US Foreign Policy

The tragedy of Zbigniew Brzezinski

US foreign policy and the birth of neo-conservatism

July 26th 2017 | Indiana | Russell Hall

Graphic by Eva Bee

When former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski died on the 26th of May, liberals mourned his loss and praised his accomplishments. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter called him a “superb public servant”. Barack Obama offered similar praise, stating Brzezinski’s “influence spanned several decades, and I was one of several Presidents who benefited from his wisdom and counsel”.


American imperialism

This reaction is hardly surprising. An early opponent of the Iraq war and a critic of unilateral military intervention, Brzezinski was a hero for many on the left. In a 2012 interview with CNN, Brzezinski blasted Republican presidential candidates, stating “I literally feel embarrassed as an American when I see those people orate”.

When asked to comment on Republican claims that “America is number one, this is an American century, we should just assert our power”, Brzezinski replied: “The last three Republican presidents [said] God chose America and history commissioned America to be playing that kind of role. And that kind of rhetoric is just divorced from reality to the point of absurdity, actually to the point of danger for us.”

Photograph via The White House

But Brzezinski might not deserve our praise. The tragic fact is that his policies under Carter paved the way for the neo-conservative nightmare that has wreaked havoc across the globe. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president on a promise to make human rights “the soul of our foreign policy”. It was a revolutionary statement, an acknowledgement that the Soviet Union was not the only source of evil in the world. America was as well.

In the name of freedom, America had overthrown freely elected governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973), provided military aid to repressive regimes guilty of genocide, and defended pro-American dictatorships when criticized by human rights groups. At the time, it looked as if America would finally move towards incorporating human rights as the cornerstone of its foreign policy.


Soviet tensions

In retrospect, Carter’s mistake was to appoint Brzezinski as his National Security Advisor. A Cold War hawk, Brzezinski saw the world as a game of chess – on one side was America, and on the other the Soviet Union. All other countries were the pawns of these two powers. If a pro-American dictatorship fell in Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, or South Vietnam, it was the work of the Soviet Union.

From the very start, Brzezinski worked to thwart Carter’s human rights agenda. In Cambodia, Brzezinski encouraged China to back the murderous Pol Pot regime to prevent an invasion from the pro-Soviet government in Vietnam. In neighboring Indonesia, Brzezinski encouraged Carter to increase military aid to the Jakarta regime despite its brutal occupation of East Timor. In Latin America, his advice was to continue supplying military aid to right-wing dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Photograph via Getty Images

But Brzezinski’s greatest sin was his role in arming the Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which later turned into the Taliban. Contrary to popular belief, the CIA had begun arming the Mujahideen before the actual Soviet invasion, which Brzezinski himself admitted in 1998 during an interview with the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur:

“According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during the 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention. […] The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: we now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War.”

When asked if he regretted supporting Islamic fundamentalism, Brzezinski replied: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban, or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems, or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”


Neo-conservatism

Since the end of World War II, U.S. foreign policy had been based on the idea of containment. America was propping up anti-Communist dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, but avoided overthrowing governments that were already aligned with the Soviet Union.

Although the US did try to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro had not officially declared Cuba to be a Marxist-Leninist state until after the incident. While hardly humanitarian, the strategy of containment placed a restraint on American military power. It forced U.S. policymakers to use diplomacy instead of military threats when dealing with Communist governments.

Photograph via The National Archive

By waging war directly against established pro-Soviet governments, Brzezinski ushered in a new and more aggressive form of foreign policy known as ‘neo-conservatism’. Harry Targ, a professor of International Relations at Purdue University, defined this as the belief that the United States “has the right and responsibility to impose its wishes, its vision of government and public policy, and its institutions on the world. If people resist […] the United States should impose its domination by force.”

When Reagan became president in 1981, he took Brzezinski’s ideas to the extreme with what came to be known as the ‘Reagan doctrine’. During his presidency, he increased aid to Afghan rebels, tried to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua by arming a terrorist organization known as the Contras, invaded the Caribbean island Grenada in 1983, and dramatically increased U.S. military spending.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 only increased the appeal of neo-conservatism. As the last remaining superpower, the United States used its military power to remake the world in its image. So far, the consequences have been deadly. Besides the lives and money lost from failed military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States’ decision to dominate the world has only increased anti-American sentiment in the modern age.


Human rights vs. hegemony

Are we being too harsh on Brzezinski’s foreign policy decisions? Could one argue that American interventionism was necessary against the threat of fascism from the USSR? Considering the implications of hegemonic stability theory and the 21st century’s resulting success as the most peaceful era in the history of humanity, that may be a valid justification.

One might also argue that, by historical standards, Brzezinski’s views were simply a reflection of what most members of Carter’s cabinet were thinking – but that would be a false conclusion. In fact, one of Brzezinski’s biggest critics was Cyrus Vance, who was Secretary of State at the time. Moreover, Carter’s campaign manager Hamilton Jordan once said: “If, after the inauguration, you find a Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State and Zbigniew Brzezinski as Head of National Security, then I would say we failed. And I’d quit.”

Diagram by The Economist

Mr. Jordan did not quit, but he was right. The moment Carter became president, the two men battled for influence. Unlike Brzezinski, Vance shared Carter’s belief American foreign policy should be guided by human rights. As the Carter presidency wore on, Vance grew increasingly frustrated with Brzezinski. In his 1983 memoir Hard Choices, Vance wrote:

“I supported the collegial approach with one critical reservation. Only the President and the Secretary of State were to have the responsibility for defining the Administration’s foreign policy publicly. Despite his stated acceptance of this principle, and in spite of repeated instructions from the President, Brzezinski would attempt increasingly to take on the role of policy spokesman. Eventually, as divergences grew wider between my public statements and his policy utterances, Brzezinski’s practice became a political liability, leaving the Congress and foreign governments with the impression that the Administration did not know its own mind.”

In time, Vance was marginalized and his influence began to wane. He finally resigned as Secretary of State following the failed operation to rescue American hostages in Iran, an operation he opposed but Brzezinski had supported. Near the end of his life, a reporter asked Vance how he wanted to be remembered. He answered: “I hope for being a reasonably decent, honest person who tried to do some things for the country that might have lasting effects and create a better life for a large number of people.”


Ideological hypocrisy

Revisionist historian William Appleman Williams, in his iconoclastic book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, wrote that “the tragedy of American diplomacy is not that it is evil, but that it denies and subverts American ideas and ideals”. The same could be said about Brzezinski. As a refugee from Poland, he was a statesman for those who were still living under Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. To the rest of the world, however, he was a hypocrite. Throughout his life, Brzezinski criticized the Soviet Union for denying the citizens of Eastern Europe the right of self-determination, yet he refused to acknowledge what America did in Latin America and other third world countries.

By subverting Carter’s commitment to human rights, Brzezinski not only helped create the neo-conservative monster that haunts us to present, but also prevented America from becoming the humanitarian superpower that it has always claimed to be.

Edited by Bartu Kaleagasi and Xavier Ward

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