Zbigniew Brzezinski knows something about dealing with Iranians and his advice to President Barack Obama is this: Don’t start a war with Iran. National security adviser three decades ago when the Carter administration struggled to free U.S. hostages in Iran, Brzezinski says that Obama should not attack Iran’s nuclear sites even if that gives political ammunition to his more hawkish Republican opponents.
“The president confronts the challenge of whether to opt for a national foreign policy victory at the cost of presidential defeat or to opt for presidential victory at some significant cost to American foreign policy interests,” Brzezinski said in an interview.
Brzezinski still harbors his own memories of such a trade-off: President Jimmy Carter negotiated freedom for the 52 American hostages – but lost the 1980 election. The hostages were released on the day Ronald Reagan took office.
Brzezinski said a military solution to the Iranian nuclear program is not “credible or desirable,” that war with Iran would be far easier to start than to end and that the costs would be borne primarily by the United States “both in blood and money.”
Question: Is this a particularly difficult presidential election year given developments in the region?
Q: You wrote in your new book that the U.S. should not engage in a “solitary military action against Iran or just in cooperation with Israel.” Can you expand on that?
Brzezinski: It’s easier to start a war than to end a war. Secondly, the costs of any conflict with Iran will be borne by the United States both in blood and money.
Q: What would you be doing about Iran?
Brzezinski: I would be on the record that we do not view a military solution as credible or desirable. That doesn’t mean I would be complacent about the Iranian efforts and I certainly support ostracizing them and making it uncomfortable for them economically though not to the point of confronting them with a choice of either abject capitulation or some sort of desperate lashing out on their part.
Even if they [the Iranians] get a single bomb, it means that they are not a threat yet to anyone because they are not suicidal and they know that if they were to use it, they would precipitate consequences to them that would be most grave.
To make that clear, I would issue a public statement that the U.S. will view an Iranian threat or action based on nuclear weapons against any state in the Middle East – Arab or Israeli – as an act against the United States.
Q: Let’s turn to Syria. The Russians have thumbed their noses at us and there is a very difficult humanitarian situation. Do you approve of developing a new ‘coalition of the willing’ to support the opposition at least with humanitarian aid?
Brzezinski: I would tend to follow the advice of the Turks who are the most proximate to the crisis, who probably have the best understanding of it and who have been good allies.
Q: The last in this trio of difficulties involves Egypt. We have this extraordinary situation where the Egyptians are in effect taking American hostages – Americans who were promoting democracy. How would you handle a situation like this?
Brzezinski: What I see in it unfortunately is a wider phenomenon which I have been observing for some months, namely that our influence in the Middle East is dramatically receding.
One basic lesson to draw is not to say we’ll do certain things and then to act like a minor power and abandon the effort when someone objects to it. That kind of record does not produce confidence in American leadership and American steadfastness. America has to be steadfast in its principles which sometimes can be costly… We have to think of our long-range interests and not our immediate political prospects…What really damages is when America wobbles.
Q: On Iran, do you think the Israelis are bluffing to make sure sanctions are really biting or is there really a danger of a conflict this year?
Slaughter: I think there’s a real danger. The overall configuration of Israeli domestic politics and everything else that is happening in the region means they are genuinely debating this question. I don’t think they’ve decided to attack.
Q: What in your mind is the appropriate policy given that Obama got essentially forced into the central bank sanctions by Congress?
Slaughter: I support the idea of a two-track policy. It’s very important to make clear there’s a genuine international concern here and a large part of what these sanctions are doing is signaling that it isn’t just the U.S…On the other hand, we’re in danger of a situation in which we are risking the sanctions being so tough that they close off the negotiating track rather than opening it. That’s a real danger because then we’re left with a game of chicken.
Q: The chances for a pro-active negotiating strategy seem dim in an election year.
Slaughter: There definitely is a willingness to negotiate if they [the Obama administration] think they have a negotiating partner in good faith. The problem has been we’ve come to the table, we’ve cut deals and they’ve [the Iranians] backed off. They’ve used talks to simply delay, delay, delay. If we thought for whatever reason, the Iranians were really ready to deal, this administration will deal despite the election.
Q: To my mind, Syria is an area where there should be some consensus on getting rid of Bashar and that would be a more effective way of dealing with Iran than going straight at Iran. What are your thoughts on how the process is playing out now?
Slaughter: On Syria I am guardedly optimistic. The opposition has gotten braver and braver and more determined. That was the first thing people did not expect.
Nobody a year ago would have said that the Arab League would condemn it as strongly as they did, then send monitors and then call for his [Bashar al-Assad’s] resignation. That’s just astounding.
The place to watch is the Arab League. They’ve gotten themselves so far into this that there’s no way out other than forcing him [Assad] out.
Q: How do you do that?
Slaughter: I would not rule out Turkey setting up a buffer zone along its border and possibly Jordan. [doing the same].
Q: The Egyptian military is playing this cynical game of trying to hang on and retain its power and then, there is the behavior toward the NGOs. How would you handle this if you were still in government? Would you threaten to cut off military aid?
Slaughter: This is not about us. Whatever we can do we can do only at the margins.
What’s at stake is not the aid they [the Egyptian military] get from us but their control of the Egyptian economy and the ability to run it to their private benefit.
At some point, our hands will get forced. Taxpayers are not going to stand for us handing out that kind of aid when they’re actively imprisoning Americans.
Q: U.S. election years are not the best time to make progress on Arab-Israeli peace process and we have the further complication that Netanyahu is running for re-election. Is there anything the U.S. can do?
Slaughter: This is a year where all parties are sorting out domestic issues and there either will be a very different configuration in a year or the same but in a way that forces everybody to recognize this is who you have to deal with.
