A Conversation with Zbigniew Brzezinski

The premise of this special collection of articles on peace in the Middle East is that all the major elements of regional conflict and cooperation are linked. These include U.S. relations with Iran, options for U.S. exit from Iraq, U.S. containment of militant Islamism, economic development of the region, and a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In this interview, which frames the issue, Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner discusses with former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski how the various elements of Middle East peace fit together.

Robert Kuttner: In your view, what are the prospects for some kind of big regional settlement in the Middle East? And how do the several pieces fit together?

Zbigniew Brzezinski: I think that a regional settlement is possible, provided the power that is most capable of promoting it engages itself seriously. This is not to say that it will be easy, but it is not impossible. The overwhelming element of uncertainty is whether the United States has the will and the gumption to tackle the issue.

RK: What is the relationship between some kind of tolerable stabilization of Iraq and a broader regional settlement of the other major outstanding issues, the two obvious ones being Israel-Palestine and Iran?

ZB: The Israeli-Palestinian issue is ripe for settlement, provided the United States pursues it, because neither of the two parties on the official level has the will and the predisposition to seek that settlement. By now we know what the fundamental parameters of a genuine settlement are, and if they're not implemented, there will be no settlement.

The Iraqi situation will take time to stabilize itself, but the longer the conflict lasts and the longer the occupation lasts, the more the civil war and the anti–U.S. insurgency are going to be intertwined. Therefore, it is important to cut the nexus and to set in motion a political process that facilitates United States disengagement and contributes to stabilization. It's hard to say how quickly it could be achieved, but within two years there could be genuinely significant improvement.

Iran is going to be there forever, and Iran is going to be important in the region whether we like it or not. And it's in our interest, first of all, to avoid a collision, because an American-Iranian collision, either deliberately provoked or accidentally precipitated, would bog the United States down in a conflict that will then span both Iraq and Iran.

RK: Let's take them one at a time. If we want some kind of lessening of tensions with Iran, what's the sequence by which we bring that about?

ZB: Well, what seems a good way to begin -- which is in fact what is happening right now, but the outcome of which is obviously uncertain -- is the dialogue about regional security. This is presumably focused specifically on Iraq, but by implication it involves others. If we are prepared to be serious on this, I think that could in turn make it somewhat easier to perhaps eliminate the obstacle to more discussion about the nuclear problem -- that obstacle being the U.S. decision, clumsy and basically stupid, to insist that the Iranians give something up as a precondition for a serious dialogue on the subject. I frankly don't understand how anyone in his right mind would make that condition if he were serious about negotiations, unless the objective is to prevent negotiations.

RK: Is the whole or partial normalization of relations with Iran and a lifting of sanctions the first step, or the last step?

ZB: I think the first step is the dialogue with Iran, with Syria, and the others, but particularly with Iran. That could lead to some understanding regarding the nuclear issue in which, for example, the Iranians voluntarily decide to suspend for a period of time enrichment, and we suspend some of the sanctions that we have imposed over the years or very recently. I don't have a particular menu for this process. But it seems to me it doesn't require the mind of a rocket scientist to figure that this is an approach that has worked in other cases. And we did, after all, after several painful years, manage to change our negotiating position toward North Korea. So why shouldn't we be able to do it also toward Iran?

RK: Well, in light of how the Korean shift came about -- how Secretary Condi Rice and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley had to go directly to the president and cut Vice President Cheney out of the loop -- do you see a shift in who's making policy and a shift in the ability of the real hard-liners to veto progress?

ZB: I think the real shift is that in the case of North Korea, we had a party to the talks who was tough-minded and clear as to what ought to be done. And they weren't particularly hesitant in communicating it cogently to us. I refer to the Chinese. And on the U.S. side, we're fortunate to have a negotiator, who, while compliant with the general ideological line of the administration, is tough-minded and independent. That's Chris Hill. He was able in a sense to foster a serious dialogue with the Chinese and within the administration at the same time. I don't see that yet in our relationship with Iran, but it is to these factors that I ascribe the change, and not so much to the notion that Rice and Hadley had an epiphany.

RK: Well, let's shift to Israel. You said the terms of the settlement are well known by now.

ZB: Yes, and if I may say so, I have been advocating them for years. And I think, not because of my advocacy, they now are more generally accepted, and the public-opinion polls show that the Israeli public and the Palestinian public will accept them. I suspect the majority of American Jews, who are predominantly liberal, would also accept them. They may not be acceptable to the Likudniks and the right wing in Israel politically. They may not be acceptable to Hamas or some key elements of it. They may not be acceptable to AIPAC, which tends to be more catholic than the pope when it comes to Israel.

But the basic elements, in my judgment, are the following. One: no right of return. That's a very bitter pill for the Palestinians to swallow; I have to emphasize that. It's a fundamental issue for them. But there cannot be any right of return, unless they package it as 20,000 Palestine grandmothers over the age of 80 and certified not to be capable of child bearing, something like this.

