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

Nuclear Weapons

The resurgence of a nuclear USA and Russia

Rising tensions as Obama reverses his stance on disarmement

March 6th 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

Photograph by Jewel Samad

“It is now three minutes to midnight.”

So began the most recent press release, dated Jan. 22, 2015, from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists regarding the latest adjustment of the historic Doomsday Clock. The symbolic clock represents humanity’s proximity to total extinction. Midnight represents a global catastrophe caused by either nuclear war or climate change.

Dating back to its origin in 1947, the closest the clock has come to midnight was three minutes to midnight in 1984, when the United States deployed large numbers of missiles to Western Europe, further intensifying the arms race between the US and Soviet Union. Now, humanity has once again found itself nearing the brink thanks to the resurgence of nuclear weapons.

Kennette Benedict, executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, cited recent efforts by the US and Russia to modernise their nuclear arsenals as the reason for the clock’s adjustment. She stated that “global nuclear weapons modernisations and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity”.


Obama’s stance on the issue

In the eyes of many, the blame for this push toward human annihilation is the fault of 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, President Barack Obama. When Mr. Obama was given this award six years ago, just months into his presidency, the Norwegian Nobel Committee highlighted how his “vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations”.

At the time, the committee had every reason to believe this was his true vision. After all, Mr. Obama had given a speech in Prague about six months prior in which he expressed “America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Now, with the end of Mr. Obama’s presidency on the horizon, America finds itself in the midst of its most intense attempt to advance its nuclear weapons supply in decades. The Obama administration has initiated a program to modernise the almost 2,000 aging weapons of mass destruction that the United States can launch from an array of missiles, submarines and bombers.

According to a report released by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the plan will cost the US $1 trillion over the next 30 years, returning financial expenditures on nuclear weapons to Reagan-era peaks.

Jeffrey Lewis, a co-author of the report and member of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, told the New York Times that Mr. Obama’s plan is fiscally unrealistic. “There isn’t enough money,” he said. “You are going to get a train wreck.”

For many supporters of disarmament, this incredible reversal in President Obama’s policy is not only a disappointment, but an outright betrayal. In an interview with the New York Times, Sam Nunn, a former United States senator whose writings regarding nuclear disarmament influenced Obama’s previous stance, expressed his confusion.

“A lot of it is hard to explain,” said Nunn. “The president’s vision was a significant change in direction. But the process has preserved the status quo.”


Russia as a military threat

The factor responsible for this plan of nuclear modernisation that most analysts point to is Russia’s renewed interest in nuclear weapons. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin recently bragged on state-run television that US missile defense systems “cannot stop” Russian ballistic nuclear missiles. He went on to assert that Russian technology “shows that neither the current, nor even the projected American missile defense system could stop or cast doubt on Russia’ strategic missile potential.”

This posturing has been dismissed by many as merely being hegemonic rhetoric meant to deflect views that the country is becoming weak under a failing economy. “If you’re Vladimir Putin and you’re trying to cling to and portray an image of Moscow as a superpower”, said former US ambassador Steven Pifer, “nuclear weapons is the only thing you have left to cite since the economy is suffering badly”.

Photograph by Getty Images

With the price of oil falling from over $100 a barrel at the end of 2013 to under $50 a barrel today, the Russian economy is struggling mightily. A recent series of studies conducted by the Economic Expert Group, a Russian consultancy, show that a $1 drop in the oil price per barrel leads to a massive loss of $2.3 billion in budget revenue.

Furthermore, the Russian annexation of Crimea and support of separatists in the Donbass region of Ukraine have exasperated feelings of a “new Cold War”. Recent headlines have even featured mention of Russian spy rings being caught on American soil.


The world’s nuclear future

Sarah Lain, a research fellow and expert on Russia at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, believes that Russia’s behavior is bringing about Cold War-esque relations through aggressive attempts to assert dominance, not only internationally, but also domestically.

