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 on GPS today to get his take on events unfolding in the Middle East and the global consequences.
Fareed Zakaria: We are in a stalemate it appears. You were in favor of this intervention. You argued that it would send a politically damaging signal in the Arab world for the United States to have stood by while a slaughter took place. But now we're in a situation that seems somewhat predictable - that is, neither side has the ability to win, and the United States is sort of in the middle here. What should we do?
Zbigniew Brzezinski: Well, first of all, I think we have to face the fact that if we hadn't acted, today Gadhafi would be standing astride the Middle East as the most successful anti-American defiant and hostile leader. So we have avoided that.
But now we have to make certain that he doesn't stick around, and I'm concerned that time is not on our side. The longer this thing lasts, the more likely he'll end up entrenched in at least half of Libya.
So I think we have to push, and while caution and restraint are the proper words, especially since we need the support of the Arab League, in fact there are a lot of things we can be doing, I suspect we are doing (in any case we should be doing) to make certain that he doesn't stick around.
Now, one of the things that there seems to have been some mixed messages on is are we going to assist the rebels? The president seemed to signal that he might be inclined to do that, then Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton said no. You are somebody who has a real history here. You were the one who argued passionately and successfully that the United States should arm the Afghan rebels when they opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. So tell us whether you think arming the rebels in this case would be a good idea.
The United States wasn't alone in helping the Mujahideen against the Soviet invasion. There was a worldwide coalition, not only with our friends in NATO and so forth but also in the region, with Pakistan, with the Arabs and, curiously enough, also with the Chinese, and that did drive the Soviets out and we would be far worse off today if we hadn't done it.
Now, today it seems to me the United States is right in saying that it shouldn't take the lead in arming the rebels, even in being in the forefront of the military initiative. But, quietly, we can certainly do a lot, and I think our allies who have taken the lead are dependent on us in that respect.
So there can be a slight gap - not a total contradiction, if I may say so - between words and actions. I think the posture should be that we are in the back seat. As a matter of practice, I think we can be doing a lot more.
Do you worry about the blowback, you know, the - the example everyone looks at is the Afghan case, where they say we armed the Mujahideen but then it turned out that there are elements within it turned into al Qaeda, and that therefore if we arm the Libyan rebels, we don't know who these people are and they would end up with guns and perhaps the elements here would be Jihadists as well.
Fareed, you know the history of the Afghan country quite well, and you'll recall that the Soviets were driven out, and after that the West totally ignored the ravaged, destroyed Afghanistan for years. And the Taliban appeared on the scene about half a decade later. And then, subsequent to that, al Qaeda made its appearance.
So I think these are the kind of failures we can avoid, we should avoid. But that does raise the larger issue of our position in the Middle East. Now, we have a short-term problem with Gadhafi, and I hope we resolve it decisively. But the longer-range trend is inimical.
Now, the Middle East saw itself as liberated from French and British colonialism after World War II, and they welcomed us as a liberator. Today, increasingly, we are seen as the second phase of colonialism or imperialism in the region and the political trends in the region are turning against us.
Regimes that were once friendly towards us, whether it be in Iran or perhaps now in Egypt, are going to be less friendly, and certainly Iran is more than less friendly - it's hostile. And in Egypt we'll have difficulties.
And the masses are now awakened. They're stirring, and they're far less likely to be compliant to our political wishes than the old elites, which were, to some extent, not only politically but [also] financially tied to us.
But that places us in a strange paradox where we've been supporting these dictatorships that have been pro- American. We all welcome the rise of this Arab spring and this Arab revolution, but you point out it may prove thorny for American foreign policy, and you see this in Egypt, you see this in Yemen most strikingly. What should the United States do? It should welcome these Arab revolutions, I take it, even though they might make life more difficult for American foreign policy?
Absolutely. I think we have to help them because one of the impulses for these revolutions is this hatred for corruption, resentment, frustration, unemployment, the youth bulge, all of which needs a lot of tender care in order to overcome the social stimuli that made these masses more driven, more revolutionary and more impatient.
And, beyond that, there's also the question of peace because whether we like it or not, the Israeli Palestinian conflict is a major impulse for hatred of the United States, and, therefore, it's in our interest and in Israel's long-run interest to move forward before the regimes that are now in the process of emerging begin to adopt an increasingly hostile position towards us and towards Israel. And I have particularly in mind Egypt - potentially also Jordan.
But there seems to be no progress on that so far, and it doesn't appear that President Obama at least has much leverage with Prime Minister Netanyahu. All efforts in that direction seemed to have gone nowhere.
Well, did you see the story today in the "New York Times" about the likelihood of the showdown taking place in the U.N.? Are we then going to be voting against Palestinian independence? How will that affect the attitude of the masses in the region?
In other words, time is running out, and this is why we have two problems - a long-range one, which I'm talking about right now, and the shorter range one with Gadhafi. In both cases, in my judgment, the time is against us, and this is why we have to be quite decisive in responding to both, though each is of a different dimension.
Very briefly, do you think the Obama administration is handling things well?
I think it has approached the Libyan crisis well. I thought it approached the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, initially, quite well, but then it sort of run out of steam, it compromised itself by voting against a U.N. resolution, which was almost a verbatim quotation of our own official position, and therefore we conveyed the impression that we're powerless and are not prepared to act. And I think that is a mistake, but it is a mistake that's redeemable because the president still has a lot of credit over there and over here.