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Former National Security Adviser Assesses Post-Cold War Presidents

March 28, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Zbigniew Brzezinski has been a frequent commentator on this program since the start of the Iraq war. The former national security adviser to President Carter has now authored a book on how the past three presidents have led during the post-Cold War era. In a word, he writes, “badly.”

The book is titled “Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower.” And Zbigniew Brzezinski joins me now.

And welcome, as always, back to the program.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former National Security Adviser to President Carter: Great to be with you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: We are now seeing a serious assault by the Congress on this president’s ability and the limitations on him to conduct this war. Do you think this is an expected outgrowth of the 15-year history and the developments that you chronicle in this book?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: You know, in some ways, it really is, and perhaps even in a truly profound way, because what it means is that there’s not only debate over Iraq, as such, or confrontation of Iraq, as such, which, of course, is the focus of the issue.

But it’s beginning to be a debate about what role the United States should be playing the world, whether the way the president, the current president, defined it since 9/11 is the right way of defining it. And I think that is a fundamental, important debate and a very timely and needed debate.

U.S. foreign policy

MARGARET WARNER: Now, your basic thesis in this book, if we go back 15 years to bring us back to this point, is that the United States had a golden opportunity at the end of the Cold War and blew it. Explain.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, essentially what I mean is that, in different ways, the three presidents who were the first global leaders in history -- George Bush I, Bill Clinton, George Bush II -- each in a different way, didn't quite measure up to the opportunity, though the first did quite well otherwise.

In fact, I rate him quite highly in the way he treated the Soviet Union, its disintegration, and particularly the way he conducted the military political operation in the Gulf War, but he failed to seize the moment, to frame a new vision. He was essentially a tactician limited by the circumstances and his own experience.

Bill Clinton, in some respects, was extremely appealing as a world leader, but he was self-indulgent, in some ways personally, but even more significantly, in terms of reflecting a national mood. "Things are great. We're satisfied. We can enjoy ourselves. Don't worry about the world."

He did some very good things, particularly in Europe, but he didn't really address the fundamentals. And some issues that deteriorated, the Middle East, nuclear proliferation.

And the present president, well, I have a whole chapter on him. I can describe him in two words, the heading of the chapter: catastrophic leadership. And that's, alas, my verdict.

MARGARET WARNER: But when you say this was this tremendous opportunity to lead and reshape the world, you don't think it was somewhat inevitable that the world would come to resent whoever emerged as the sole superpower?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Absolutely. That's unavoidable. But the world resents us much more because we've lost our credibility. We have never a president who, in effect, misled the world, whether intentionally or not, I do not know.

We have lost our legitimacy, including such things as Guantanamo, which for many people in the world has become the symbol of America, the way the Statue of Liberty used to be. And that's also very important. The world has lost respect for our military power because of the way we have gotten bogged down in Iraq.

Grading the presidents

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you said you graded these presidents. And you're a tough grader, former professor that you are. Let me lead you through the three again very briefly.

OK, you gave the first President Bush a solid B. Now, here's a man who handled all of these incredible, momentous, world-changing events. Some would say that was pretty good four years' work.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It was. It was very good four years' work. And if he had had eight, he might have done better.

But he didn't address, even in the course of these four years, at least the beginnings of the concept of how to draw Russia into the West and how to address the Middle East. And he left a legacy in the strategic area of a doctrine, which was very imperialistic, shaped by people who were in junior positions in his administration and then who emerged as people in the top positions in the second Bush administration, a doctrine which very easily led to unilateralism.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Then Bill Clinton, you gave him an uneven C, but you say he did have a vision of globalization, that was his vision, but that somehow that got in the way. Explain briefly how that got in the way...

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It got in the way because it had two shortcomings. One, it was so deterministic. I mean, he made so many speeches on this is the unavoidable way of the future, it's got to happen.

Well, globalization is not some abstract force. It's also a policy. And you have to be responsive also to the limits of globalization, to the suffering that it imposes on some.

And he was at that time presiding over a society which was very self-satisfied, not prepared to adopt any self-restrictions. And then there were specific failings. He had eight years, and he essentially left the Middle East in the worst shape than he inherited it. And that's a very major failing because it's part of the problems that we now confront.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you gave the current President Bush an F, in the litany of his shortcomings you said that George W. Bush misunderstood the historical moment and, therefore, in just five years, dangerously undermined America's geopolitical position. In what way did he misunderstand the historical moment?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: You know, it goes beyond the specifics of the Iraq decision, even though I deplore it and condemn it. Basically it's gotten us into what in the Middle East is to the Middle Easterners a colonial war.

We now live in the post-colonial era. He's waging an essentially imperial war in what is now the post-imperial era. This is not an era in which one single power can dictate to the world its standards and its norms.

And even in regards to such otherwise desirable issues as democratization, he's done it in such a fashion that he has set in motion populist passions that are increasingly anti-American, so he misunderstood the nature of the moment, and he translated the 9/11 attack on us into a kind of a phantom-like threat, which is not precisely defined but which lurks everywhere. And he's contributed to shaping a nation dominated by what I call a culture of fear.

A second chance in 2008

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you end on a somewhat optimistic note. You say there is a second chance; that, indeed, is the title of your book. So what's the second chance?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: The second chance comes with 2008. I don't think any president, even a Republican one, is going to continue the present policy in Iraq. He's not going to stay on course.

The big question for all of us right now is whether something doesn't happen between now and 2008, which precludes the possibility of a second chance, and the fear that I have relates to what's going on right now.

I am afraid of the escalation of the war in Iraq may inadvertently lead to the enlargement of the war in Iraq, because something can happen between us and the Iranians, some spark, some collision, and the whole thing escalates.

MARGARET WARNER: You do say, though, that whoever is the next president that what constitutes world leadership is going to be totally different in the 21st century than what it was in the 20th.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yes, because what is different is that the world is now politically awakened everywhere. The population of the world is politically conscious, and is stirring, it is making demands. And it wants a world which is more just and which gives everybody a sense of their personal dignity. And that comes even before democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: Zbigniew Brzezinski, thank you so much, and happy birthday.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Thank you. Thank you very much.