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Plan to Increase Troop Numbers Comes Under Broad Scrutiny

January 11, 2007 at 1:52 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Comments, once again, from Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, author of a new book, “Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower.”

And Walter Russell Mead, senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World.”

Dr. Brzezinski, President Bush said today, told the troops in Fort Benning, this is new, this is something different, meaning the strategy that he outlined today. Do you agree with him?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser to President Carter: Well, I suppose, in some degrees, it is new, in the sense that he is escalating the military presence and therefore the military effort. And it is also somewhat new in the sense that he has now publicly admitted that we’re not winning, which not long ago he was proclaiming to be the case.

So, in that sense, it’s new. But it is a policy, in my view, that is suffering from two fatal flaws. It is essentially not a military strategy, but a military tactic, a marginal escalation which is not going to alter the problems that we confront, in terms of the military confrontation in Iraq.

And, secondly, there’s not even an inkling of a political strategy, of an effort to create a political framework for dealing with the problems that we face. And increasingly, the problem that we face in Iraq is a political problem, that’s not only inside Iraq…

JIM LEHRER: You mean internal political?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Inside Iraq, but also in the region. And we need a regional political strategy, and the president didn’t say one word about it.

Overcoming increasing polarization

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former National Security Advisor
But we have, in the meantime, created this, in my judgment, exaggerated horror scenario of all the dominos falling in the Middle East if we leave.

JIM LEHRER: Two fatal flaws, Walter Mead?

WALTER RUSSELL, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, it's maybe half of a fatal flaw. I don't know whether that is still fatal.

I think the military aspect of the surge, whether you're for it or against it, will 21,000 troops make a strategic difference in the situation on the ground? It's hard to make that case.

Politically, though, I do see maybe a little bit more of a strategy. As we've talked about before on this program, as the nature of the war has changed, the U.S. has gone from trying to defend a weak and helpless Shia population from kind of a Sunni war of revenge and re-conquest to trying to get the Shia to be willing to let the Sunnis have enough assurance and security so that moderate Sunnis and most Sunnis will be willing to live in an Iraq where the Shia majority is ruling.

And what has happened, then, is that, among the Shia, divisions have grown up with sort of hardliners, angered and irritated immensely by the conscious program of al-Qaida and other Sunnis to provoke a civil war, into something that either is or is very like a civil war.

And as the polarization in Iraq increases, the American goal of trying to broker a compromise among Iraq's different groups is getting tougher.

JIM LEHRER: Is what? I'm sorry?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Getting tougher, he said.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: That's also the main goal of the Americans now. And the combination of more troops on the ground and more financial resources in Iraq, plus the thinly veiled threat, made stronger in some ways by the congressional opposition, to begin winding down the American presence if the Shia don't cooperate, that's, I think, the essence of the strategy the administration is pursuing. Will it work? Time will tell.

JIM LEHRER: Will it work?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, we met on this issue before several times.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think one of the recent issues we debated on your program was whether the previous strategy...

JIM LEHRER: We've been talking about this since the war began.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yes, whether the previous strategy from Baghdad would work. Now we know that it didn't.

Are the benchmarks going to be met? I don't think anybody expects that they will be met. If they're not met, what do we do then?

One option is for the administration, in effect, to use the failure of the Iraqis to meet the benchmarks and, in effect, adopt a policy of blame and run, not cut and run, but blame and run.

JIM LEHRER: Blame the Iraqis, the Iraqis couldn't do it, so we go?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: We go. But we have, in the meantime, created this, in my judgment, exaggerated horror scenario of all the dominos falling in the Middle East if we leave. So how can the administration then leave, even if the benchmarks are not met, because all of these horrible things will happen if we leave?

So what's the other alternative? And this is what really worries me. There are hints in the president's speech and in Rice's testimony today about the possibility of escalation, not necessarily in the number of troops, but in the range of the military operations, namely perhaps against Syria or Iran.

And the incident with the Iranian consulate, the rhetoric about Iran, the increasing temptation to blame our failure on the Iranians and the Syrians could push us in that direction. And there are a lot of people still around here, particularly the neocons, who would like us to have a crack at Iran.

Confronting Iran

Walter Russell Mead
Council on Foreign Relations
But also, it seems to me, if your goal is to enter real negotiations with Iran and Syria, right now, we don't have many cards in those kinds of negotiations.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let me ask you, Walter Mead. If you take that, just to capsulize what Dr. Brzezinski is saying, and see if you share the fear that things turn really even much worse in Iraq, and the only way the United States can react, because things become so bad, is to take on militarily Iran.

Do you see that as a possibility? Do you smell the same hints that Dr. Brzezinski smelled today?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I certainly saw and heard in the president's speech -- and more than the speech, actions the government is taking -- that the U.S. does seem to be trying to tighten a noose around or at least step up the pressure.

Because let's not forget that we're substantially increasing our naval forces in the region. The diplomatic pressure is continuing. I understand an Iranian bank has just been sort of sanctioned by the U.S. The Europeans are working with the U.S. to go even beyond the latest U.N. sanctions.

