Zbigniew Brzezinski, Security Adviser to Carter, Dies at 89

  • National security adviser took hard line on Soviet Union
  • Brzezinski helped plan failed Iran hostage rescue mission

Zbigniew Brzezinski in 2014.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter advocated a hard line toward the Soviet Union and helped develop the unsuccessful military mission to rescue American hostages in Iran, has died. He was 89.

His death was announced in a tweet on Friday by his daughter, Mika Brzezinski, co-host of the MSNBC program “Morning Joe.” “He was known to his friends as Zbig, to his grandchildren as Chief and to his wife as the enduring love of her life,” Brzezinski wrote on Instagram.

Brzezinski was a respected voice on international affairs within the Democratic Party for more than three decades. One of his core beliefs was that the memory of the Vietnam War had made his party overly reluctant to flex U.S. military might. His world view was often compared with that of Henry Kissinger, whose work under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford gave him similar statesman stature within the Republican Party.

“You always knew where Zbig stood,” former President Barack Obama, one of several presidents who benefited from Brzezinski’s counsel, said in an emailed statement. “His ideas and advocacy helped shape decades of American national security policy.”

Policy Realists

The German-born Kissinger and Polish-born Brzezinski were considered foreign-policy realists with innate distrust of the Soviet Union. Unlike Kissinger, Brzezinski tried to shift the central focus of U.S. policy away from what he called a “preoccupation” with the USSR and toward what he called trilateral cooperation among North America, Western Europe and Japan. He helped David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank and of the Council on Foreign Relations, create the Trilateral Commission and led it from 1973 to 1976.

During Carter’s presidency, from 1977 to 1981, Brzezinski helped establish U.S.-China diplomatic relations -- the culmination of work begun under Nixon and Kissinger -- and conclude the treaty that granted Panama control of the U.S.-built Panama Canal as of 2000. But much of his work was geared toward waging the Cold War.

Sensing an emerging Soviet advantage in first-strike nuclear capability, Brzezinski played a key role in persuading Carter to approve the mobile MX missile system. He and Carter urged greater human rights and encouraged dissent in Eastern Europe.

False Alarm

In the early morning hours of Nov. 9, 1979, Brzezinski was awakened by an aide reporting that the North American Aerospace Defense Command had detected a Soviet missile attack. As Brzezinski prepared to alert the president -- and, presumably, to start a high-pressure discussion of launching U.S. nuclear missiles -- word came that it was a false alarm, one of most perilous of the Cold War.

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Brzezinski pressed for U.S. involvement. As often happened, Brzezinski clashed with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and prevailed. The Carter administration imposed a grain embargo against the Soviet Union, boycotted the 1980 summer Olympic Games in Moscow and declared it would use military force to defend its interests in the Persian Gulf. Behind the scenes, Brzezinski persuaded Carter to approve the secret arming of the Afghan mujahedeen rebels, who ultimately fought the Soviets to a draw -- leaving a power vacuum filled by Islamic fundamentalists who gave safe harbor to Osama bin Laden and his followers.

Kindred Spirit

“While Vance was Carter’s intellectual kindred spirit, Brzezinski appealed to the engineer president’s fetish for facts,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2002, after Vance’s death. “Proximity to Carter, and a clever courting of the first lady, eventually led Brzezinski to be perceived as Carter’s indispensable man.”

Vance was on vacation when, on April 11, 1980, Carter and Brzezinski convened a National Security Council meeting that resulted in a green light for the attempt at rescuing the U.S. hostages held in Tehran. Vance’s deputy, Warren Christopher, later said Brzezinski had kept him in the dark about the subject of the meeting, so he couldn’t alert Vance.

The rescue attempt, on April 25, failed spectacularly. Three of eight U.S. helicopters had problems, forcing an order to abort from the mission’s desert staging area. During preparations for retreat, a helicopter flew into a C-130 transport plane and exploded, killing eight U.S. servicemen.

After Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 election, Brzezinski told the New York Times that the Democratic Party was becoming “excessively preoccupied with what might be called the do-gooders agenda in international affairs.” He said his own attempts at military muscle had met “a great deal of opposition within the administration.”

‘Power is Important’

“It is not a popular thing to remind people that power is important,” Brzezinski said, “that it has to be applied, that sometimes decisions which are not fully compatible with our concepts of what the world ideally ought to be like need to be taken.”

Carter, in his memoir, said Brzezinski “was astute in his analyses, particularly knowledgeable about broad historical trends affecting the industrialized nations and a firm believer in a strong defense for our country and in the enhancement of freedom and democratic principles both here and broad. His proposals were innovative and often provocative, and I agreed with them -- most of the time.”

On Saturday, Carter said in a statement that Brzezinski was “inquisitive, innovative, and a natural choice as my national security adviser.”

Born in Warsaw

Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski was born on March 28, 1928, in Warsaw, the first of two sons of Tadeusz and Leonia Brzezinski. His father, a diplomat, was assigned to France, Germany, the Soviet Ukraine and Canada before World War II. After the war, he was thanked by Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel for helping to free Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

The family lived in Montreal during and after the war, and Brzezinski finished his Catholic education there. He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from McGill University in 1949 and 1950 and a Ph.D. in 1953 from Harvard University.

He moved to Columbia University in 1960 and was a member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Council from 1966 to 1968, during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.

In 1976, Carter, the former Georgia governor who had bested better-known Democrats to win the presidential nomination, turned to Brzezinski for guidance when preparing to debate Ford. After his victory, he named Brzezinski his national security adviser and Vance, who had been deputy defense secretary under Johnson, as secretary of state.

Israel Critics

Halfway through Carter’s term, Brzezinski was under criticism by American supporters of Israel, who viewed him as overly sympathetic to the Arab point of view in Mideast policy, as well as from supporters of detente with the Soviet Union. Addressing a civic luncheon in Fort Worth, Texas, Carter said “special interest groups” were trying to turn his security adviser into a foreign-policy “scapegoat.”

After the Carter presidency, Brzezinski was a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was a frequent guest on television news shows, including MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” co-hosted by his daughter, Mika.

Brzezinski and his wife, sculptor Emilie Benes Brzezinski, also had two sons -- Mark, who served on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, and Ian, who served as deputy assistant defense secretary for Europe and NATO under George W. Bush.

The world’s new balance of power, post-Cold War, remained his central interest. In his 1993 book, “Out of Control: Global Turmoil on the Eve of the 21st Century,” he said the “geopolitical vacuum may become a dangerous whirlpool” for both Russia and the U.S., especially with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Brzezinski became especially blunt in his criticism of the second President Bush. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007, Brzezinski called the war in Iraq “a historic, strategic and moral calamity” that was “undermining America’s global legitimacy.”

A month later, he said in a Washington Post column that the Bush administration’s declaration of a “war on terror” had served only to make it “easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.”

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