To meet Zbigniew Brzezinski is to have no doubt that he is an important man. The morning of our appointment, I was informed that I would have 15 minutes, and 14 minutes and 30 seconds into the interview Brzezinski glanced at his watch and said, “One more question.” Cordial, aristocratic, precise. He wore a fine pinstriped suit and black boots in a hunter’s style, with a black strap crossing the throat. The famous hooded eyes gazed out at the street.
It was a couple of days before Brzezinski’s 80th birthday, but it didn’t seem like a landmark to him: “It doesn’t look much different from anything else.” When I asked whether he didn’t feel a sense of satisfaction, he shrugged. “I honestly don’t have any feeling about it.”
His voice crackled with age, but he was immune to all pressure, especially when the name Obama came up.
“George Bush is more progressive than Obama on the issue of Israeli settlements,” I said. “He says mildly they should go, Obama won’t even say that.”
“You can’t expect of any candidate for president for any party to get into the technicalities and details of foreign policy in the course of a presidential campaign. That’s not the context for a discussion of really detailed options.”
“In the Ford-Carter debates on Eastern Europe they got into details,” I said.
The hawklike head turned from the window to me for once. “Like what?”
“You called my bluff.”
He smiled without a hint of triumph. “Sometimes it’s wise not to bluff.”
At 80, Brzezinski is nearly as relevant as he was 30 years ago, when he was the hawkish, crewcut national security adviser to Jimmy Carter. “He’s in fine shape. As clear-minded and articulate as he’s ever been,” says William Quandt, a professor of international relations at the University of Virginia who worked for Brzezinski in government. Quandt’s book Peace Process says that Brzezinski has had a lifelong rivalry with Henry Kissinger, but Brzezinski is leaner and apparently healthier than the 83-year-old wünder, not to say more glamorous for having advised Barack Obama on foreign policy. Though he has no official role in the campaign, Brzezinski has become a lightning rod for hardline Israel activists, who fear that Obama will turn against the Jewish state. They point to Brzezinski’s realist views, for instance his recent visit to Syria, which he says must be brought into American diplomatic efforts concerning Iraq and Palestine, and his endorsement of the book The Israel Lobby.
“I have my own views of foreign affairs, which I have been expressing publicly,” he says. “Therefore I wanted from the very beginning to be known as a supporter but not as a spokesman for or some sort of fancy title—adviser, member of the team—and that’s the way it’s worked.”
Brzezinski has nonetheless become a punching bag for Jewish supporters of Hillary Clinton, including Congressman Anthony Weiner and guru Ann Lewis. His name is a shibboleth among Zionists. When I e-mailed Norman Podhoretz, he referred me to his book World War IV, in which he devotes several disdainful pages to Brzezinski, saying that he has an “obsessive animus against Israel.” Brzezinski waved off the criticisms:
I surfaced in the public domain probably in the late ’50s early ’60s, the Kennedy years. I have been expressing views on foreign affairs publicly and often in a context which was controversial. … My view of the Middle East is that it is in the interest of the U.S. to have a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the only resolution that is likely to be enduring and acceptable is one that both Israelis and Palestinians can accept, and that, in turn, means a two-state solution. When I first started talking about that, that was a no-no. Today a very significant portion not just of American opinion and, more specifically, Jewish public opinion accepts that perspective, and even more so in Israel. So I’m not particularly bothered by the criticisms of some people whose views don’t change very much over time or are not particularly tolerant.
“Does it cause you pain?” The former National Security boss, who emigrated with his family to Canada from Poland in 1938, didn’t bat an eye. “I honestly don’t think that the people who speak the loudest necessarily represent the largest number of people in the Jewish community. At least I have on a personal plane not felt anything inimical, although on the public plane, yes I’m aware that I’ve been attacked and sometimes unfairly. But I’m philosophical about it.”
Brzezinski’s status presents numerous ironies. A generation ago, the last time he was schooling a smart but provincial presidential candidate, he was mistrusted by the Left and even the center as a hawk. “A symbol of the nastiest Cold Warrior,” says Leon Hadar of the Cato Institute. Yet under Jimmy Carter in 1979 he helped deliver the Camp David accords, which gave Israel a lasting peace with Egypt. Says realist scholar Robert Pape, “In the last 30 years what are the things that have most improved Israel’s security? Israel getting nuclear weapons, and … brokering a peace deal with Egypt. Brzezinski was at the heart of making that peace possible. And it’s become a lasting peace. … You would be hard pressed to find dramatic change in [that situation in] the last 30 or 40 years.”
