by Amar C. Bakshi, CNN
Zbigniew Brzezinski served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter from 1977-1981. In this role, he was intimately involved in brokering the Camp David Accords and wrestling with Iran's transition from a U.S. ally to an anti-Western Islamic republic. Brzezinski is currently a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
I spoke with Brzezinski this afternoon to get his take on events unfolding in the Middle East and the consequences for Egypt, Israel, Iran and the United States.
Amar C. Bakshi: Do you support the intervention in Libya?
Zbigniew Brzezinski: I support the intervention in Libya because I have the strong sense that if we did not [intervene], our credibility in the entire region - which is already very much at stake - would be shattered and Gadhafi would emerge as the leader and symbol of Arab radicalism.
Do you see what’s unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa as a grand reconfiguration of the region? And, if so, how would that affect U.S. concerns?
It is a reconfiguration, but it may not be quite what people here expect. I’m not all that confident the net result is going to be the surfacing and then the flowering of this series of democratic states. I draw a very clear distinction between populism and democracy.
Also, I emphasize in my own work for many years now the fact that a political awakening tends to be a rather extremist in its initial phases, irrespective of the vocabulary that it uses.
My expectation, therefore, is that what we’ll get in the Middle East is indeed a series of regimes more responsive to popular attitudes. But these popular attitudes are, in many respects, quite critical of American foreign policy - and especially so in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. As a consequence, I think, we’ll have a more difficult time in dealing with that problem, and we may end up paying a higher price for not dealing with it seriously.
What are the chances that if the Muslim Brotherhood became an influential voice in Egypt, for example, the Camp David treaty would be revoked?
I don’t think that it would be revoked outright. But I think the kind of passive acquiescence that we have seen in recent times on the part of the Egyptians is going to be a thing of the past. I think we underestimate the extent to which Arab public opinion on the popular level is truly preoccupied - and in some respects even impassioned - regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
There are some very good public opinion polls by Shibley Telhami, a professor at Maryland, which clearly indicated that issue is at the base of a lot of anti-American or anti-Western Arab sentiments. We also know ... that [Osama] bin Laden repeatedly – and I emphasize, repeatedly - has mentioned it as his principal-motivating impulse in his quest to damage America.
Is there a possibility that Israel could benefit from the upheavals sweeping the region, or is this likely to be against their interests?
I think [Israel] might benefit in the short-term, but largely on the basis of shortsighted expediency. Namely, it may provide them with a seemingly good argument that this is not an opportune moment for negotiations, which require mutual concessions.
But in the longer run, I think that will further preclude the possibility of Israel becoming a viable, creative and influential participant in a more accommodated and peaceful Middle East. I think the longer-range implications of that for Israel’s future are ominous.
And this is why I have been so outspoken, sometimes at some price, on behalf of the need for a grand compromise engineered by friends of the Israelis and of the Palestinians - and that is specifically and particularly the United States. And that passivity is a disservice not only to the Palestinians who suffer, but to the Israelis who might later on suffer even more.
Is Iran benefiting from all of this?
Is there a way that the U.S. can work to prevent Iran from gaining greater leverage within the Gulf?
Only by asking ourselves seriously, "What truly motivates the Arab masses?" Until now, we have been asking ourselves what truly motivates the Arab elites. The fact of the matter is the Arab elites are more inclined to accommodate our wishes because of certain overlapping interests that are often financial. That is not the case with the Arab masses. ...
I think we have to pay attention to the Arab masses not just in the Gulf States, but also in the hinterlands. Saudi Arabia is very important for us. So is Jordan, as a source of security for any eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace if it comes into being. Egypt for the same reason, because it already had a peace treaty. We have a variety of interests, but we have to understand that, in pursuing them, we cannot ignore the motivating impulses for the Arab people who are now beginning to assert themselves in their national decision-making.
What should U.S. policy be towards Syria and the Syrian opposition?
It seems to me we have to encourage some concessions towards democracy, but we also have to be conscious of the fact that not everywhere is our voice decisive. And if we’re not careful, we might unintentionally increase Iran’s influence. If we are prudent and careful, we might increase Turkey’s influence, and I think that will be all to the good.
Does this demonstrate declining U.S. influence abroad? Is our leverage in the region less than it has been years ago?
I think we’re facing, in fact, a significant decline of American influence in the region and perhaps the beginning of the process which, in the future, will be viewed by the peoples in the region as the second decisive phase in the decolonization of the region in the wake of first, World War I, and then even more so World War II.
For more, check out Fareed's TV interview with Henry Kissinger and Brzezinski on U.S.-China relations.