Now second, in return for that, there has to be the sharing of Jerusalem. Let me just be as blunt on this as I can be, even though I know that this is an emotional issue. There will be no peace if Jerusalem is entirely controlled by Israel. Because you can see the Golden Dome from the West Bank, and it's a living symbol of what they all consider to be an unfair peace … it has to be shared. The outline is roughly what Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak were talking about, and the Geneva Accords actually are the most specific description of how this could be done.

The third is a division based roughly on the 1967 borders, but not mechanically, because a number of settlements that are near the border and are largely urban should be incorporated into Israel, in return for which there should be an absolutely asymmetrical adjustment in favor of the Palestinian state. Otherwise, it's again perceived as an unfair treaty in a setting in which close to six million Israelis and roughly five million Palestinians have already divided the previous Palestine mandate, 78 percent in favor of Israel and … 22 percent for Palestine. So you can't expect the Palestinians to accept any further cuts.

And the fourth element is the comprehensive demilitarization of the Palestinian state, with a major UN presence. When I first advocated that, some critics called me crazy, and yet today we have a major presence of military personnel from NATO countries in southern Lebanon with Israel accepting it. And I think this crazy idea will probably be actually beneficial to Israel.

RK: This would include not just presence, but explicit security guarantees?

ZB: Yes, absolutely. I would even say that if Israel signs a peace treaty on that basis with the Palestinians, I would personally favor Israel's membership in NATO.

RK: Do you see an enhanced European role in the region as the American credibility has been diminished?

ZB: You know, I said that China plays an important role in the Korea negotiations. But the Europeans haven't played an important role in the Middle East, because there's no Europe; there's only European countries. And there won't be a European role until Europe -- by which I mean primarily the political leadership of Great Britain, Germany, and France, maybe supported on the margins by Spain, Italy, and Poland -- comes to us and says, "This is our European policy. We are your allies. We are willing to work with you, but policy is shared, and responsibilities are shared." That's in effect what the Chinese said to us. Such a Europe would be important, but we're not going to have such a Europe for some years to come.

RK: And that being the case, Europe won't be a major player?

ZB: Europe can be supportive, and the Europeans will certainly support us if we do what I think we should do. But they'll be frustrated and disappointed with us if we don't act, but unable to do it on their own. And then we'd have an even bigger mess.

RK: Before the American invasion of Iraq, there was a lot of talk about the road to Jerusalem leading through Baghdad: Destroy Saddam and you supposedly strengthen the prospects for peace on terms acceptable to Israel. Some people now argue that the road runs the other way -- that an Israel-Palestine settlement would reduce tensions in the region because it would remove one of the principal frustrations in the Arab relationship -- and, for that matter, the Iranian relationship -- with the United States. On the other hand, has so much damage been done now by the Iraq War and the radicalization of Islam that even a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict would no longer be so helpful in bringing greater peace and stability to the region?

ZB: Prior to the war with Iraq, an Israel-Palestine settlement, with us playing a creative role in it, would have fundamentally altered Arab attitudes toward the United States. The United States has been viewed in the region somewhat benignly as a kind of post-imperial presence, replacing the British and the French, in spite of its support for Israel. But in recent years, when we shifted from being a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, that positive image began to erode and provoke, among some, intense hostility toward America. Some of that would disappear if there was such a settlement.

Unfortunately, we have done other damaging things since then. We have destroyed the most viable and the most modern Arab country in the Middle East. We destroyed the Iraqi state, loathsome as its leadership was. Now, we are also destroying the country -- 24 million people, two million of whom have been driven out of the country, one and a half million of whom have been driven out of their homes, and roughly half a million of whom are not living today because of what happened. Not that all of them were killed by us, but some children were not born because of us. Other people died earlier because of us. There's been a general decline in fertility, and a general increase in mortality, because of what has happened. That has created a lot of resentment, obviously.

And then on top of it, there is the Islamophobic rhetoric that Bush has fostered, and the irresponsible plunge of the mass media and the entertainment industry into terror sensationalism with a strong racist, religious tone to it, resulting in a feeling of real resentment. Some of these manifestations really, to me, are reminiscent of the characterizations of Jews in Nazi Germany, the deliberate caricatures of entire groups of people in a conscious way. I am particularly shocked that some Jewish student organizations are now promoting that with films and so forth, as if they were not aware of the fact that the Holocaust was the product of similar hatred; and that is profoundly disturbing, politically and morally.

RK: But even with all of that, if the United States hopes to get back some of its moral influence in the world and region, an Israel-Palestine settlement would still help?

ZB: It would help a hell of a lot. And it would help a lot also toward solving the Iraqi problem, and then probably thereby facilitate some sort of a reasonable balance in relations with Iran. And all of that, cumulatively, would have a very profound impact. But it would no longer have the same close-to-total effect if we had done this when I think we could have done it.