“A lot of the information and claims from the Russian government are in some ways more directed toward the domestic audience” she says, “given the economic issues, demonstrating strength when there is weakness in domestic management”.

With Cold-War era relations returning to prominence and countries’ reliance on the power of their nuclear weapons arsenals increasing once again, it would seem the world is ticking quickly towards midnight.

USA – Saudi Arabia Relationship

Politics trump issues of Human Rights

Obama visits Saudi Arabia amidst renewed tensions

February 6th 2015 | Pittsburgh | Will Tomer

U.S. President Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman (Reuters)

Photograph by Jim Bourg (Reuters)

On Jan. 26 2015, former schoolteacher Moussa al-Zahrani likely spent much of his morning alone in his jail cell. If he had not already stirred by sunrise, he would have been awoken by prison guards – though he was almost certainly restless due to what awaited him. At that point, he was served his final breakfast and, if he was exceptionally lucky, was slipped a sedative to relax him.

Al-Zahrani had been convicted of sexually assaulting children in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Middle Eastern ally apart from Israel. Despite protests from human rights organizations asserting that a great deal of the evidence against al-Zahrani had been falsified, his execution by beheading was only a matter of minutes away.

Following morning prayers, al-Zahrani was quickly taken from his cell in the city of Jeddah, handcuffed and blindfolded, to his ultimate resting place in an effort to beat the stifling desert heat. In Jeddah, the location is a central square in town, though it lacks the notoriety of Riyadh’s Deera Square, better known by the surrounding citizens by its more ghoulish sobriquet “Chop Chop Square”.

When he arrived at the town square, a crowd undoubtedly gathered. English writer John R. Bradley wrote in his book “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside A Kingdom In Crisis” that in this particular area, “executions are the only form public entertainment…apart from football matches”.

He would then be led to the earthy patch in the center of the square. According to Muhmmad Saad al-Beshi, a prolific executioner notorious for allowing his seven children to clean his sword following an execution, it is at this point that the prisoner will acquiesce to the events occurring around him due to a combination of exhaustion and fear.

After all of the preparation has occurred without disturbance, as it did for al-Zahrani, death arrives swiftly for the condemned. “The head, upon detachment, appears to pop off the body, as with a doll that has been squeezed too hard”, wrote Janine Di Giovanni in Newsweek.

For many, however, the celebration of their death does not end once their head has been removed. A loudspeaker announces the crime for which the deceased has been executed, at which point people begin to applaud.

This macabre practice is nearly identical to the handiwork of the brutal Islamic State. However, Saudi Arabia, as one of the United State’s premier sources for crude oil and a widely cited asset against the war on terror, remains one of America’s closest allies. So close, in fact, that President Barack Obama deplaned the day after al-Zahrani’s execution.


Our so-called “allies”

Long before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but especially since their occurrence, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the more complex around the world. Osama bin Laden and 15 of 19 hijackers responsible for the attacks were Saudi nationals, initiating an enormous amount of American backlash against Saudi Arabia.

A 2002 report on terrorist financing conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations, an American non-profit think tank that has had more than a dozen Secretaries of State and numerous other high-level politicians on its board, found that “individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda. And for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem”.

Animosity toward the Saudi Arabians over this issue has persisted even to present day, as recent reports by CNN have been championing new allegations that members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaeda. In a sworn statement, Zacarias Moussaoui, the man frequently described as the 20th 9/11 hijacker, claimed he was tasked by Bin Laden with creating a digital database of al-Qaeda’s donors. According to Moussaoui, individuals such as Prince Turki al-Faisal Al Saud, the former director-general of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and ambassador to the United States, appeared on that list.

Max Rodenbeck, writing for the New York Review of Books in 2004, concluded that the American public and political system had a mental image of Saudi Arabia as a sort of “oily heart of darkness, the wellspring of a bleak, hostile value system that is the very antithesis of our own. America’s seventy-year alliance with the kingdom has been reappraised as a ghastly mistake, a selling of the soul, a gas-addicted dalliance with death”.

