Books of the Times: America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American


Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy
By Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft. Moderated by David Ignatius

In August 2002 Mr. Scowcroft warned that a “virtual go-it-alone strategy against Iraq” woulddegrade “international cooperation with us against terrorism,” and he presciently predicted that such a war “would not be a cakewalk,” as some members of the George W. Bush administration contended, but could involve “a large-scale, long-term military occupation” and “would be very expensive — with serious consequences for the U.S. and global economy.”
That same month Mr. Brzezinski cautioned that “war is too serious a business and too unpredictable in its dynamic consequences — especially in a highly flammable region — to be undertaken because of a personal peeve, demagogically articulated fears or vague factual assertions.” In February 2003, he added that “an America that decides to act essentially on its own regarding Iraq” could “find itself quite alone in having to cope with the costs and burdens of the war’s aftermath, not to mention widespread and rising hostility abroad.”
In a trenchant new book, “America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy,” Mr. Brzezinski and Mr. Scowcroft (along with the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, acting as moderator) incisively discuss the fallout of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, including the empowerment of Iran, the recruitment of more terrorists and the inflaming of hatreds within the region. They also survey the foreign policy landscape as a whole: the consequences of globalization, the rise of China as a new economic behemoth, the ambitions of a new Russia under the leadership of Vladimir V. Putin and Dmitri A. Medvedev.
Their wide-ranging dialogue gives the reader an acute sense of the daunting challenges (including nuclear proliferation, global warming and terrorism) confronted by America in a rapidly changing international environment, even as it emphasizes the importance of the coming presidential election in picking a leader to grapple with those issues at what could well be a hinge moment in modern history.
In addition to the continuing problems in Iraq, Mr. Scowcroft says, there exists now the overarching “possibility of a general Middle East conflict in which the costs of Iraq would look minuscule.” Both he and Mr. Brzezinski underscore the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — which they suggest could change the psychology of the region and act as a catalyst for dealing with Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran — and both stress the importance of the next president’s engaging in that process immediately.
“We have an unusual moment now,” says Mr. Scowcroft, noting: “We have an Israeli government that is weak. We have a Palestinian entity that is weak. And, really for the first time, we have Arab countries ready to support a solution.” He adds that “the region is incredibly fragile right now” and worries about the time it will take for the new president to get up to speed.
Although they come from opposite sides of the political aisle (Mr. Scowcroft is a Republican, Mr. Brzezinski a Democrat), both are foreign policy realists who believe that the United States must constructively engage with a rapidly changing world, not react defensively to it. And while they disagree on aspects of the expansion of NATO and the timing of an American withdrawal from Iraq (Mr. Scowcroft says that “simply withdrawing is an impediment to a solution,” while Mr. Brzezinski contends that America’s continuing presence there is “part of the problem”), they agree on a remarkable number of basic strategic and diplomatic principles.
Unlike neoconservative ideologues in the current administration, the two former national security advisers say that talks with hostile parties can be a useful tool, and they argue that in the wake of 9/11, the Manichean language employed by President Bush has alienated allies and aggravated resentments in many parts of the world.
They point to the importance of alliances in an increasingly complicated and interconnected world. And they object to what Mr. Scowcroft refers to as the propagation of “an environment of fear” at home, which Mr. Brzezinski says has made Americans “more susceptible to demagogy” and to “a fearful paranoia that the outside world is conspiring through its massive terrorist forces to destroy us.”
What makes these discussions between Mr. Brzezinski and Mr. Scowcroft so bracing is their combination of common sense and an ability to place America’s relationship with a particular country in both a historical perspective and a regional context of competing interests and threats. Their book should be required reading not only for the next president elect but also for any voters concerned with the foreign policy issues that will be on the next administration’s plate.
Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, also proposes to articulate a new realism in place of what he sees as the arrogant and narcissistic policies of the United States that have brought the country to the brink of “three interlocking crises”: economic and cultural, political and military.
Although he can be eloquent on the subject of how Americans’ consumer culture and pursuit of self-gratification have fueled the country’s growing debt and growing dependence on foreign oil, his new book, “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism,” is riddled with illogical arguments and dubious assertions that distract attention from its more credible observations.
While Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, in their recent book, “America Between the Wars,” shrewdly pointed out certain continuities in foreign policy between the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Mr. Bacevich makes the sweeping assertion that “Bush and those around him have reaffirmed the pre-existing fundamentals of U.S. policy, above all affirming the ideology of national security to which past administrations have long subscribed” — a dubious assertion he later appears to contest himself in writing about the current White House’s embrace of the radical idea of preventive war.
In suggesting that the national security apparatus (including the C.I.A., the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Defense and the National Security Council) and the political elite failed to avert — or helped manufacture — the current problems in Iraq, Mr. Bacevich sidesteps the fact that the Bush White House often dismissed the advice of experts and circumvented traditional policy-making channels in planning the war and occupation. And in unfairly knocking the American military for failing to eliminate the leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, he plays down the Bush administration’s decision to divert forces in Afghanistan to Iraq, which contributed to this outcome.
Mr. Bacevich similarly takes remarks made by General Tommy Franks in his autobiography out of context in an effort to hold the military responsible for the problems in occupied Iraq, arguing that “blaming Washington alone won’t do,” that “if the forces invading Iraq in March 2003 did so without a clear-cut plan for occupying the country, then, by his own account, primary responsibility for that oversight rests with the overall military commander.”
These glib remarks disregard what many have argued was the Bush administration’s failure to send enough troops to Iraq in the first place and decisions made by the Pentagon’s civilian leadership — most notably Donald H. Rumsfeld, defense secretary at the time — that fueled a snowballing insurgency. Such remarks indicate a poor grasp of the overall history of the Iraq war, and they undermine any confidence the reader might have in the remainder of this unpersuasive book. Source