And we could have done it twice. We could have done it with Bush Senior. If he had been reelected, it would have been done, but he wasn't reelected. And then it could have been done if Clinton had been more serious and less politically calculating and had applied himself to it, not just a few months before the elections but maybe a couple of years before the elections.

RK: Let's turn to Iraq. What is the least bad way out of Iraq, and what is the least bad scenario for what happens after we leave?

ZB: In a nutshell: a Kurdish/Shiite, somewhat theocratic regime that probably uses a combination of compromise and brutal violence, resolves the civil strife, is then nominally friendly toward us, but is not really a reliable friend. But at the same time, Iraqi nationalism is still somewhat of a barrier to Iran in the region.

RK: A less brutal version of Saddam?

ZB: You're putting it rather brutally yourself, but that's essentially right.

RK: And what do the Sunnis get?

ZB: The Sunnis get what they can get, and that depends on whether they prefer to accommodate or whether they want to fight. I don't feel that it is America's responsibility to resolve their civil war -- although it is in a sense, unfortunately, a civil war that we have produced. So we cannot be totally passive, nor indifferent. Nonetheless, you don't solve civil wars by foreign occupation unless you can make that occupation totally successful. The fact of the matter is, we're not able; not physically, but we're not able as a matter of will to end that civil war by force of arms. That would require a combination of an enormous military effort with extraordinary brutality, and the country isn't prepared to support either.

RK: So does that mean -- withdrawal by a date certain?

ZB: Well, as you may know, I've been advocating for well over a year now that we set a date, and I've been using the date of one year. That year has already passed, because my voice hasn't been heeded.

RK: But what happens? Let's assume we heed your voice, and on June 1st of 2008, the last American troop leaves, and civil war intensifies.

ZB: Well, if people know that we are leaving -- first of all, it's not going to be a surprise. People have to adjust to that reality. And I would imagine some intelligent Shiite leaders would say, "Let's compromise." Others would say, "Let's fight." Probably both elements, both aspects will happen. And again, the dust settles.

RK: And do other regional countries play a role, and do we care what that role is?

ZB: Well, not really. I think the Syrians are going to get involved. The Syrians will be very anxious not to be left out of the peace arrangement between Palestine and Israel. The Iranians obviously will favor the Shiites, and there's a simplistic assumption among some here that the Iraqi Shiites are somehow or other willing sacrifices. The fact is, they fought very well against the Iranians in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war.

RK: And what about the concern that Iraq would be a hotbed for radical Islamist terrorists?

ZB: I see no reason for that. The Kurds would still need American support in the part of the Iraq where they are influential. The Shiites would still need some balance between themselves and Iran, which would require support from us. After all, there are territorial disputes, which, of course, the Iraqis remember. And the Saudis would have some influence over the Sunnis. I think we could probably manage that. It's not going to be "a cake walk" by any means, but I think that scenario is still, despite its inherent uncertainties, probably preferable to the consequences of continued civil war with America mixed up in that civil war directly, and perhaps inching toward some unintended collision with Iran in the process.

RK: Can you articulate a principled basis for when to reach accommodation with hostile or even odious regimes? Iran is not Nazi Germany. But where do you draw the line in terms of people whom you can do business with and reach a settlement of some kind based on mutual interests versus people who are totally abhorrent?

ZB: One reaches a settlement not because one likes the people involved or because they're good people. But one reaches a settlement because, in at least some circumstances, a settlement is better than a war. It's as simple as that. Now if Iran wants a war with the United States, they will certainly get one. But I don't want America to want a war with Iran, because I think we're better off without a war with Iran. And it's no comfort to me that some Iranians may want to commit suicide. So I think one should always give settlement a chance, unless one is attacked.

RK: So you don't believe that the fact that some people in the Middle East do want to commit suicide makes it a challenge of a whole other order of magnitude?

ZB: Well, some people may, but that doesn't mean that states will. We'll have problems with groups and terrorists, but if states involved don't want to commit suicide, then they could become allies in containing these groups, provided there is some accommodation on outstanding issues.

RK: How do you see the United States regaining moral authority in the region and the world after these debacles under the Bush administration?

ZB: There's a very simple, very basic answer. The very simple answer is by surviving the next 20 months without an escalation of war. That automatically means the situation becomes different at the end of 2008.

RK: But then the hard work begins.

ZB: But then the hard work begins with the new president, who is not encumbered by the catastrophic judgments of his predecessor, nor with the fanaticism of his predecessor, not by underestimating the difficulties.

RK: Do you think the more fanatical, paranoid factions of the Bush administration have been weakened to the point where policy is already changing?

ZB: I think the composition of the group within the administration has been diluted. The big uncertainty is the disposition at the very top.

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