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Experts Urge Candidates to Debate Foreign Policy Seriously, Not Play Blame Game

October 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser, and Walter Russell Mead of Bard College say that the U.S. position in the Middle East is unraveling, from the Syrian war to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace effort. They discuss with Jeffrey Brown the need for a substantive presidential debate on foreign policy.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we pick up on some of these questions with two men who have helped us analyze foreign policy challenges in the past. Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. He is now is a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Walter Russell Mead is professor of foreign affairs and the humanities at Bard College.

Now, Walter, I want to start with the latest on Libya with Hillary Clinton taking the blame for security at the Benghazi consulate. Where does that leave the matter of the responsibility of the White House, both for the specific incident and the larger Libya policy?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Bard College:  Well, I think Secretary Clinton was absolutely right that specific security requests don’t go up from the State Department to the president.

And so it would be I think a mistake to say that President Obama is responsible for the failure to provide more protection in Benghazi. And Secretary Clinton did the right thing by taking responsibility herself.

Now, on the other hand, you have to ask, what would Harry Truman have done? What does it mean for the buck to stop here? In the same way that Secretary Clinton is responsible for what happens in State Department, the president to some degree is responsible for what happens in the administration.

But I certainly don’t think there was a situation where somebody said to President Obama, don’t you think we need more security there, and he said absolutely not.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Zbigniew Brzezinski, what do you make of this incident and the reaction to it and what does it tell us about the foreign policy debate in the campaign?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former U.S. National Security Adviser: I think it tells us that the foreign policy debate is being diverted to side issues.

It’s a tragedy what happened. In a human sense, it’s important. But in terms of large national policy, that’s not being discussed. And I think those who are charging the president with responsibility here overlook the fact that there are precedents for failing to assume responsibility, as, for example, prior to 9/11, when the president and the secretary of state then were briefed about the rising threat against the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me stay with you, Mr. Brzezinski.

When we look at the Ryan-Romney — excuse me, the Romney-Ryan team talking about this foreign policy mess, the unraveling, as Paul Ryan referred to it, particularly including Libya and the larger Middle East policy, what do you see? What do you make of that?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I’m afraid there is truth in the fact that the position of the United States in the Middle East is unraveling.

But one has to go back a number of years and ask, what has set that process in motion? And I’m afraid that the United States simply has fumbled over the years the unique opportunity it had to shape a more stable and more peaceful Middle East.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you mean by that?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, first of all, the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue.

You know, today, the Middle East is politically awake and the masses are stirring. Every public opinion poll tells us the masses have a negative view of American position on that issue because they see the United States as failing to move the peace process forward. And I’m afraid there is some truth to that conclusion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Walter Mead, what do you see when you hear about this — the use of the term like unraveling of foreign policy?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I would say that we’re clearly — the hope that President Obama could sort of turn things around from the Bush administration doesn’t seem to have been fulfilled.

You know, and I think Zbig is right that, to some degree, what happened there was that President Obama in those early weeks made the sort of claim in a sense that he was going to start a new relationship with the Islamic world and pressuring Israel to stop all settlements in the Middle East is what he was going to do.

Unfortunately, that was something he wasn’t able to deliver on, probably shouldn’t have made the pledge. But in any case, once that happened, the Palestinians pretty much couldn’t get back to the peace process, you know, by being sort of — they couldn’t be softer on Israel than the president of the United States.

And, basically, since that initial period in the early weeks, months of the Obama administration, there has been no real progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace. And I think Zbig is correct that that has been a big problem for the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you hear — Mr. Brzezinski, do you hear an alternative from the Romney-Ryan campaign? Do you hear anybody talking about something that suggests a kind of coherent policy?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I’m afraid I have to say quite bluntly that so far the discussion of foreign policy has been at a rather primitive level.

I hope it will be much better in this debate. Certainly, the president knows the issues well. I hope the governor also knows those issues well. So, I hope they discuss them seriously, but certainly not in terms of slogans about responsibility for this or for that, but rather in terms of what is actually at work today in the Middle East.

We’re facing an explosive situation throughout the entire region. And those who are pushing the United States to plunge into it either by becoming militarily engaged in Syria or by striking at Iran are in effect advocating that the United States puts the match to a container full of gasoline.

JEFFREY BROWN: Walter Mead, have you heard an alternative put forward by Governor Romney?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, you know, I think we have heard a little bit of rhetoric about being tough and so on. But, you know, that I think is not the — hopefully not what Governor Romney is really about.

I think what we really need between — at the next foreign policy debate between the two candidates is a serious discussion. And I think, again, Zbig is right. America’s goal has to be not to get in deeper into a lot of wars and conflicts in the Middle East. But what are the policies that are most likely to secure our own vital interests in the region and minimize the risk of conflict with others?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, specifically, Walter, what would you want to ask — well, ask of both sides? What questions need to be asked to the two candidates?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think it would be interesting to hear from Governor Romney, how is your policy different both from what President Obama is doing and what President Bush did? What would be the sort of third Romney way that you think we ought to go?

For President Obama, the real question I would like to hear him talk about is, why haven’t you spent more time explaining the Afghanistan war, other policies of yours in the Middle East? I think, hopefully, in the debate, he will do that, but I don’t really feel that President Obama has taken the American people into his confidence about our Middle East policy.

I don’t mean all the little details and the sort of who — you know, whether you’re giving arms to Khalid or to Jamil in Syria, whatever, but some sense of what is the strategic vision right now that the Obama administration is pursuing? Where do we stand in this problem of terror? Where is it going?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Zbigniew Brzezinski, same question to you. What specific questions would you like to hear or ask of both candidates?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think Walter put it extremely well. We need a serious discussion of what should be done and what can be done and what the United States must avoid doing.

And one of these things that it must avoid doing is becoming the solitary combatant in the Middle East. There are people who are talking loosely about the United States becoming militarily engaged. They should be obligated to explain, what is it exactly that they would do? How would they operate? Who would be our friends that would be there with us? And what solution do we envisage?

The fact of the matter is that today the Middle East as a whole is undergoing an explosive pattern of change. And I think caution and prudence are the points of departure for an intelligent policy here. And then once we have established some consensus on that, we can talk on the specifics, namely, whom do we involve with us in doing something hopefully constructive about Syria? How do we negotiate with the Iranians so that there is a positive outcome?

How do we renew the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians? And it would be useful to hear the two candidates comment on each of these.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Walter Russell Mead, thanks so much.