Brzezinski’s bunker

Issue: 114

Richard Seymour

Zbigniew Brzezinksi, Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower (Basic Books, 2007), £15.99

The Bush administration has either not read or not heeded Zbigniew Brzezinski’s previous book on US strategy, The Grand Chessboard. In his latest, Brzezinski complains: ‘Bush disregarded the three basic imperatives of imperial geostrategy. As I described them (using deliberately archaic terminology) in The Grand Chessboard, these are “to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together”.’

Instead, according to Brzezinski, Europe is alienated, Russia and China are more assertive, Asia is organising itself, Latin America is becoming ‘populist and anti‑American’, and the Middle East is inflamed by religious passions and anti-imperial nationalisms. That isn’t the end of it. Iran is dominant in the Persian Gulf, Pakistan is volatile and has nuclear weapons, there is a global political awakening, and the tertiary‑educated youth of the Third World are now ‘the equivalent of the militant proletariat of the 19th and 20th centuries’. America has led, and been led, badly, not only by George Bush, but by every US president since the end of the Cold War.

Brzezinski is an important figure in the American foreign policy establishment: a professor at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the Trilateral Commission’s executive committee, and a former adviser to four US presidents. Most notably he advised President Carter, with whom he devised the policy of supporting the armed opposition to the pro-Russian regime in Afghanistan, in order to draw the USSR into a war which would be ‘its Vietnam’. One million Afghans died in the ensuing conflict, and the ‘terrorist threat’ that Brzezinski refers to was first forged with US arms and dollars, but on record he has no regrets. He later served on Bush senior’s National Security Advisory Task Force. A ‘realist’ in international relations, Brzezinski wastes no time moralising about the application of US power, and he derides the neoconservatives who do as promoting ‘an updated version of imperialism’. If morality has a place in international politics, it is only to the extent that US policymakers should pursue a strategy including ‘cultural appeal’, since military power is no longer ‘sufficient to sustain imperial domination’.

According to Brzezinski, Bush senior’s administration failed because it sought ‘traditional’ policy options in a world that was not traditional. Bush had successes in ‘cutting Saddam’s excessive ambitions down to size’, a security challenge that was ‘awe-inspiring’, and exploiting Mikhail Gorbachev’s weakness to manage the collapse of the USSR, which ‘deserves the highest praise’. However, these were marred by ensuing caution and the absence of a ‘burst of global architectural innovation like the one that followed World War II’.

-Brzezinski acknowledges that by August 1990, the month Iraq invaded Kuwait, Bush senior had already decided to wage war on Iraq. To get a war, he had to out-manoeuvre not only Russian diplomatic initiatives aimed at producing a face-saving withdrawal for Iraq, but also those within his administration who said the sanctions had worked. Brzezinski’s only criticism of the venture is that Bush did not go boldly into Baghdad and topple Saddam. Brzezinski finds the lack of vision dispiriting—Bush senior promised a ‘new world order’, but instead offered ‘a reassertion of the more familiar old imperial order’.

Bill Clinton failed in Brzezinski’s eyes because he pursued a policy of ‘globalisation’ that was both self-indulgent and tainted with historical determinism. Concerned first and foremost with neoliberal ‘domestic renewal’, his foreign policy was ‘a continuation of domestic politics by other means’. His team was not given to ‘personal, bureaucratic or military assertiveness’. Unlike Bush senior’s top‑down approach to policy making, Clinton hosted discussion groups with much talk and little decision. Things only picked up in his second term with the more aggressive Madeleine Albright as Secretary of State. Brzezinski argues that Clinton failed to halt nuclear proliferation by going soft on North Korea and pursuing only one‑sided sanctions against Pakistan, while allowing India to pursue its nuclear programme freely. Further, despite maintaining healthy relationships with allies, he oversaw a groundswell of hostility to what was branded the ‘hyperpower’. Tax cuts for the rich and ‘social hedonism’ were pursued, instead of using America’s ‘moral and political capital’ for the wider ‘global commonweal’.

