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One Year Later

March 19, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Some reflections now from two foreign policy thinkers who were with us one year ago tonight, the night the war began: Zbigniew Brzezinski, counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, was national security advisor in the Carter administration — his new book is entitled “The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership”; and Walter Russell Mead is columnist and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. His recent book is “Special Providence: An Historical Look at the U.S. and the World.”

Welcome to you both. We were together, or you were with Jim actually, a year ago tonight. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a year later, does the Iraq war make America more or less secure?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: On balance, I would have to say, and with genuine sadness, less secure. I think we have increased the number of enemies. The global antagonism towards the United States is much higher than before. International mistrust of the United States is at unprecedented heights. And the United States is more isolated internationally than probably at any point in its history.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Walter Mead, less secure?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think we’re — I’m a little bit more optimistic than Dr. Brzezinski, although I share most of the concerns that he just expressed. I think, strategically, and in a very big picture, dealing with the regime of Saddam Hussein was something we had to do. And probably the sooner we did it, the better. But I don’t necessarily think that all the steps we’ve taken along the road have been the right steps or the smartest steps. Maybe we’ve done the best thing and sometimes we’ve done it in the worst way.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that part of what you mean, Dr. Brzezinski? In other words, Wolfowitz — Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense — was on the program last night and he said, as the president has said, the world is a lot safer with Saddam Hussein gone. Do you disagree with that, or are you saying the goal might have been all right, but the price we paid, the way we waged it was…

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I have no regrets that Saddam Hussein is gone. I’m not sure the world is necessarily safer because, in fact, he wasn’t such a threat. But the world is better off without him because he was a very ugly dictator.

And I suppose American power is more respected, and that is, to some extent, a good thing. Maybe such things as the breakthrough with Libya was accelerated by what we did. But then you have to count against that, first of all, the loss of life. More than five hundred, seven hundred Americans and friends killed. Probably up to 10,000 Iraqis killed — continued costs — they’re escalating, both in blood and money.

But above all else, the loss of American credibility, both at home and abroad, is something that’s very serious. The fact that president of the United States is no longer trusted and his word is not taken to be America’s bond is a serious development. It detracts from our power.

But then, beyond that, there is the proliferation of terrorist groups; that is a serious problem. And the connection between terrorism and Iraq, which the president tried to establish today in his anniversary speech, is to put it very mildly, extremely tenuous.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see that issue, Walter Mead, the connection between terrorism in Iraq? The president is saying it’s always been part of the same war on terror. Others, including Zbigniew Brzezinski just now, seem to be suggesting that, in fact, the Iraq war helped generate a proliferation of terror cells. How do you see it?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think we were in the process of proliferating terror before the Iraq war. There are ways in which the connection between Saddam Hussein and terrorist organizations wasn’t that Saddam Hussein himself was funding them. For example, U.S. troops had to stay in Saudi Arabia after the Gulf War on a permanent basis because Saddam Hussein violated his cease-fire agreement and was a threat to Saudi Arabia. It was because U.S. troops were permanently stationed in Saudi Arabia that Osama bin Laden founded al-Qaida. So people thought that containing Iraq was a kind of a cost-free policy — I actually think it was a high-cost policy and those costs were mounting with time. So this is one reason I feel we kind of had to lance the boil at some point.

MARGARET WARNER: What I’m asking you is — we’ve seen all of these attacks in the past year, cells linked to al-Qaida, whether it’s in Spain or whether it’s Istanbul or Casablanca. Do you think that would have happened anyway, or do you think that the Iraq war, in part, generated them?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I think it’s hard to say. It’s very hard to go back and say what might have been. But I think that terrorists have been gaining confidence and gaining organizational ability. If we hadn’t taken Saddam Hussein out, I’m afraid that in Saudi Arabia, you would have found a government that was — whose legitimacy was so undercut by the presence of U.S. troops on a permanent basis, that the Saudis would have been forced to continue to try to pander even more and even harder to these Wahabist fanatics. We might have seen a much greater flow of money.

