In Stalinist Russia there was a saying that it is never too late to be shot. In the USA it is clearly never too late to practice craven sycophancy. In his latest article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Zbnigniew Brzezinski gives us the proof.
2009 Nobel Prize for Peace, Fool’s Gold: Zbigniew Brzezinski ‘From Hope to Audacity’ in Foreign Affairs, January-February 2010
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
The irrepressible Mr Brezezinski is writing up a storm in his dotage and he is being given prime real estate by Foreign Affairs magazine to spread his polemical messages across its worldwide audience After having received 18 pages in the September-October 2009 issue for his advice on reforming the NATO agenda, here he is back again with a 15 page article rating the foreign policy achievements of Obama’s first year in office.
In Stalinist Russia there was a saying that it is never too late to be shot – in the sense of execution for political crimes. In the good old US of A, it is clearly never too late to practice craven sycophancy for self-promotion. Even seemingly self-restrained, almost immobile Zbigniew Brzezinski has now given us a splendid proof of that truism in his 82nd year.
Brzezinski opens the new article by tossing a glorious bouquet to the Commander in Chief. He insists that Mr Obama earned his Nobel Prize for Peace by turning around U.S. foreign policy objectives. Then he extends the flattery in his explanation of how Obama drew upon personal resources – “his personal history, his studies, or his intuitive sense of history” to realize the ‘reconceptualizing’ of American foreign policy along what Brzezinski assures us is ‘a strategically and historically coherent worldview.”
But ZB does not stop here. Indeed he then lavishly praises Obama’s whole team of foreign policy and national security advisers, including several mediocrities and intellectual bankrupts right down to the likes of Richard Holbrooke.
Why the encomiums? What is going on?
In the investigative tradition of Mr Brzezinski’s core skill of Kremlinology, I suggest looking first at the credit line at the top of page one. In other publications over the past year, ZB has invariably identified himself as a foreign policy aide to Mr Obama. In this article, he is identified only as the former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter and as the author of a 2007 book evaluating the foreign policy achievements of the last three American presidents. Can it be that Mr Brzezinski has fallen from his perch in the new Administration? Is he being treated like fellow octogenarian Paul Volcker, who has been steadily frozen out of consultation on current affairs by the Obama White House after an initially very chummy relationship, including sharing of for-eyes-only advice on the presidential blackberry? Is he using his wiles now to crawl back into favor? Time will tell.
In any case, the most curious feature of ‘From Hope to Audacity’ is that it systematically disproves its opening thesis about what President Obama has really achieved in office and why.
In reviewing what he identifies as the three urgent issues facing the Administration – ‘the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the Afghan-Pakistani challenge’ – Mr. Brzezinski shows, painfully, just how intractable they are and how difficult it is to expect much progress even if the President were on top of the situation. However, en passant he points to some opportunities Mr. Obama has missed along the way, not least of all because his primary attention has been elsewhere, on rescuing the nation from its near economic collapse and on passing his primary domestic legislative goal of health care reform. Brzezinski acknowledges that the period for achievements in foreign policy would have been this first year gone by, when the President’s political authority was still at its peak. He admits that ‘the time for decisive action is running out.’
We get more of the same when Brzezinski moves on to critique the ‘key strategic relationships’ which the Obama team has proposed to renew since its accession to power. This begins with the famous ‘resetting’ of relations with Russia. Reverting to the anti-Russian stance which has characterized his entire professional career, ZB himself places in question what, if anything can be gained by making nice with Russia. His only compliments to the Administration in this domain go to Vice President Joe Biden and his visits to Central Europe to reassure America’s dear friends that any progress in relations with Moscow would not be at their expense. Biden’s grossly undiplomatic behavior included disparaging remarks about Russia’s future which were completely in line with the attack-dog policies of his predecessor, the notorious Dick Cheney. In short, what Brzezinski is praising was the very contradiction of the President’s headline policies.
Earlier in the same article, Brzezinski managed to work into his analysis of the Iranian nuclear stand-off remarks on why Russian cooperation over sanctions should not be counted upon. He alludes to Moscow’s material interest in seeing the US embroiled in conflict in the Persian Gulf that would drive up oil prices, thereby enriching Russia at the cost of the US and China. Only a dyed-in-the-wool, Russia-baiter could dream up such a cockeyed analysis of what makes Russia tick. Better to blame George W. Bush for invading Iraq for the purpose of driving up world oil prices on behalf of his Houston cronies: at least that explanation fits a reality, whereas the supposition of Russian motives covers one of many possible scenarios.
Looking at the improved relations with the European Union which the Obama foreign policy team has sought since taking office, Brzezinski dismisses the objective of true strategic cooperation on a global scale given Europe’s inability to get its own act together.