Pape ascribes the demonization of Brzezinski to tension in the presidential race and to the fact that he wants to revive diplomacy as a tool of American policy. “Go through the litany of foreign-policy issues,” he says, “there are just so many that are at the boil now, and one of the things that is so clear is we have grossly underused our diplomatic power. …We seem to have forgotten we are the strongest power on the planet.”
Pape has been an adviser to both the Ron Paul and Obama campaigns. He emphasizes that one must be even more confidential about such service than when serving in government. That would seem to be especially true this cycle, when Obama’s statement that he wants to change the “mindset” that produced the Iraq War has provided a wedge to Hillary Clinton’s backers.
“The anxiety on the part of the Jewish Right is that Obama is the Manchurian candidate,” says Joshua Landis, a professor at Oklahoma University, “that he has secret sympathy with Muslims, and the whole war of terror which relies on demonizing Islam isn’t going to float. They hear him undoing everything that’s been done under Bush, the idea that Israel’s war with the Palestinians is America’s war with terrorism. They’ve worked hard to cut out any daylight on these issues. And here is Obama trying to put the daylight back in there.”
Clinton’s team has targeted several experts who have talked to Obama, from Samantha Power of the Kennedy School to Rob Malley, a former peace negotiator with enormous standing on the Left, to retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, who once spoke freely about the power of the Israel lobby to limit debate. Power left after calling Hillary a “monster.” McPeak has hung in there, though Obama has distanced himself from his Middle East commentary. Malley is nowhere to be seen.
Brzezinksi “was asked by the Obama people to lie low. That’s my impression,” says Hadar. But Brzezinski is enjoying his moment. He has written two recent op-eds for the Washington Post that turned heads: one said that we must withdraw from Iraq promptly and undertake a “regional rehabilitation,” including Iraq’s neighbors; another argued that “five years of brainwashing” about a war on terror has turned America into a paranoid society and, in the world’s eyes, made us part of a new “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Israel.
Quandt points out that Brzezinski won’t be getting a government job, even in an Obama administration. “He may do a chore or two”—say, an international mission—but foreclosing ambition has “freed him up to say whatever he thinks. He can be a little irreverent where people who want to work in government might bite their tongues.”
There were no belly laughs in our meeting, but plenty of dry wit. When I pointed out that a recent newscast referred to him as the father of MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, he nodded. “It is the sad fate of parents who have successful children. That happens to me increasingly. … I think one has to adjust.” When I told him that many of us who cheer his plainspokenness on the Middle East decried him in the ’70s, he laughed. “Yes—life changes.”
That was it for reflection. When I asked Brzezinski, who came from a highly privileged family in a state engulfed by the Soviet Union, what role his own background had played in his hawkish positions during the Cold War, he said, “I’m the last one who can judge. How do you make a judgment whether your views on a particular subject are the product of personal background and to what extent they’re the product of insights, experience, knowledge? I comment, not currently, on issues pertaining to China, where I haven’t had terribly much personal background in terms of family. I’m interested in strategy. … Certainly Europe and World War II were contributions to my own intellectual formation. That’s undeniable. Whether that’s made me better prepared, or not as well prepared, to make political judgments, I’ll let others judge. All I can do is express my best opinions and leave it at that.”
Brzezinski grants the same discretion to his critics. “I have no idea what drives their thinking,” he said of the neocons, whom he believes to be discredited but hanging on by their fingernails.
The animus toward Brzezinski in right-wing Jewish circles began in the ’70s, when he and Quandt led a study group for the Brookings Institution that argued that a two-state solution was the only way out of a violent future in the Middle East. “People were accusing us of terrible things,” Quandt says.
Brzezinski was then a Cold War hawk. He opposed Kissinger’s détente with the Soviet Union, preferring the more confrontational approach later adopted by Reagan. In the Middle East, he pursued Kissinger’s strategy of maintaining an alliance with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to preserve American access to the Persian Gulf oil. “He was clear-eyed that we had to defend the gulf,” Landis says. “When the Iran revolution broke out [in 1979] we were caught with our pants down. Iran and Israel were our two policemen.”