And let's not forget the bombing raids in Somalia as an indication, an indication that the Americans have teeth.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, but that's kind of a fall guy scenario, is it not, Dr. Brzezinski?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yes, but I think it reflects, on the one hand, desperation, on the other hand, a kind of fanatical commitment which I think is detached from reality.

JIM LEHRER: From the United States?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Of the United States and of presidential leadership. And don't forget that, even the existing policy, short of the widened war with Iran and Syria, does not have the support of the three still-living former presidents, and one who recently died, who went public on record as opposing the current policy.

It's opposed by more and more Republicans. It's opposed by public opinion in the United States. And yet these signals, these hints, and some of these actions raise the risk that, if the benchmarks are not met, instead of leaving, we'll widen the war, because we'll claim that the Syrians and the Iranians are causing us the difficulties.

And that means a total exclusion of any rational regional effort to get a political process going of the kind that the Baker-Hamilton commission spoke and which I think very rightly advocated.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead, what do you think of that?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I guess it -- you know, you can't rule out the possibilities that Dr. Brzezinski is raising. And certainly, I think there are some people in the administration and in think-tanks and all around Washington who look at it that way.

But also, it seems to me, if your goal is to enter real negotiations with Iran and Syria, right now, we don't have many cards in those kinds of negotiations. When Secretary Rice said that we would look like a supplicant coming at this point to reopen negotiations, I think she's right.

So there needs to be some way, if we can find it, to give them an incentive to enter into negotiations in some sort of an accommodating spirit. So is this policy aimed at creating a situation where negotiations and a real regional approach become more feasible, or is it aimed at escalation? You're asking me to read minds there, and I'm not that good at it.

Maliki's performance ability

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former National Security Advisor
If we now begin to take on some of the Shiite militias -- for example, al-Sadr's militia has about 60,000 armed men -- I think we're going to be more busy than we are.

JIM LEHRER: You don't have to read minds, but let's be a little more specific about the ability of al-Maliki to do what President Bush wants him to do. What's your reading of that?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: I am a little more optimistic this time than the last time on that narrow point. One of the reasons is that I see today that the Ayatollah Sistani has issued a statement in which he says that the disarming of private militias is the right thing to do, the states should have a monopoly on force, and he encourages the disarming of militias, and not only of one sect.

So there is more legitimacy in Shia opinion in Iraq for some of these measures. Now, that doesn't means this going to be a cakewalk or that there won't be a lot of resistance within the government or within the community to it, but that's something we did not have before, and I think it's pretty positive.

JIM LEHRER: Positive on al-Maliki at this point, possible at least...

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I suspend judgment. I suspend judgment. But one has to say that, so far, the record has not been promising.

And I'm not sure that the remedy is for us to widen the scale of the conflict, as if we didn't have enough on our hands already. If we now begin to take on some of the Shiite militias -- for example, al-Sadr's militia has about 60,000 armed men -- I think we're going to be more busy than we are.

We're increasing our presence by 21,000 troops, and we're about to launch the battle of Baghdad. In some ways, it evokes memories of the Battle of Algiers. There's a great movie on the subject. But once we have cleared some streets and gone on to the next streets to clear, they'll be back, because there's five million of them or so living in Baghdad.

Now, if we add to that fighting an effort to disarm the militias -- and I assume it would be us who would be doing it -- the military task will become more difficult, and the benchmarks will not be met, not only by the Maliki government, they'll not be met by us.

Importance of public support?

Walter Russell Mead
Council on Foreign Relations
So the situation is evolving and changing. And the president really has a lot at stake, not so much on the immediate political response to what he said last night, as what happens in Baghdad on the ground in the next three to six months.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mead, finally, to pick up a point that Dr. Brzezinski made, evaluate from your perspective the importance of public support and congressional support in what's happening right now and what the president is proposing right now.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think, in the short term, it may not be as crucial as it will be in the medium term. There's not much chance, I think, of funds being cut off now.

But we are moving into a new phase in this war, in the sense that, as the president lays out these benchmarks, even though they're not attached to timetables and so on, he's laying out benchmarks for American military success in Baghdad and pacification, as well as Iraqi governmental corporation.

When this subject is next revisited three months, six months down the road -- November, I think, as one of your earlier guests suggested -- there will be a trail of evidence. Did the new strategy work? Are we getting any better? Does the president have real progress to point to?

And if he does have some progress, he'll be in one position to argue for his next stage. But if he doesn't, then I think some of the forces that are urging the Congress to take a more active role are going to be harder to resist.

So the situation is evolving and changing. And the president really has a lot at stake, not so much on the immediate political response to what he said last night, as what happens in Baghdad on the ground in the next three to six months. It's crucial.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, partially I agree, but the problem is not only military, not only political, it's also historical. There is such a thing as historical relevance.

The fact is, the American effort in Iraq is essentially a colonial effort. We're waging a colonial war. We live in the post-colonial era. This war cannot be won because it is simply out of sync with historical times.

JIM LEHRER: Dr. Brzezinski, Walter Mead, thank you both very much.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Thank you.