A word in the American president’s ear

By Jonathan Power

Who makes foreign policy in the US government? Ultimately the president. That goes without saying. But who has his ear? Sometimes the eminence grise becomes well known – a star like Henry Kissinger who crafted policies that put the flesh – and blood – on Richard Nixon’s foreign policy. Others become an intimate but out-of-the-limelight counsellor, like Brent Scowcroft with George Bush senior. Others like Barack Obama’s two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, are strong voices in the Administration but are not in the White House’s self-effacing inner circle. Obama makes the foreign policy himself, although in his early days, unaccountably, he allowed the military to make his policy in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most perfect of relationships was between President Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, his national Security Advisor. It was an unusual union between a southern “born again” Christian and a sophisticated academic who had made his name in the hard knocks school of real politik.

Such was his success that Ronald Reagan, who defeated Jimmy Carter, considered making Brzezinski his National Security Advisor. More recently the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie Gelb, said that Brzezinski should be appointed to head Obama’s White House foreign policy team.

Last month two books were published that allow us at last a full picture of Brzezinski. They are both excellent portraits of the man.

One is by a Polish scholar, Shlomo Avineri. The other is edited by Charles Gati and is a series of essays by some top players in US foreign policy. I should add that I have my own observations going back to 1977 when I was the first journalist to do a major interview with him that ran for a full page in both the Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune. This interview was commented on by nearly every major European newspaper. The Soviet President, Leonid Brezhnev, referred to it in derisory terms.

So who is this Cold War warrior who today appears angry about Russia’s doings in Ukraine but who at the same time advocates the moderate policy of “Finlandisation” for the country? (This concept, which Finland developed in the Cold War, meant not belonging to Nato and generally not criticising Soviet actions, while at the same time running its home affairs in a purely Western democratic way.)

Brzezinski is of the left, of the right and of the middle. He came to oppose the Vietnam War. Following 9/11 he felt America should have been quickly in and out of Afghanistan once it had bombed the daylights out of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. He opposed the two wars with Saddam Hussein and the talk of intervention in Syria. He is the joint author with Carter of the one successful effort to bring the Arabs and Israel closer when they persuaded Egypt and Israel to bury the hatchet. Today he is a sharp critic of Israel- its settlements’ policy and its refusal to make a conciliatory deal with the Palestinians.

He and Carter put the relationship with China before the relationship with the Soviet Union and engineered “normalisation”. He and the paramount Chinese leader, Deng Xiao Ping, formed a close intellectual bond, cementing a de facto, albeit secret, anti-Soviet alliance. He was also an advocate of human rights, pushing for a boycott of South Africa, while using rights advocacy as a way to tarnish the image of the Soviet Union.

He helped engineer the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union by provoking its military intervention in Afghanistan – the US deployed CIA-supported insurgents against the Moscow-supported regime in Kabul. But the support – some say guns – given to the Mujahedeen (which later certainly became highly sophisticated military hardware) also laid the foundations for the subsequent build-up of the Taliban and later, Al Qaeda.

Another bad mistake was his continuing support for the Shah of Iran. Also his push – in the end not supported by Carter – to support a crude dictatorial regime in Somalia in a war against Marxist Ethiopia. Then there was the counterproductive US “freeze” on India’s nuclear industry because India refused to pledge not to produce plutonium. (By driving India into a corner the paradoxical outcome was to pass up the real possibility of persuading the Gandhian-inclined prime minister, Moraji Desai, to face down his military and foreign ministry and close down India’s incipient nuclear bomb program [which he wanted to be in a position to do].) Not least, there was the blind eye that the White House turned towards Pakistan’s nuclear bomb making.

In the one term of the Carter presidency the two of them achieved more – some of it good, some of it bad – in four years than any other post-War president. But US voters, misled by a largely hostile press and foreign policy establishment that regarded Carter as “soft”, elected right wing Ronald Reagan.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2014

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