: It doesn’t help you to decide.
HUNT: There’s no clear red line.
BRZEZINSKI: It doesn’t bind you, but it’s one of these things which, unfortunately, is said sometimes without too much thought and then it becomes somehow or other operative and your critics use it against you.
HUNT: And that was the case this time?
BRZEZINSKI: I think so.
HUNT: Let me ask you about some of the options, sending more lethal weapons to insurgents?
BRZEZINSKI: What insurgents? Now, let’s maybe - maybe we should just back off a little bit.
BRZEZINSKI: There is an insurgency in Syria by whom? Well, I think they’re different groups. First of all, there are the Saudi-Qatar sponsored insurgents. Some of them may be just Sunni fighters who would like to have a Sunni state. But there might be also fanatics, Salafists, people who really are interested in a kind of rigid fanatical religious sub-definition. Then beyond that, there is the al-Qaeda elements who want to fight, so to speak, against the Assad regime, but may have entirely different -
HUNT: It’s hard to selectively pick which insurgents you’re going to -
BRZEZINSKI: Exactly. And then we have our people, so to speak, many of them nice Syrians, many lived in America, democratic, but not exactly in command of strong units. Out of the three group opponents of Assad, they’re probably number three. So we have a problem here.
And I think what we can do is do some things to maintain a foot in, maintain some influence, but we have to be very careful not to get engaged in such a way that we become the chief protagonist and eventually not just in Syria, but the region as a whole, because as Syria explodes, some adjoining countries will explode.
HUNT: Well, I want to ask you about that in a minute, but let me just ask you one more option, airpower, taking out their air force, no-fly zones, bombing his palace. Do those have any appeal?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, if the result is, for example, that the more radical elements, the Salafis, not to mention the al-Qaeda gains from it, and they are stronger militarily, what did we accomplish by it?
HUNT: Right. So that’s the danger. Let’s go to what you said a minute ago. What’s the likely spillover effect to Jordan, the Kurds, Lebanon?
BRZEZINSKI: I think what we have to realize - and I don’t think we have thought about it enough - is that we’re dealing with a region that has become more volatile, because that region has been organized for the last 100 years, since World War I, on the basis of a scheme contrived by the British and the French on how to divide among themselves the Middle East. And they created these artificial states which are amalgams of different religions, different ethnicities, different aspirations, and they becoming unstuck.
And if we get involved mindlessly, simply in the name of democracy on behalf of a cause which we cannot win without deploying a lot of our own forces, then we’re going to be engaged in the region as a whole, and that will be a large-scale disaster for the United States.
HUNT: Let me switch to China, another subject that you’re a great expert in. President Xi’s much more aggressive territorial claims and talks about a new Chinese pride. Is that a cause for concern? Is there a danger of conflict in Asia?
BRZEZINSKI: There is, I think, as a general proposition a potential danger that Asia could unwittingly replicate the disasters that Europe experienced in the last century, that is to say, ethnic wars, economic wars, maritime war, territorial wars, resource wars. And I think we have to be careful. And if we’re not sufficiently sensitive to all of these potential animosities, we could unintentionally encourage them.
I think some of the things we did lately may have sent the wrong signals to some of China’s regional opponents - the presumption that we’re going to back them - and we might have somewhat unintentionally signified to the Chinese that we want to organize some sort of a coalition against them. I don’t believe this is the intention of the administration. I really do not.
HUNT: But giving off signals like Japan comes under our -
BRZEZINSKI: Well, like this - or the pivot, defined militarily, why against whom? And I think that kind of confused the situation. But the Chinese themselves also, I think, have to acknowledge privately, at least - not publicly - I don’t want them to be pleading penitence publicly - they have to acknowledge that they were a little indelicate in dealing with some of their neighbors, when then fled to us, thinking that we’re going to back them against China.
HUNT: Let me ask you another issue with the Chinese, which is hacking. It is clear that there’s been hacking in a number of American interests, corporate and probably government. It’s got to be done with some knowledge of the leadership over there. What should be the American response?
BRZEZINSKI: I think our response should be private to the Chinese, for the time being, in telling them, please, stop this, because it’s going to lead to some unpleasantness and can get out of hand. But at the same time, we have to have the capacity not only to protect ourselves, but to retaliate.
And I don’t mean just against the Chinese. Again, anybody who does it. And a lot of it is not the Chinese. Some of it are some other governments. The Russians did it to the Estonians in - no, 2007, 2007. And a lot of it is hackers.
We have to have the capacity to counterattack, to counterattack credibly or to retaliate in kind as the point of departure of saying to the parties interested, let’s draw some rules to the game here, some self-restraint, because otherwise we will be taken to the cleaners. We won’t be taken seriously unless we have the capacity to retaliate.
And then last but not least, let’s not start new things ourselves, because that could degrade the quality of the international system. I have in mind, for example, something which I think really is not in our interest, the Stuxnet stuff that we sent by cyber to the Iranians. We’re not at war with Iran. We may not like what they’re doing. We may be punishing them for it through sanctions. But if we start waging our own new cyber wars, we’re opening the doors to them doing it to us.
HUNT: One more topic, drones. We wiped out a lot of al-Qaeda. Are we killing more terrorists or creating more terrorists?
BRZEZINSKI: I don’t know how to measure that. I also know that we’re killing some innocents, as well, and it’s troublesome. I’ve been thinking about that in the light of my own experience in the government, and I think it’s a mistake for the president to be, so to speak, “signing off” on what kind of missions to undertake and who as a result can be killed and how many collateral damages can be absorbed or tolerated.
I think it should be someone who has the position that I had, which is the head of the national security staff for the president, aided by some senior highly respected judicial person, and also a person with political sensitivity for that particular front or region in which the drones are used, so that, first of all, the decisions are made through a collective and responsible process, which has some inbuilt resistance against indiscriminate use, and, secondly, so that the president is not directly liable and the national security adviser or the people working with him assume the role, let’s say, of a field commander, a general, who conducts an operation.
The president doesn’t sign off on every one of them, but if the general succeeds, he gets a medal. If he screws up, he gets canned. But the president doesn’t take the rap right away. I think that’s rather demoralizing.
HUNT: We’re going to have to close on that note. Dr. Brzezinski, thank you so much for being with us.
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