It’s possible that the acceleration of Saudi Arabia — sorry, the disintegration of Saudi Arabia might have reached a truly dangerous point. It’s very hard to compare what is with what might have been or could have been. But I think the reality is that terrorism has been on an accelerating curve for some time, and would be whether or not we were in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Brzezinski, let’s go back to the point you raised about credibility and American leadership. I went back and read the transcript from a year ago. And you actually said, the first thing you said to Jim was that the greatest risk was perhaps to the president’s credibility. For example, if there are no weapons of mass destruction, you said, if they’re not used and they’re not there, it certainly would damage his credibility. Are you saying that this has a permanent effect on America’s ability to lead now in the future?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Permanent is probably too strong a word but an enduring one, yes. You cannot be leading if you are misleading. And that is just a fact of life. Democracy is based on trust, on the covenant between the people and the president. An international alliance of democracies is based on trust.

When President Kennedy sent Dean Acheson to Paris to alert De Gaulle that there were Soviet missiles aimed at the United States and that the United States would remove them, and when Acheson finished briefing De Gaulle and said to De Gaulle, “I now want to show you the evidence,” De Gaulle responded, “I don’t want to see the evidence. I believe the president of the United States. France stands with the United States.” Would this happen today? I doubt it very much.

The fact is that our credibility has been hurt. And our ability to discuss terrorism seriously is also weakened because we now generalize about terrorism. We talk about it as if it was a single phenomenon. Yesterday in The New York Times, there was a very interesting article which talks explicitly about the spread of new groups since the war in Iraq, incidentally, and that the IISS, the Institute of International Strategic Studies in London, is reporting that the recruitment — global recruitment — for anti-American Jihad is rising since the war against Iraq.

And last but not least, we celebrate today the first anniversary of the war against Iraq and we gain a link to terrorism even though there is no more evidence for that than there was for the weapons of mass destruction. This is hurting us. There is terrorism. There is a problem, but we are not going to combat it effectively if people don’t trust us.

MARGARET WARNER: Walter Mead, how damaging is this credibility problem, do you think, to America’s ability to lead in the future?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Again, I think, we have sustained a great deal of damage and I don’t think it was necessary. Even if we were going into Iraq, I think the United States should have made a much broader case. Regime change with Saddam Hussein had been our objective since the Clinton administration. Saddam Hussein was violating a cease-fire with the United States. He was firing on American forces who were performing legal missions from time to time. We had a much better case.

And if you look very carefully through what the administration was saying a year ago, there are signs of that case in there. But they allowed the entire weight of the public case, particularly internationally, to hang on the weapons of mass destruction issue. Now, I think, in fairness to both the president and to Prime Minister Blair, I don’t think they would have been so foolish as to tell a lie that would be so quickly revealed as a lie. I think they had to have believed, on the basis of evidence that they were seeing, that a much more extensive program of weapons of mass destruction would have been uncovered as the U.S. occupied Iraq. What this suggests is that, to some degree, we have some intelligence problems.

You think that we missed the Pakistani nuclear program. We missed the degree to which Pakistan had been — had become, set up a kind of nuclear bazaar. At least a rogue scientist had done it. So in that case, we missed a lot of evidence of actual WMD operation. And in Iraq, our error was the other way. Unfortunately, because of the way the public case was made, the intelligence failure has deeply damaged the credibility of the United States. And it is a very sad and costly development.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you both a brief final question. It’s about something the president said today, beginning with you, Mr. Mead. He said today that the differences over Iraq — he means sort of prewar — “belong to the past.” Do you agree or do you think that the damage to U.S. relationships with allies is deeper than that?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: The truth is the damage is done and is real, but from this point on, we all do actually want a stable, free Iraq. So I’m not sure that we are going to see a great — as great a difference in approaches to this question going forward.

MARGARET WARNER: Dr. Brzezinski?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think the problem is much wider and bigger than Iraq, and the connection between Iraq and terrorism is tenuous. I think we can begin to redeem the past by working together with the Europeans. But if we are serious about it, then we have to realize that many of the problems that produce terror are conflated, and that you cannot solve the problem of terrorism without addressing the problems that generate terrorism. You have to extirpate the terrorists. But if there is no serious progress towards stability and democracy in Iraq and towards peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the mess will continue and probably intensify. And right now, we are not doing much, particularly, about the peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

MARGARET WARNER: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Walter Russell Mead, thank you both.