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Foreign Policy Dominated U.S. Political Agenda in 2004

December 28, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Events around the world during 2004 have run the gamut from violent war to uneasy peace, from the chaos of terror to the uncertainties of democracy.

Joining us to talk about the year just past and the year ahead are Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Carter and is now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

And Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of several books on foreign policy. Gentlemen, welcome back again.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Nice to see you.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It’s good to be here.

GWEN IFILL: We’ve heard the president talk a lot about freedom and democracy, the transformational power of freedom and democracy in various countries.

And I want to walk through some of the countries we’ve been focused on in the last year and talk about how well that has worked.

It’s turned out to be awfully complicated, starting naturally with Iraq. We’re expecting elections a month from now, and a lot is riding on them.

What is your sense about how the president’s concepts, Mr. Brzezinski, of democracy are working on the ground right now in Iraq in such a complicated situation?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: At best I would say it’s a very mixed picture. There’s no doubt that many Iraqis are happy to see Saddam Hussein gone, his dictatorship destroyed.

Some of them are hopeful that there will be democracy, but I think most of them are preoccupied with the problems of their daily lives, fearful of the insecurity that they confront day in and day out, resentful of the foreign occupation, increasingly doubtful that you can impose democracy by bayonets.

You just don’t do it. Democracy comes by natural development, and it is a derivative of political dignity. An occupied country lacks political dignity.

GWEN IFILL: If his analysis is right, Mr. Mead, does that mean the elections are in peril?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I think the resistance is trying to stop the elections, but I’d be a little bit more optimistic or maybe I’d put it this way rather than tying to say optimistic, pessimistic.

The fact that we are pressing forward with elections in Iraq is probably the only reason that anybody in Iraq is willing to accept the American presence.

And the fact is that we do at this point have, I wouldn’t say the enthusiastic support, but we have the sort of reluctant consent of the leading elements who represent the majority of Iraqis who really believe that these elections will enable them to begin to build a new state and a new future.

If we were to say, well, we’re not going to have elections, you’re going to be under some kind of an occupation for five or ten years or a U.N. trust territory, whatever it might be, then I think you would see a real movement of resistance in Iraq that would spread far beyond the Sunni areas and possibly become a war of national liberation.

So democracy is almost the only thing we have going for us in Iraq today.

GWEN IFILL: But there are all these uncertainties. This week we heard in the latest of several tapes from Osama bin Laden, him decreeing that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is his man in Iraq and sending a signal that people should perhaps stay home.

Is there any effect… does that have an effect on your analysis?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: My impression is the Iraqis don’t particularly follow what Osama bin Laden is telling them.

They have their own impulses. They have their own context. They have their own experience which drives their attitudes.

I would suspect that many Iraqis welcome the elections because they think it will get rid of the Americans, first of all. And, secondly, many Iraqis welcome the elections because it will give their constituencies more power, such as the Kurds and the Shiites.

But the outcome of the elections, which is what we’re interested in and the notion of democracy that’s involved in that, is likely to be quite different than a democracy.

If the elections are really held, we’re going to get a Shiite theocracy in charge in Iraq in an alliance with the Kurds who see in this an opportunity for a kind of semi-sovereign autonomy for themselves, but it’s not going to be democracy, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves.

GWEN IFILL: Shiite theocracy in the works?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I don’t think it’s going to be, you know, say comparable to what’s going on in Iran, because that form of Shia dictatorship really is not something that the Iraqi Shia seem to say. But I think, you know, most Iraqis are Shia Muslims.

Obviously some are more devout than others, but particularly in a country where all the other forms of political leadership had collapsed or been corrupted under Saddam Hussein, religion is sort of the one thing left standing for a lot of Iraqis, and I think it’s natural that religious leaders and so on will have a lot of success in the election.

But I don’t think, as I understand what Sistani and others around him want to see, it’s really not an Iranian-style theocracy.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s move on to the Ukraine where another test of the western notion of what democracy is, that is going to the polls, voting and the guy who wins, wins.