However, it is the ‘catastrophic’ administration of the younger Bush that draws Brzezinski’s most cutting criticisms. His scorn for a regime of ‘hubris’ and ‘arrogance’ is unadulterated. Brzezinski derides Bush’s ‘dogmatism’, ‘manicheanism’, ‘swaggering’ and ‘Islamophobic demagogy’. He describes a breakdown in the machinery of the state in which the National Security Council failed to convey unwelcome intelligence to the president, in which Cheney pressured CIA analysts to offer hypotheses as fact, and in which the Pentagon created its own intelligence office on Iraq. The war on Iraq has ‘caused calamitous damage to America’s global standing’. It has been a ‘geopolitical disaster’ in ‘diverting resources and attention from the terrorist threat’, and has actually ‘increased the terrorist threat to the United States’. Without a clearly defined enemy and with ‘strong anti-Islamic connotations’, the ‘war on terror’ unifies Muslim opinion against the US, threatening ‘moderate Muslim elites’.

Brzezinski’s amoral realism allows him to perceive and state bluntly what most of Bush’s apologists cannot, but his analysis is nevertheless flawed in several respects. First, little attention is paid to the role of capital. There is a bluff acknowledgment of ‘interests’, but the treatment is glancing and superficial. As with most foreign policy ‘realists’, the state’s primacy as a unit in international relations is tautologically assumed. The global projection of ad hoc military power is reduced to a matter of statecraft. Second, Bush’s decision to wage war on Iraq is reduced to hubris and arrogance. There is little attempt to understand the strategic reasons for the decision. For instance, while the administration’s gamble on Iraq was arguably reckless, the strategic advantages of creating a pro-American regime with its hands on the oil spigot in Iraq were sufficiently compelling that most of the US political class and business press vocally supported the war, not just the hardcore of neoconservatives and energy capitalists supportive of Bush. Even in the midst of failure, most Democrats and Republicans are unwilling to withdraw, fearing a Saigon moment. Third, while critical of the failure of any US president since 1990 to press meaningfully for a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict along the lines of officially espoused support for UN Resolution 242, Brzezinski offers little in the way of analysis as to why this is so. He credits domestic ‘lobbies’ with a distorting influence that takes no account of how the policies advocated by, for instance, the ‘Israel lobby’ resonate with pre-existing strategies. Aside from this analytical vacuity, the book suffers from a surfeit of cliches. We are reminded that the British also had an empire, that there may be comparisons made with the Roman one, that democracy cannot be imposed on traditional societies overnight (here Brzezinski derides ‘shortsighted American efforts’ in Palestine, Egypt and Saudi Arabia) and that nemesis follows hubris.

The ‘second chance’ of the book’s title is offered by Brzezinski to a post-Bush executive. A Clinton or Obama might ‘restore America’s legitimacy as the major guarantor of global security’ if it can be identified with ‘the quest for universal human dignity’ and a recognition that ‘persisting injustices in the human condition must be remedied’. Brzezinski argues that there is a ‘global Balkans’ stretching from Suez to Xinjiang, an angry and volatile region resentful of outside domination—for the US to prevail in its interests on military power alone would require a ‘total national mobilisation’ that is untenable given domestic politics. He might have added that the deployment of such brutal force would be less than admirable, but again, such considerations do not loom large in Brzezinski’s purview. He advocates a response that combines what Joseph Nye calls ‘soft power’ with traditional military sanctions.

However, the measures offered to restore America’s global prestige are tepid at best. It is true that America could become more attractive by becoming more socially just, but it is not clear that compulsory national service would assist this. It is surely good in itself to develop an electorate better educated about global realities, but the recommendation involves an incongruous faith in the representative nature of American governance. And to share global leadership with China, encourage Sino‑Japanese reconciliation, reduce the deficit, deepen cooperation with Europe and reform some global institutions may all be geopolitically savvy, but it remains unclear how all of this will result in ubiquitous respect and admiration for the United States. Brzezinski’s passionate plea for an incoming president to save the American empire contains passages of genuine clarity and brutal honesty. It is a serious critique from within the establishment of Bush’s failures. However, it is also myopic, callous and superficial—for that reason alone it is certain to become a New York Times bestseller.