Brzezinski: Syria May Suck Us into Large Regional War
Following is an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski for The National Interest, an American bi-monthly international affairs magazine
Zbigniew Brzezinski is former White House national-security adviser under Jimmy Carter and now a counselor and trustee at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a senior research professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
The interview was conducted by Jacob Heilbrunn, TNI senior editor.
Here we are five years into the Obama administration, and you’re stating that the West is engaging in “mass propaganda.” Is Obama being drawn into Syria because he’s too weak to resist the status quo? What happened to President Obama that brought us here?
I can’t engage either in psychoanalysis or any kind of historical revisionism. He obviously has a difficult problem on his hands, and there is a mysterious aspect to all of this. Just consider the timing. In late 2011 there are outbreaks in Syria produced by a drought and abetted by two well-known autocracies in the Middle East: Qatar and Saudi Arabia. He all of a sudden announces that Assad has to go—without, apparently, any real preparation for making that happen. Then in the spring of 2012, the election year here, the CIA under General Petraeus, according to The New York Times of March 24th of this year, a very revealing article, mounts a large-scale effort to assist the Qataris and the Saudis and link them somehow with the Turks in that effort. Was this a strategic position? Why did we all of a sudden decide that Syria had to be destabilized and its government overthrown? Had it ever been explained to the American people? Then in the latter part of 2012, especially after the elections, the tide of conflict turns somewhat against the rebels. And it becomes clear that not all of those rebels are all that “democratic.” And so the whole policy begins to be reconsidered. I think these things need to be clarified so that one can have a more insightful understanding of what exactly U.S. policy was aiming at.
Historically, we often have aided rebel movements—Nicaragua, Afghanistan and Angola, for example. If you’re a neocon or a liberal hawk, you’re going to say that this is actually aiding forces that are toppling a dictator. So what’s wrong with intervening on humanitarian grounds?
In principle there’s nothing wrong with that as motive. But I do think that one has to assess, in advance of the action, the risks involved. In Nicaragua the risks were relatively little given America’s dominant position in Central America and no significant rival’s access to it from the outside. In Afghanistan I think we knew that Pakistan might be a problem, but we had to do it because of 9/11. But speaking purely for myself, I did advise [then defense secretary Donald] Rumsfeld, when together with some others we were consulted about the decision to go into Afghanistan. My advice was: go in, knock out the Taliban and then leave. I think the problem with Syria is its potentially destabilizing and contagious effect—namely, the vulnerability of Jordan, of Lebanon, the possibility that Iraq will really become part of a larger Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict, and that there could be a grand collision between us and the Iranians. I think the stakes are larger and the situation is far less predictable and certainly not very susceptible to effective containment just to Syria by American power.
Are we, in fact, witnessing a delayed chain reaction? The dream of the neoconservatives, when they entered Iraq, was to create a domino effect in the Middle East, in which we would topple one regime after the other. Is this, in fact, a macabre realization of that aspiration?
True, that might be the case. They hope that in a sense Syria would redeem what happened originally in Iraq. But I think what we have to bear in mind is that in this particular case the regional situation as a whole is more volatile than it was when they invaded Iraq, and perhaps their views are also infected by the notion, shared by some Israeli right-wingers, that Israel’s strategic prospects are best served if all of its adjoining neighbors are destabilized. I happen to think that is a long-term formula for disaster for Israel, because its byproduct, if it happens, is the elimination of American influence in the region, with Israel left ultimately on its own. I don’t think that’s good for Israel, and, to me, more importantly, because I look at the problems from the vantage point of American national interest, it’s not very good for us.
You mentioned in an interview, I believe on MSNBC, the prospect of an international conference. Do you think that’s still a viable approach, that America should be pushing much more urgently to draw in China, Russia and other powers to reach some kind of peaceful end to this civil war?
I think if we tackle the issue alone with the Russians, which I think has to be done because they’re involved partially, and if we do it relying primarily on the former colonial powers in the region—France and Great Britain, who are really hated in the region—the chances of success are not as high as if we do engage in it, somehow, with China, India and Japan, which have a stake in a more stable Middle East. That relates in a way to the previous point you raised. Those countries perhaps can then cumulatively help to create a compromise in which, on the surface at least, no one will be a winner, but which might entail something that I’ve been proposing in different words for more than a year—namely, that there should be some sort of internationally sponsored elections in Syria, in which anyone who wishes to run can run, which in a way saves face for Assad but which might result in an arrangement, de facto, in which he serves out his term next year but doesn’t run again.
