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Brzezinski and Mead: Reflections on the Homefront to the War in Iraq

March 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And again to Zbigniew Brzezinksi and Walter Russell Mead. Walter at a time like this, how important is public opinion?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think if the war is a short war it’s not that important. Given that 76 percent of the people seem to support the war at this point unless things go pretty seriously wrong, the war is going to go ahead and public opinion will probably continue to back it. But it’s interesting to see in a way… if you compare this with Vietnam, which I think for certainly anybody who is old enough but also a lot of the younger people who have studied about this in history is the kind of template for this experience for a lot of people. It’s amazing how history has accelerated in that we’re sort of less than three days into this war and we’ve already got kind of the whole complex of entrenched anti-war groups, entrenched pro war groups and this very sophisticated battle for public opinion.

JIM LEHRER: Using the new technology to mount….


JIM LEHRER: To exchange information, et cetera.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Exactly. Some of the same charges going back and forth, but this is, you know, a lot of American wars have generated these kinds of anti-war movements. A great example I think is the 1898 War to suppress the Philippine insurgency after we captured the Philippines from Spain, the Filipinos wanted their own government. We spent about three years putting that down, sort of intellectuals, liberals, ordinary Americans whose values were outraged kind of formed a great anti-imperialist war movement, but the war was won before the anti-war movement could really change policy. That’s likely to happen here I think.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think so? How do you read public opinion and its importance in a matter like this?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, maybe a little differently in the sense that I don’t think it will affect the conduct of the war or the decisions that are being made about the war. But I think it’s playing an important and constructive role in the sense that it conveys to the world that this is a real democracy, that there’s a diversity of views, that there is a sensitivity to issues of war and peace, that we’re not becoming a militaristic aggressive imperialist society that’s using technology to beat up on the weaker. So I think it has that significance and maybe in some respects it even restrains some decisions by our decision-makers.

But secondly, I think there is a deeper problem here. We have normally reacted to situations that produced wars or compelled us to undertake wars. But we’re now moving into a phase in which we assert the right and maybe justifiably so to preempt or to prevent. And that raises the question at what stage does the electorate participate in these process, at what stage does the Congress participate in these process? Are we heretofore going to be living in an age in which the president by himself — just a few advisors around him decide to plunge us into wars? What kind of excuses do they have to provide to the public to mobilize it? Are we going to be more manipulated perhaps by mendacity and demagogy in order to generate support for sudden decisions? These are extremely serious matters that affect the way we function.

JIM LEHRER: But is it not correct to say that there was more public debate leading up to this military action than there ever has been?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, there has been more debate in the sense that we were leading up to it. We weren’t forced into it, so there was debate. But there really wasn’t very much debate. Congress gave the president essentially a blank check back in October. It said if you want to go in with the U.N., go in with the U.N. If the U.N. refuses to go in, go ahead anyway if you feel that you should. Mr. Daschle, we talked about him in other day, was complaining about the fate of our diplomacy but the fact is that he and his fellow Democratic leaders, several key senators, failed to assert the congressional mandate to decide whether to go to war or not to go to war when there isn’t a need for an instant, immediate decision.

JIM LEHRER: How would you put this in terms of history as far as… as, you know, Vietnam, there were no protests at all for several years after the war was already going on. Has there ever been anything like this before?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Again, I think that 1898 example. I think there’s about, you know, 20–25 percent of the American people are almost always going to be against war. I think you could look historically, Massachusetts is a good anti-war state. Alabama isn’t a good anti-war state.

JIM LEHRER: Doesn’t matter where the war is or what the issues are.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Massachusetts didn’t like the Mexican War. It didn’t like the 1898 war. Massachusetts, you know, World War I, okay, World War II, okay. Vietnam, not interested. Grenade a, not interested. Panama, not interested. Alabama, go, go, go, go. And I think there is a kind of a cultural, regional diversity. Sometimes it’s ethnic. There’s a pacifistic group of Germans in the Midwest whose ancestors fled militarism in Prussia in the 19th century. So you have these groups. And when a crisis comes, people bring their pre-existing values to it. I’m not saying that people don’t listen to arguments and rationally consider, but I think you’re almost always going to have a bigger anti-war movement in Wisconsin and Massachusetts than in Mississippi and Texas.