Mideast Challenges and Obama Re-Election Plans

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Brzezinski, Slaughter Discuss Mideast Challenges That Could Upset Obama Re-Election Plans

Barbara Slavin Interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski & Anne-Marie Slaughter

Al-Monitor Washington correspondent Barbara Slavin recently interviewed former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former State Department policy planning chief Anne-Marie Slaughter about the challenges facing the United States in the Middle East during this U.S. presidential election year. Excerpts from those interviews follow:

Zbigniew Brzezinski knows something about dealing with Iranians and his advice to President Barack Obama is this: Don’t start a war with Iran. National security adviser three decades ago when the Carter administration struggled to free U.S. hostages in Iran, Brzezinski says that Obama should not attack Iran’s nuclear sites even if that gives political ammunition to his more hawkish Republican opponents.

Question: Is this a particularly difficult presidential election year given developments in the region?

Brzezinski: The president confronts the challenge of whether to opt for a national foreign policy victory at the cost of presidential defeat or to opt for presidential victory at some significant cost to American foreign policy interests.

Q: You wrote in your new book that the U.S. should not engage in a “solitary military action against Iran or just in cooperation with Israel.” Can you expand on that?

Brzezinski: It’s easier to start a war than to end a war. Secondly, the costs of any conflict with Iran will be borne by the United States both in blood and money.

Q: What would you be doing about Iran?

Brzezinski: I would be on the record that we do not view a military solution as credible or desirable. That doesn’t mean I would be complacent about the Iranian efforts and I certainly support ostracizing them and making it uncomfortable for them economically though not to the point of confronting them with a choice of either abject capitulation or some sort of desperate lashing out on their part.

Even if they [the Iranians] get a single bomb, it means that they are not a threat yet to anyone because they are not suicidal and they know that if they were to use it, they would precipitate consequences to them that would be most grave.

To make that clear, I would issue a public statement that the U.S. will view an Iranian threat or action based on nuclear weapons against any state in the Middle East – Arab or Israeli – as an act against the United States.

Q: Let’s turn to Syria. The Russians have thumbed their noses at us and there is a very difficult humanitarian situation. Do you approve of developing a new ‘coalition of the willing’ to support the opposition at least with humanitarian aid?

Brzezinski: I would tend to follow the advice of the Turks who are the most proximate to the crisis, who probably have the best understanding of it and who have been good allies.

Q: The last in this trio of difficulties involves Egypt. We have this extraordinary situation where the Egyptians are in effect taking American hostages – Americans who were promoting democracy. How would you handle a situation like this?

Brzezinski: What I see in it unfortunately is a wider phenomenon which I have been observing for some months, namely that our influence in the Middle East is dramatically receding.

One basic lesson to draw is not to say we’ll do certain things and then to act like a minor power and abandon the effort when someone objects to it. That kind of record does not produce confidence in American leadership and American steadfastness. America has to be steadfast in its principles which sometimes can be costly… We have to think of our long-range interests and not our immediate political prospects…What really damages is when America wobbles.

Q: On Iran, do you think the Israelis are bluffing to make sure sanctions are really biting or is there really a danger of a conflict this year?

Slaughter: I think there’s a real danger. The overall configuration of Israeli domestic politics and everything else that is happening in the region means they are genuinely debating this question. I don’t think they’ve decided to attack.

Q: What in your mind is the appropriate policy given that Obama got essentially forced into the central bank sanctions by Congress?

Slaughter: I support the idea of a two-track policy. It’s very important to make clear there’s a genuine international concern here and a large part of what these sanctions are doing is signaling that it isn’t just the U.S…On the other hand, we’re in danger of a situation in which we are risking the sanctions being so tough that they close off the negotiating track rather than opening it. That’s a real danger because then we’re left with a game of chicken.

Q: The chances for a pro-active negotiating strategy seem dim in an election year.

Slaughter: There definitely is a willingness to negotiate if they [the Obama administration] think they have a negotiating partner in good faith. The problem has been we’ve come to the table, we’ve cut deals and they’ve [the Iranians] backed off. They’ve used talks to simply delay, delay, delay. If we thought for whatever reason, the Iranians were really ready to deal, this administration will deal despite the election.

The last thing Barack Obama wants is another war in the Middle East. This is madness. His entire administration has been about getting us out of wars in the Middle East and South Asia and just getting us out of land wars period.”

Q: To my mind, Syria is an area where there should be some consensus on getting rid of Bashar and that would be a more effective way of dealing with Iran than going straight at Iran. What are your thoughts on how the process is playing out now?

Slaughter: On Syria I am guardedly optimistic. The opposition has gotten braver and braver and more determined. That was the first thing people did not expect.

Nobody a year ago would have said that the Arab League would condemn it as strongly as they did, then send monitors and then call for his [Bashar al-Assad’s] resignation. That’s just astounding.

The place to watch is the Arab League. They’ve gotten themselves so far into this that there’s no way out other than forcing him [Assad] out.

Q: How do you do that?

Slaughter: I would not rule out Turkey setting up a buffer zone along its border and possibly Jordan. [doing the same].
…[Internally] if the Sunni support he’s had switches, I think he’s done.

Q: The Egyptian military is playing this cynical game of trying to hang on and retain its power and then, there is the behavior toward the NGOs. How would you handle this if you were still in government? Would you threaten to cut off military aid?

Slaughter: This is not about us. Whatever we can do we can do only at the margins.

What’s at stake is not the aid they [the Egyptian military] get from us but their control of the Egyptian economy and the ability to run it to their private benefit.

At some point, our hands will get forced. Taxpayers are not going to stand for us handing out that kind of aid when they’re actively imprisoning Americans.

Q: U.S. election years are not the best time to make progress on Arab-Israeli peace process and we have the further complication that Netanyahu is running for re-election. Is there anything the U.S. can do?

Slaughter: This is a year where all parties are sorting out domestic issues and there either will be a very different configuration in a year or the same but in a way that forces everybody to recognize this is who you have to deal with.

As long as the Israelis think the Republicans are going to be elected, they have no incentive to give into anything the United States wants. Zbigniew Brzezinski knows something about dealing with Iranians and his advice to President Barack Obama is this: Don’t start a war with Iran.

*Barbara Slavin is Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, specializing on Iran.

Source: Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East

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