How slippery is the slope? Obama was clearly not enthusiastic about sending the arms to the Syrian rebels—he handed the announcement off to Ben Rhodes. How slippery do you think this slope is? Do you think that we are headed towards greater American intervention?
I’m afraid that we’re headed toward an ineffective American intervention, which is even worse. There are circumstances in which intervention is not the best but also not the worst of all outcomes. But what you are talking about means increasing our aid to the least effective of the forces opposing Assad. So at best, it’s simply damaging to our credibility. At worst, it hastens the victory of groups that are much more hostile to us than Assad ever was. I still do not understand why—and that refers to my first answer—why we concluded somewhere back in 2011 or 2012—an election year, incidentally—that Assad should go.
Your response earlier about Israel was quite fascinating. Do you think that if the region were to go up into greater upheaval, with a diminution of American influence, Israel would see an opportunity to consolidate its gains, or even make more radical ones if Jordan were to go up in flames?
Yes, I know what you’re driving at. I think in the short run, it would probably create a larger Fortress Israel, because there would be no one in the way, so to speak. But it would be, first of all, a bloodbath (in different ways for different people), with some significant casualties for Israel as well. But the right-wingers will feel that’s a necessity of survival.
But in the long run, a hostile region like that cannot be policed, even by a nuclear-armed Israel. It will simply do to Israel what some of the wars have done to us on a smaller scale. Attrite it, tire it, fatigue it, demoralize it, cause emigration of the best and the first, and then some sort of cataclysm at the end which cannot be predicted at this stage because we don’t know who will have what by when. And after all, Iran is next door. It might have some nuclear capability. Suppose the Israelis knock it off. What about Pakistan and others? The notion that one can control a region from a very strong and motivated country, but of only six million people, is simply a wild dream.
I guess my final question, if you think you can get into this subject, is . . . you’re sort of on the opposition bank right now. The dominant voice among intellectuals and in the media seems to be a liberal hawk/neoconservative groundswell, a moralistic call for action in Syria based on emotion. Why do you think, even after the debacle of the Iraq War, that the foreign-policy debate remains quite skewed in America?
I think you know the answer to that better than I, but if I may offer a perspective: this is a highly motivated, good country. It is driven by good motives. But it is also a country with an extremely simplistic understanding of world affairs, and with still a high confidence in America’s capacity to prevail, by force if necessary. I think in a complex situation, simplistic solutions offered by people who are either demagogues, or are smart enough to offer their advice piecemeal; it’s something that people can bite into. Assuming that a few more arms of this or that kind will achieve what they really desire, which is a victory for a good cause, without fully understanding that the hidden complexities are going to suck us in more and more, we’re going to be involved in a large regional war eventually, with a region even more hostile to us than many Arabs are currently, it could be a disaster for us. But that is not a perspective that the average American, who doesn’t really read much about world affairs, can quite grasp. This is a country of good emotions, but poor knowledge and little sophistication about the world.
Well, thank you. I couldn’t agree more.
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I see things differently.
Here the interests and aspirations of Saudi Arabia also should be accounted. After all they are the main money donor in the Syrian civil war.
And it is important to follow the money trail in order to reach some understanding.
The nuclear bombs of Iran a one think!!
but the biological invasion of Europe by Muslim immigrants and the rise of extremely intolerant forms of Islam is another thing.
I would be satisfied if USA bombs IRAN's Nuclear facilities but at the same time stop supporting AlKaeda like organizations in Syria or elsewhere.
I cant understand how after 11 of September USA provide weapons political pressure and media coverage exactly to organizations that a similar to al kaeda.
Clear example is Libia..
I see great difference between an officially secular Islamic state and officially sharia based Islamic state.
Precisely, Brzezinski is either mentally unstable, or is so much controlled by the Republican party that he now forgets what he advocated in the past. The sad fact is that whatever foreign governments do or refrain from doing now, the Syrians will be fucked, and the arms dealers happy. Maybe it's high time for the world's citizens to organize and the world's governments to go down?
