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Brzezinski, Kissinger Debate U.S. Role in Mideast Crisis

July 18, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now the perspectives of two former U.S. diplomats who have been closely involved in Middle East diplomacy in the past. Henry Kissinger was secretary of state and national security adviser for Presidents Nixon and Ford. Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Carter.

I talked with them earlier this evening, before the interview with Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns.

Gentlemen, welcome.

There’s a report late today, Secretary Kissinger, that Secretary of State Rice is going to go to the Middle East late this week, possibly as soon as Friday. Is that the right thing to do?

HENRY KISSINGER, Former Secretary of State to Presidents Nixon and Ford: I have very great respect for Secretary Rice. If she thinks she can come to some conclusion and if she can have an impact on the situation, then it will turn out to be the right thing to do, but what we don’t need is a high-level visit that leaves the situation unchanged.

JIM LEHRER: So something firm would have to be almost worked out in advance so there would be — it would be considered a success or she shouldn’t go in the first place?

HENRY KISSINGER: Well, I would think that, when the secretary of state visits the region, some significant progress towards a cease-fire ought to result from it.

JIM LEHRER: Dr. Brzezinski, how do you feel about that?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser to President Carter: I feel she’s right in going, because for her not to go would indicate a degree of U.S. passivity, even disengagement, which I think would be counterproductive. I think it’s clear by now that the issue is not one that the parties themselves can resolve, so some international involvement is needed and, above all else, American involvement.

JIM LEHRER: And do you think she would bring, Dr. Brzezinski, enough to the table to get something done, like a cease-fire?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I have the sense that all of the parties involved realize that this conflict that is now under way is not to escalate, insofar as their interests are concerned.

So that for different reasons each of the parties to the conflict might be receptive to some arrangement that can provide for a cease-fire, some reciprocal gestures, perhaps not simultaneous exchanges of prisoners, for example, but sequential arrangements, things of that sort, which obviously are needed if this conflict is to be contained.

U.S. involvement

Henry Kissinger
Former Secretary of State
Israel probably feels that it will not have a similar opportunity -- where the facts are that unambiguous -- to weaken Hezbollah, so they are probably in less of a hurry to end the Lebanese phase of this conflict.

JIM LEHRER: Secretary Kissinger, there have been indications earlier that Israel was not interested in Secretary Rice going so soon. They wanted to continue a few -- take a little more action against Hezbollah on the ground before there was a huge effort to negotiate a cease-fire. What is your reading on Israel's view of this?

HENRY KISSINGER: Well, Israel probably feels that it will not have a similar opportunity -- where the facts are that unambiguous -- to weaken Hezbollah, so they are probably in less of a hurry to end the Lebanese phase of this conflict.

On the other hand, I agree with Zbig. It cannot go on indefinitely and some arrangement of a cease-fire -- and I would emphasize the point that Zbig made of a sequential release of prisoners. That is to say that the two Israelis should be released first, and that then an Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners or of Lebanese prisoners should take place in the context of another framework of negotiations.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Dr. Brzezinski -- is that what you meant sequentially, that the Israeli soldiers should be released first and then what other prisoners come after that?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yes, because I fear that, if there is some sort of a hang-up over the issue of simultaneous releases, the thing will simply continue to percolate and escalate. That's essentially a prestige issue.

But if one can make arrangement for sequential releases -- for example, the Israelis released first, but there is an Israeli commitment to reciprocate, a very specific commitment -- then I think an arrangement can be contrived.

I read just before this program a very good article by Rob Malley, who is one of the more energetic members of the Clinton negotiating team, who really believed in pushing the process forward. And he has a very good outline of how the settlement might be constructed in response to the present crisis in the latest issue of Time magazine, and involves a series of steps, reciprocal steps, but not necessarily simultaneous steps.

JIM LEHRER: But he makes the point -- the Malley article makes the point, Secretary Kissinger, that the Bush administration has to get over its refusal to talk to the bad guys, that that is one of the problems. If they're going to negotiate something, they're going to have to negotiate with Syria, they're going to have to negotiate with Iran, they're going to have to negotiate even maybe with Hezbollah.

Do you agree with that, as a general premise?

HENRY KISSINGER: Well, yes, I support the importance of talking to Iran, and the administration has offered to do that in the context of the nuclear weapons issue. And as that negotiation develops, inevitably other subjects will be drawn in.

On Syria, I would also make the case that they should not be pushed totally into a corner and should be given a chance for adjusting their position. But at the same time, they cannot continue to be the headquarters of Hezbollah, and supporting Hamas, and can behave ambiguously on their border with Iraq without worsening their relations with the United States.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about that, Dr. Brzezinski, as to what the U.S. attitude should be towards Syria?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think we have to talk to everyone that's involved in this conflict, directly or indirectly. One doesn't gain anything by ostracism; it's a self-defeating posture.

I'm not sure that discussions will necessarily be productive, but they're certainly worth a try. And we have to engage the various parties to the conflict, direct parties, indirect parties, into a process which ultimately begins to address these issues on a more extensive basis.

We have had a lot of ad hoc, limited arrangements over the last 15 years. In the meantime, the situation has been progressively deteriorating. The Arab world is becoming increasingly unstable, radicalized, extremist.

And the longer this goes on the more America's basic interests in the region would be damaged, and the longer it goes on Israel's security will be more jeopardized. So I think there's a variety of good reasons for an energetic, substantive American involvement.