The relationship became so strained that, according to the Washington Post, a stunning proposal was made by the RAND Corporation, a prestigious think tank financed by the United States government, to the Defense Policy Board, an arm of the Department of Defense. In the proposal, it was suggested the United States should consider “taking [the] Saudi out of Arabia” by forcibly seizing the oil fields and delegating control of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca to a multinational committee of moderate Muslims.

“Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies”, argued Laurent Murawiec, the presenter of this idea and a protégé of Richard Perle’s, an advocate of war with Iraq who chaired the Policy Board. “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleaders”. He went on to describe them as “the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent” in the Middle East.

Sentiments of intense hostility were just as prevalent in Saudi Arabia. A survey taken by the Saudi intelligence service of “educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41” taken during Oct. 2001 found that “95 percent” of those surveyed supported the actions taken by Bin Laden.

Even the Saudi Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, repeatedly insisted that the Saudi hijackers from 9/11 were merely dupes in a Zionist plot to incite hatred against Saudi Arabia.

On Oct. 2, 2002, with tensions at an all-time high, President George W. Bush and Congress agreed on the joint resolution authorizing the Iraq War. It was under that context that a young, fresh-faced man who was a few months away from announcing his first campaign for the United States Senate stepped to the podium in front of the first high-profile anti-Iraq War rally in Chicago.

“Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hopes, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”

The fiery conviction with which Barack Obama delivered these remarks serve only as a reminder of the naïve idealism that marked his earlier political career, a relic that President Obama likely no longer remembers as he is forced to deal with the complexity of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.


Balancing barbarism with stability

After the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Jan. 23, 2015, it was announced that President Obama would be visiting the country to pay his respects to the leader he praised, mentioning specifically “the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond”.

To the United States, Saudi Arabia is a key ally. So key, in fact, that the Obama administration has taken great lengths to assure the Saudi leadership that they are working together. Obama acquiesced to Saudi interests in regards to Egypt’s post-revolution political shift and the two are currently working together on combating the Islamic State as the group pushes toward the Saudi Arabian border.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have also worked together recently to plunge the price of oil, thereby tanking the weak oil-based economies of Russia and Iran. The move boosts both countries’ economies and severely weakens two of their biggest foes. It is a move of economic clout, showcasing just how powerful the U.S.-Saudi friendship is on the global stage.

It is for this reason that issues of human rights in Saudi Arabia have been set firmly on the back burner by the United States. In the wake of the Islamic State’s rise and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Saudi kingdom has received a great deal of scrutiny for their harsh and brutal retribution against criminals and political dissidents. Blogger Raef Badawi, for the crime of insulting Islam, was sentenced to 10 years in jail, fined $267,000 and ordered to receive 1,000 public lashes.

A recent article in the Washington Post compared the legal punishments doled about by Saudi Arabia with those administered by the Islamic State. The results were shockingly identical. For simple theft, both will amputate the hands and feet of the thief. For adultery while married, the punishment is death by stoning. For blasphemy, acts of homosexuality, treason or murder, the sentence is death, typically by beheading.

Both the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia are governed by strict interpretations of Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Quran. The obvious major distinction, however, is that Saudi Arabia is a close economic and political partner. It is for this reason that the Saudis do not have the president blasting them for what he said were “barbaric” punishments when the Islamic State performed them.


Political strategy

Before making this latest trip to Saudi Arabia, President Obama acknowledged it’s human rights record and, far from the idyllic rhetoric from 2002, asserted that America would have to overlook it for the sake of politics.

“Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counterterrorism or dealing with regional stability,” he told CNN.

The idea is not new, but the increasingly complex relationship between America and Saudi Arabia, as well as the willful ignorance toward their human rights policy only serves to drive home the fact that modern political strategy does not allow for idealism or helping people. It merely permits or, in some instances, limits those in power to striving to protect national interests and nothing more.

Click here to see BBC’s video on Saudi Arabia.