That leaves the relationship with China, which Brzezinski is cheerleading on. He praises Obama’s decision to pursue a ‘geopolitical G-2’ for ‘helping to develop an increasingly significant strategic dialogue.’ Indeed, that may be the case. But on the one hand, Obama’s initiatives towards China are not significantly different from those pursued by the Bush Administration. On the other hand, what difference there is comes mostly in the manner of their execution and does not show up Obama to advantage. One can reasonably argue that Obama’s behavior on his November visit to Beijing signaled personal and national weakness and currying favor on the part of Washington, none of which is likely to win respect with his interlocutors.
Seeking to blame forces outside the Administration for its lack of any strategic breakthrough in international affairs during its time in office, for its lack of achievement on any of the fronts it itself prioritized, Brzezinski, the diehard polemicist, turns his attention to what he calls ‘domestic impediments.’
The first on his list is ‘foreign policy lobbies.’ However, this hardly qualifies as a new or special handicap facing this President. Moreover, in his 2008 handbook on diplomacy Power Rules, veteran foreign policy commentator Leslie Gelb argued very convincingly that the power of foreign and special interest lobbies to constrain the President in international affairs amounts to nothing if the Chief Executive properly musters patriotic arguments and does his work on Capitol Hill.
Second on Brzezinski’s list of obstacles preventing Obama from turning the expectations for change in foreign policy into strategic breakthroughs is the alleged polarization of American political life and its infusion with demagogy. He does not identify who are the problem-makers in Congress frustrating formulation of a bipartisan foreign policy, and indeed his silence on this point is not accidental.
As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I contend that it is precisely the unreservedly bipartisan positions on U.S. foreign policy objectives in both the expert community and within the U.S. Senate which have been the bane of intellectual honesty and reasonable policy creation for several decades now. The vast majority of our representatives share the Wilsonian idealistic ideology which may be variously expressed as Neoconservative or ‘hawkish liberal’. Realists and identification of national interest to guide U.S. foreign policy remain an insignificant voice in the halls of power.
Given the absence of debate over objectives, what we are left with is a spitting match over competence and experience and brainpower in successfully executing those policies. Put another way, we have factionalism. Byzantium had its Greens and Blues. Medieval Italy had its Guelfs and Ghibellines. The United States has donkeys and elephants, where the conflict, at least in international affairs, comes down to little more than fighting over the spoils of power.
Let us turn this around in our mind for a moment and match it up with the question of what effect a determined pursuit of his new initiatives in foreign policy such as a more even-handed treatment of Israel or the opening of face to face talks with Iran would have had on Obama’s popularity ratings in the nation and in the Senate.
I contend it is a safe bet that Obama’s foreign policy is hostage to his higher priority domestic programs. Any real as opposed to cosmetic changes in U.S. foreign policy would be perceived by the majority of Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill as a sign of weakness in a President who, as it is, after throwing red meat to the hawks a couple of weeks ago in the form of his 30,000 increase in troops in Afghanistan, on Christmas eve just squeaked by in the Senate on a 60-39 vote in favor of his high priority health care bill.
Brzezinski’s third item on his list of impediments preventing Obama from succeeding in foreign policy is the ignorant American public. Here he returns to the same old nag that he has been flogging in his last two books when complaining about the American political landscape. Brzezinski has never squared the logic of his calling for American worldwide hegemony with criticizing the people comprising the democracy as a bunch of undereducated nitwits who are taken in by simplifiers and demagogues. Mr Brzezinski, shame on you! This all smells of vile elitism.
If, as manifestly seems to be the case, the majority of the American public and its Establishment is not yet ready for substantial change in U.S. foreign policy to move us beyond the unsupportable American Empire into a more equitably shared and sustainable world governance, then it is the first duty of the Chief Executive to undertake the re-education of the nation. With patience and encouragement, national perceptions can be changed. It would be useful if Mr Obama paid more attention to the traditions of his own party, where FDR once upon a time moved his isolationist country into the front ranks of internationalists. Sad to say, this kind of painstaking work is not going on today. Nor is the President surrounded with aides and advisors who have themselves surmounted the blinders of the recent past and who can assist him in his leadership role.
Now we come to the very conclusion of Brzezinski’s article in which he lets the ball drop, telling us that ‘Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.” He calls upon the President to exercise decisive leadership, ‘to pursue with tenacious audacity the soaring hopes he unleashed.” Put in less charitable terms, Mr. Brzezinski is acknowledging that in the realm of international affairs, all we have gotten from this President so far is hot air. And the fault, one may surmise, is not in the stars….
I cringe when I think of Obama’s accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, not to mention the ‘in your face’ speech justifying the war in Afghanistan that he delivered in Oslo. If he could have escaped for a moment from the clutches of the flatterers and handlers who have surrounded him ever since he moved into the White House, Barack Obama, the man of the people, would have turned down the Prize as unearned. That would have been the decent thing to do.
There are years, in fact, when one or another Nobel Prize is not awarded because the harvest of candidates is too weak. Obviously 2009 was one such year and there was no reason to cover this up with an award to Obama for his not being Bush.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2009
G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.