And if Condi Rice goes to the region and doesn't make immediate progress, she can imitate what Henry did some years ago: Stay there for a longer time, but stick to it and use American leverage energetically. And if America uses its leverage energetically, other countries will support us, including some Arab ones.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Secretary Kissinger?

HENRY KISSINGER: Well, there are many trends in the Arab world right now. There is developing a concern in the Sunni part of the Arab world with Shia domination, and it has been interesting that Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- and I'm sure Jordan -- privately have expressed considerable reservations about the Hezbollah activities on the Lebanese-Israeli border. This is unprecedented.

So there may be an opportunity to involve Arab countries, especially in the settlement of the Lebanese issue, on the need to continue conversations. Again, I agree with it in principle, but it is also important that we know what we want to negotiate about, and that the process does not dominate substance. But, with that qualification, I agree with it.

Engaging Israel in negotiations

Zbigniew Brzezinski
Former National Security Adviser
It seems to me that power which involves responsibility over time also creates some pressure towards greater moderation.

JIM LEHRER: Secretary Kissinger, what about the United States' ability to bring Israel along, as far as being a fully engaged member in negotiations to resolve this? Does the U.S. have any special ability to do that?

HENRY KISSINGER: Yes, the United States has considerable ability to do it, given the degree to which the United States is supporting Israel in both the military and economic fields. But when we say bring Israel along, we have to understand what it is we want to bring it along towards.

With respect to Lebanon, there's really -- there is no fundamental issue between Lebanon and Israel. And the major challenge of the Lebanese situation is to establish a government whose thread runs across the whole territory and which is moderate.

So one wonders whether it is possible now to bring about a coalition between Sunnis and Christians in Lebanon and then strengthen the military forces of Lebanon so that they can contribute to the disarmament of militias. So this does not require a lot of Israeli cooperation.

JIM LEHRER: Let me go to Dr. Brzezinski on this general issue of how the United States should deal with Israel now in all of this, as it moves from where we are now to somewhere down the road toward a cease-fire, toward peace.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, it seems to me that it is important for the United States to be able to conduct a dialogue, not only with the Israelis, with whom we've always had a close dialogue, but also the Palestinians.

We pressed the Palestinians to have elections in which the Hamas would participate. Hamas did win those elections. We were the ones who made that possible. So I think at some point we have to be prepared to conduct some sort of a dialogue with Hamas, perhaps informal, then increasingly formal.

I was in the administration that dealt for the first time with a Likud government. Now, when the prime minister came to Washington, Prime Minister Begin, whom I knew well, he told me personally that he didn't think there was such a thing as a Palestinian, that there was no Palestinian nation, and that he was adamantly against two states coexisting in the space of the former mandate of Palestine, namely Israel and Palestine.

Yet we continued dealing with that government. We negotiated with it. We gave it a lot of economic assistance. And in the course of years, the Likud government itself came to accept the idea of two states within the territory of the former mandate of Palestine, coexisting with each other. And increasingly it moved towards acceptance of borders that are not fundamentally different from the '67 lines.

It seems to me that power which involves responsibility over time also creates some pressure towards greater moderation. And I think, if we pursue that course, we stand a better chance of getting the Palestinians to move comprehensively towards a binding commitment, towards coexistence with Israel, including eventually full recognition by all of the Palestinian parties.

We have to be prepared to do that. There's a lot of opposition to that here in this country. The Israelis may not like it initially, but that to me is the better course of wisdom.

A global issue?

JIM LEHRER: Finally -- and beginning with you, Dr. Brzezinski -- to the general question that both of you spent many, many day, many, many hours, many, many weeks and months dealing with a, quote, "Middle East crisis," a "Middle East negotiation." It's been going on for years. Secretaries of state, national security advisers, presidents of the United States have had many, many problems with this issue through the years.

Dr. Brzezinski, why should the average American care that people cannot get together many, many thousands of miles away and continue to kill each other?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I think there are moral issues and there are practical geopolitical issues. The moral issue is the well-being of the peoples involved. And in different ways, we owe them an obligation to be concerned.

Security and survival of Israel for obvious historical reasons. The right to dignity, independence, no longer a humiliating treatment for the Palestinians. These are legitimate concerns to which we have to be responsive.

But more importantly, perhaps, the region is clearly of vital interest to us, geopolitically and economically, and it runs the growing risk of becoming radicalized, more extremist, more explosive.

And this is why we need a much more comprehensive strategy, one that also involves reaching out to Iran, and I applaud what President Bush decided to do, to offer the opportunity of serious negotiations to the Iranians.

And I hope we will stick to that course, because right now there are already voices calling upon to us go to war against Iran, to translate the present crisis between Israel and Hezbollah and the Hamas into an American war with Iran at the same time. I find that appalling, and I think we have to have a sense of history, of the importance of the issue, and stick with it in an active fashion.

JIM LEHRER: Secretary Kissinger, what would you say to the American people as to why this is so important to us?

HENRY KISSINGER: We have seen the turmoil in the Middle East has vast economic consequences and leads to a series of political upheavals, which historically have drawn in other powers and have now spread into the domestic situation of any country that has an Islamic minority.

And I believe that the Arab states -- and maybe now some of the Sunni states will assume some responsibility for that -- must contribute to creating a framework in which a negotiation can take place, and not dump the whole responsibility on the United States, and define it as if the principle issue or the only issue were how to bring Israel along, which has after all withdrawn from Gaza and offered to withdraw from 90 percent of the West Bank.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Gentlemen, we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.