Brzezinski has been utterly consistent in calling on the U.S. to push for Palestinian self-determination, a position favored by the realist school of international relations and lately echoed by the Iraq Study Group in 2006. Still it remains on the edge of the American foreign-policy establishment. Thirty years ago, the Brookings Institution backed the idea. Today leading think tanks change the topic to Israel’s security needs.
Mainstream Jewish leaders don’t applaud Brzezinski and Carter’s great achievement. “The pro-Israel right doesn’t like the [Camp David] treaty. It’s a cold peace. It causes no enthusiasm. We gave up the Sinai, what did we get?” said M.J. Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum.
Brzezinski also suffers for being a Polish aristocrat. Much of the enmity toward Germany felt by Jews postwar transferred to the Poles after Germany became an ally, says Rosenberg. “Poland became an easy whipping boy.” The late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin was above all that: Rosenberg says that the Polish-born Begin chatted in Polish with Brzezinski at Camp David and played chess with him. Quandt notes that Begin gave Brzezinski a document found in the Israeli archives showing that his father Tadeusz Brzezinski, a diplomat, had helped save Jews. “The word went out, ‘Get off their cases,’” Quandt recalls.
Podhoretz describes Brzezinski as a realist with a “dash of liberal internationalism” and says his views are about to “sink into oblivion.” Indeed, Brzezinski has been “rooting for an American defeat as the only way to save [his] worldview from winding up on the ashheap of history.”
A lot is at stake for the neocons. Shifts in Obama’s team are noted almost daily in the New York Sun, a neoconservative newspaper that is gratified that former Clinton NSC aide Daniel Shapiro is leading Obama’s Middle East group. Hadar is disappointed that Obama has surrounded himself with predictable “mediocre” names, including Susan Rice and Anthony Lake. Why couldn’t Obama have shaken it up a little more with realist names, say, John Mearsheimer or members of the Center for American Progress? That would be his downfall, Hadar concedes.
“A lot of Jewish superdelegates are waiting for Obama to say the right thing,” Landis says. “He may say the right things. It’s going to be a squeaker, and they’re going to have his testicles in a vice.” Hadar hopes for Chuck Hagel as secretary of state, but says that if Obama becomes president and doesn’t nominate establishment figure Richard Holbrooke, “he will get phone calls every five minutes, including at 3 a.m. in the morning, from lobbyists and others who will make life horrible for him.”
Of course Obama is so opaque that everyone is projecting onto him. A week after my meeting with Brzezinski, I e-mailed to ask what he saw in the senator. Through his secretary, Brzezinski replied with the following statement:
In my judgment, the United States and the world confront a fundamental historical discontinuity. The world of the Cold War or earlier, the world of the struggle against the totalitarianism of the Nazi/Stalinist variety, is finished. We live in a complicated, much more dynamic, much more politically awakened world, in which the population of the world … is politically active, stirring, restless, increasingly anti-Western, increasingly anti-American. And to manage that world well one has to understand … how the global context has changed. Hillary Clinton would be a perfectly competent president, but her view of the world, in my judgment, is quite conventional and traditional. That criticism is even more applicable to John McCain, who in my view is a great patriot and a great hero but represents essentially the past. I have been impressed talking with Barack Obama, and also from reading what he has been saying, that he understands that this great historical discontinuity has taken place and that America has to redefine its place in the world. In fact, America has to redefine itself. And I think that he symbolizes that needed change, and if he becomes president he can help America effectively make that change.
Brzezinski’s view helps explain the legions of young people who are gaga for Obama, and also suggests why Brzezinski has never left the stage. He is youthful at heart.
As I left his office, I complimented him on his fitness and said happy birthday. He did a little jig—or as much of a jig as a Polish aristocrat in hunting boots and bespoke suit will allow himself.
“What the hell is 80?” he cried. “It’s a number eight followed by a zero. And what is 90 but a nine followed by a zero? And 100. Just a one with two zeroes.” He drew the numbers in the air.
Why not secretary of state? _______________________________
Philip Weiss is at work on a book about Jewish issues. His blog is www.philipweiss.org/mondoweiss/