We don't agree on anything. I don't think that Assad will be overthrown any time soon given the support the Russkies are giving him.
Your arguments are not only dumb, they are also incoherent. Saying the Russians can broker peace is like saying that Muslims are peaceful. The Russians have enormous interests in Syria (to the tune of 15B USD in arms sales per year) plus a naval base in Tartus. And the Assad regime is their only remaining stooge in the Middle East. All other countries in the region are safely under the wings of Uncle Sam.
You remind me of the typical idiot in Bulgaria who gives opinions about everything without knowing anything and with conspiracy theories even about the color of paint. No wonder your country is in such deep sh#t: idiots like you are clearly the majority.
Pretending to be polite while making
Russophobe we both agree that Syria is likely to get a more militant/radical government.
If you look at world history and states that emerged from conflict such as Israel, Vietnam and Ireland the governments that emerged came from organizations that had military and political wings. Hizbollah has similarities to the organizations that were struggling in these countries.
I posted my comment to trigger this debate, because the big question is how is Syria going to get a democratic, peaceful government and only the Russians are trying to take the situation down this route.
I watch Russia Today to follow what they are doing. I so hope that the Russians can broker peace there as no one else is trying.
Have a n ice evening.
Optimistic, instead of opining about matters that make you look like a fool, you should do a little research:
Assad is an Alawite which is a small minority of Shia Muslims in Syria, the country is approx 80% Sunni Muslim and 10% Christian and the balance Alawite.
Hezbollah is a Shia terrorist organization in Lebanon that is funded by Iran (which is a Shia Muslim country).
Hezbollah is the ALLY of Assad, as they are both funded (and arguably led) by Iran. It is the absolute interest of Iran to keep Assad in power since they use Syria to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon (they can't send their planes full of weapons, rockets, etc directly to Lebanon because an Israeli F-16 would blow them away without any problems).
Iran needs an active Hezbollah because they can use them to keep Israel in check (everyone in the Middle East knows that Israel can destroy them all in a week purely with conventional weapons).
So what you are saying is the most ridiculous and stupid thing I've ever heard. If anyone were to come to power if Assad is overthrown it would be Al Qaeda which is a Sunni terrorist group. Hezbollah will continue supporting Assad indefinitely or until their puppet master Iran decides they want another Alawite there to run the show.
I suggest you keep to the things you know and like to discuss so such as why Shkembe Chorba is becoming more expensive or why the cucumbers are 10 stutinki more expensive in Lidl than in Kaufland. Ignoramus!!!!
Someday I expect Syria will have elections and I think Hizbollah will become the largest party in Syria and form the Government.
They are currently fighting with Assad and could continue fighting a civil war after Assad goes.
Hizbollah is the second largest party in The Lebanon and have links with Hamas so political power is within their ability to obtain.
US and UK be careful, you may want to be rid of Assad, but be careful what you wish for!!!!!!!
USA acts as a vassal to the Saudi Kings!
If Mark Twain is revived in his grave and informed that the USA’s president kisses the hand of a Saudi monarch he will turn in his grave. If he is informed that the USA uses its power to destroy the secular Arab states and to install on their place societies governed by the sharia law he will probably decide to die again.
He would not understand how reinstalling the sharia societies, and in fact uniting the Arab world on entirely religious principle …serves USA ….
Mark Twain described the Arabs and their culture in his collection “Innocents abroad” very clearly. He would be appalled in what USA is doing now. I do not understand how the casualties of the Eleven of 11 September would understand it too.
How this “most free” Christian country evolved into puppet of rich petrodollar kings it is partial mystery.
He has to know that the USA administration is infiltrated with Arab financial interest, so USA simply acts as a servant to the Arab billionaires.
But still strange!!!!!!. Is this country so week, so ignorant and so demoralized so it is incapable to foresee the dangers of its actions???
How destroying secular state and reviving the sharia Islamic states helps USA and its people I do not understand!!!!!! It certainly does not help the Christan secular states of Europe!!
It will actually create new religious empire…with its emissaries acting as advisers or even presidents of USA. I cant see bright future for Israel too. Saladin destroyed the Jerusalem kingdom, because he united the Arabs!!! Secular Syria cannot unite the Arabs. But sharia based religious empire like the Caliphate or the Ottoman empires will wipe out Israel by a single word of its leader.