Well, obviously that’s not what happened there. We’ve seen poisonings and challenges and Supreme Court rulings. What’s your sense of how that is going to sort itself out?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I’m much more optimistic. And I think it’s related really to the issue we have been talking about. Ukraine has been independent for 14 years, 14 years.

So they had a kind of political dignity, national dignity. But there was an independence which they didn’t achieve by fighting or even struggling. It came because the Soviet Union fell apart.

And the consequence of that was a period of corruption, internal decay, even abuse of authority.

But gradually the sense of identity, of national pride was galvanized, and the curious paradoxical way, the very inept manner in which Putin tried to intervene and influence the outcome of the elections by, in a way, signaling, anointing a chosen candidate, jelled a sense of Ukrainian identity which involved almost a form of ecstatic emancipation, which we saw in the squares in Kiev.

And I think that is a healthy, successful development which is not only good for Ukraine.

It’s good for Europe, because it forces European horizons to be wider, and eventually I’m convinced, and not too far off, it’s going to strengthen the impulses for democracy in Russia. This is a genuine democratic development.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that Putin’s role would lend itself towards strengthening democracy in Russia?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I don’t think that’s Putin’s conscious intention, but sometimes Putin’s policies have a way of doing the opposite of what he would like them to do.

And I think a very good example of that has been in Ukraine where Putin has, I think, helped to produce his own worst nightmare.

And it may well be that a lot of people in Russia will take a look at what’s going on in Ukraine and wonder why some of these same things can’t happen in Russia.

But I do think there though that Russian nationalism and Russian democracy may not be linked in quite the same way they are in Ukraine where the sense — Ukraine, I agree, is going through its real moment of independence now and choosing a destiny as an independent country.

But Russia already is an independent country, and in a sense democracy or lack of it is not as important to Russian national identity. So we’re going to have to see where it goes.

GWEN IFILL: In the Middle East, we are facing or anticipating the Jan. 19 vote of the Palestinian Authority.

Mahmoud Abbas seems to be leading – the head of the Fatah Party – seems to be leading. How critical is that election?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think it’s important. It’s critical in a sense it’s the vital test of the capacity of the Palestinians to develop and sustain moderate leadership, but it’s also critical not just for the Palestinians but for the Israelis.

The Israelis have to quickly reciprocate if a moderate Palestinian leadership emerges, because if there is no quick reciprocity, and the settlements continue to be built, if the wall is extended, if the checkpoints continue to humiliate daily the average Palestinian, the moment of opportunity will pass very quickly.

GWEN IFILL: Before we even get to the reciprocation on the part of Israel, or reciprocity on the part of Israel, is there also any sign that Palestinians are particularly excited about their choices in this election?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: You know, it’s not necessarily happy time to be a Palestinian in the sense that the country is under occupation, the Intifada has been really defeated by the Israelis, and this election is not maybe a moment of celebration, but it could be a moment of realism, and that would be very constructive.

But I think we could see a very difficult result of the election in that Sharon is planning to withdraw from Gaza, and it’s Gaza probably where Abbas’s support is the weakest.

And it may well be that although he is elected by a majority of Palestinian votes, the part of the future Palestine he’ll be governing, Gaza, may be the part that rejected him.

And so we’re going to have, you know, — and the decisions he’ll have to make will be tough decisions. He’ll be having to fight those who want to use Gaza as a base for further terrorist or military activity against Israel.

He’ll be having to cooperate with both the Israelis and the Egyptians, neither of whom are particularly popular in Gaza. So in some ways his inauguration day may be the beginnings of his troubles rather than the end of them.

This is still a very difficult situation.

GWEN IFILL: And yet Ariel Sharon has sounded almost conciliatory in the last few months, talked about asking for a vote, for an early pullout from Gaza. Is that something that can hold?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, let’s hope so. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. I’m not too optimistic because so many hopes in the past have been disappointed.

But I do think there is a brief moment of opportunity, and it’s very important that they exploit it, not just by the Palestinians or by the Israelis, but by the international community and especially by the United States.