As long as the Israelis think the Republicans are going to be elected, they have no incentive to give into anything the United States wants. Zbigniew Brzezinski knows something about dealing with Iranians and his advice to President Barack Obama is this: Don’t start a war with Iran.
Even if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, Brzezinski said, it can be deterred and contained in part by extending a U.S. nuclear umbrella over U.S. allies in the Middle East.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions are far from the only regional issue on Barack Obama’s agenda: No U.S. leader has faced such a turbulent Middle East in a presidential election year since 1980. A veritable “arc of crisis” stretches from North Africa to the Persian Gulf and beyond, challenging Obama’s plans to run for a second term by focusing on the gradually recovering U.S. economy. This article focuses on three such crises: Iran, Syria and Egypt.
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has issued a stream of sometimes confusing statements affirming its ability to strike Iran but asserting that sanctions are having a serious impact on the Iranian economy and might dissuade Iran from continuing its nuclear development.
Despite Obama’s recent comment that the U.S. is in “lockstep” with Israel on Iran, leaks by other U.S. officials, such as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, suggesting that Israel might unilaterally attack Iran as early as April appear intended to pre-empt those advocating a pre-emptive strike on Iran.
Such leaks, accompanied by hawkish comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have had another impact – pushing Europeans to tighten sanctions against Iran. At the same time, members of the Israeli defense and intelligence establishment – including the current and previous head of the Mossad – have called attacking Iran’s nuclear sites counterproductive and even stupid.
Typically when Israel is ready to strike an adversary, it does so without warning. The unusual public debate brings to mind the sheriff in the old Mel Brooks movie, “Blazing Saddles,” who held a gun to his own head and pleaded with others to stop him from killing himself.
While an Iran with nuclear weapons would certainly be destabilizing, potential downsides of an attack are numerous. Iran’s nuclear program is so dispersed and hardened that some of it would survive. Iran would be handed a clear justification to quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and rush openly toward a bomb.
Oil prices would spike, jeopardizing fragile Western economies. Iran-supplied missiles to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah might rain down on Tel Aviv. Iranian proxies would likely target Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, destroying chances for an orderly U.S. exit from combat in Afghanistan by 2013 or 2014.
“The last thing Barack Obama wants is another war in the Middle East,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton who served as director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009-2011 and is a rising star in U.S. foreign policy circles. “His entire administration has been about getting us out of wars in the Middle East and South Asia and just getting us out of land wars period.”
At the same time, both Slaughter and Brzezinski also expressed concern that economic sanctions may have gone too far and become counterproductive.
“We’re in danger of a situation where we are risking the sanctions being so tough that they close off the negotiating track rather than opening it,” Slaughter said, referring to efforts to choke off Iran’s oil exports. “That’s a real danger because then we’re left with a game of chicken.”
Iran is now signaling that it is ready to return to the negotiating table, but Washington is wary.
“The problem has been we’ve come to the table, we’ve cut deals and they’ve [the Iranians] backed off,” Slaughter said. “They’ve used talks to simply delay, delay, delay. If we thought for whatever reason, the Iranians were really ready to deal, this administration will deal despite the election.”
A more effective means of containing Iran might be by focusing on another country – Iran’s chief Arab ally, Syria. A change in government there could deprive Iran of its front seat on the Arab-Israeli conflict and conduit to Hezbollah, Hamas and other anti-Israel groups.
The dual Russian-Chinese veto Feb. 4 of a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for President Bashar al-Assad to step down has forced the Obama administration, working with Turkey, other NATO allies and the Arab League, to resort to a George W. Bush-style “coalition of the willing” to support the Syrian opposition. The U.S. State Department calls it a “friends of a democratic Syria group” and it is due to meet for the first time Feb. 24 in Tunisia.
The U.S. has ruled out American military intervention but is contemplating offering medicine and food to beleaguered Syrians. NATO has been surveying Syria for months and could patrol the skies over a buffer zone or humanitarian corridor on the border with Turkey or Jordan.
While the prospects for an early resolution of the crisis are dim, Slaughter said she is “guardedly optimistic” that Assad will fall.
“The opposition has gotten braver and braver and more determined,” she said. She also highlighted the role of the Arab League, which sent monitors into Syria and drafted a plan for Assad to cede power to his Sunni vice president.
League members have “gotten themselves so far into this that there’s no way out other than forcing him [Assad] out,” she said.
A third crisis confronting the United States in the Middle East is coming from a long-time ally.
Egypt has forbidden several Americans – including the son of U.S. transportation secretary Ray Lahood – from leaving the country pending trial on charges that they illegally spent foreign funds to promote democracy.
The Americans worked for groups including the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, which provide training in the nuts and bolts of democracy and do not back specific candidates. However, their efforts to register in Egypt have been blocked for years – first by the Hosni Mubarak administration and now by his successors. As of this writing, the ruling military council appears ready to risk $1.5 billion in U.S. aid – most of it military – rather than back down.
The dispute could be a temporary ploy to stoke nationalism and divert attention from the interim government’s abysmal performance. It is also another sign of declining U.S. influence in the Middle East.
Brzezinski suggested that some of that decline is the Obama administration’s fault and singled out its failure to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“One basic lesson to draw is not to say we’ll do certain things and then to act like a minor power and abandon the effort when someone objects to it,” he said, referring to initial Obama demands – since dropped -- for Israel to halt Jewish settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.
“America has to be steadfast in its principles which sometimes can be costly,” added Brzezinski, who has just written a new book on how to maintain U.S. influence called “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. 1”
According to Brzezinski, “We have to think of our long-range interests and not our immediate political prospects…What really damages is when America wobbles.”
Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, specializing on Iran.