For the last three years, we sort of let matters drift in the Middle East, and when matters are left to drift in the Middle East, they tend to drift in a very bad direction. So I hope we become seriously engaged, truly engaged, not just sloganeering for democracy

GWEN IFILL: What does that mean?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It means the president and the top administration officials have to be engaged very heavily in the negotiating process.

And gradually in clarifying what the peace settlement ought to be like. I’m struck by the fact, for example, that while I have been advocating this for quite some time, some who have been somewhat skeptical about the timeliness of clarification with these settlements are now beginning to publicly say in some very important op-eds that the moment has come for the West and the United States to clarify what the peace should be like, what should be its key components.

GWEN IFILL: A return to shuttle diplomacy perhaps?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: It could be. But I think, you know, the territorial side of peace to some degree is the easiest thing to do because you just have to draw a line, and my guess is that we all know within a few hundred meters either side where that line might go.

And it won’t be far from what Barak and Arafat were discussing in 2001. There just isn’t that much more land. But the question is what else goes on, onto the table here?

Most Palestinians will not be able to exercise the right of return to pre-1967 Israel. What happens to them? What about the Palestinians who live in Lebanon and Syria and Jordan?

They can’t all go back to the West Bank and Gaza. What is their future? I think we actually have to now take a look not simply at the future of the Palestinian state or its territories and the nature of its diplomatic engagements and so on.

There has to be a road map fought future for the Palestinian people so individual Palestinians and Palestinian families can clearly see how this peace agreement, which is going to be a very bitter defeat for Palestinian nationalist aspirations in terms of territory, but how that peace settlement still offers them dignity and real hope for the future.

And that I think is where all of us have to get much more engaged and much more creative in our thinking.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Brzezinski, as the president enters his second term, he’s also apparently walking around with a slight olive branch toward Europe and toward other countries who he alienated in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Do you think that the president’s upcoming visit to Germany and apparently some back-channel phone call to Jacques Chirac is the beginning of a new day in the U.S.-Old Europe relationship?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I would hope so. I think the president ought to certainly extend an olive branch to the Europeans and they should reciprocate.

I think the president should use the inaugural address to talk about the solidarity of the democratic coalition, the real democratic coalition, which is across the Atlantic.

And beyond that we have a common agenda with the Europeans. We need to work together on the Middle East. We need to work together on Ukraine and on the caucuses.

So we have a common agenda to discuss. But if we’re to be serious in that effort, we have to understand that a joint partnership, even if not totally symmetrical, involves not just sharing of burdens, but it involves also sharing of decisions.

That means we have to be willing to have the Europeans participate in the decisions that we and the Europeans then jointly execute and jointly undertake the resulting burdens. And that is perhaps the kind of an attitude which is not yet dominant in this administration.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mead, is that attitude dominant or does it need to be?

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: Well, I would also say the Europeans have some real thinking to do, because both Schroeder and Chirac are talking about wanting to end the EU arms embargo against China that was set up after Tiananmen Square.

And I think if the Europeans are serious about ending that arms embargo, then they may not be serious about cooperating with the United States, because that is I think a very important question for the United States.

It’s interesting that even during the Cold War, the U.S. and Europe didn’t succeed very often in cooperating outside Europe, that is to say we had things like the Suez crisis where we were on the opposite side of France and even Britain.

There were many clashes. The Europeans didn’t support us in Korea or Vietnam much. And now we see when it’s a European matter, like Ukraine, the U.S. and the Europeans automatically cooperated, and we actually wanted the same thing.

We worked together and we go it. So to some degree it may still be the case that the U.S. and Europeans work together when it concerns Europe.

And we’re working together very well in the Balkans, but outside Europe, we never have worked together, and we’re not working together that well.

And it’s just — one reason the relationship looks worse now — yes, I agree partly our diplomacy has been a little bit stiff and unsuccessful, but also we spend less time trying to fix problems in Europe now, and we spend more of our time and attention on the things outside Europe.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Well, a full plate to continue exploring all next year. Thank you both for joining us again.