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Turmoil in Arab World: Deepening Divisions or Turning a New Page?

March 21, 2011 at 5:29 PM EDT
Jim Lehrer discusses the continued unrest across the Arab world with Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser in the Carter administration, and Brent Scowcroft, who held the same post in the George H.W. Bush administration.

JIM LEHRER: Now some perspective on the Mideast turmoil from two former U.S. national security advisers.

Zbigniew Brzezinski held that post for President Carter. He’s now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Brent Scowcroft had that same job during the George H.W. Bush administration. He now has his own consulting firm.

Dr. Brzezinski, so, are all of these events — Egypt, Yemen, add in Bahrain and Syria, as well as Libya, obviously — are they all connected?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, former U.S. national security adviser: They are, of course, all connected in a way, but also, of course, each of them has its own independent dimension.

Still, I think we’re dealing with a phenomenon which, if not handled correctly, can either plunge the region into increasing violence, disarray, or alternatively, after a period of time, begins to settle and evolve and stabilize. So, how we play it and how our friends play it, and how the international community plays it, and ultimately also how the Arab League plays it, is absolutely, critically important.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on this, General Scowcroft, as to whether or not this is all a part of one loosely connected revolution?

BRENT SCOWCROFT, former U.S. national security adviser: I think it’s part of one loosely connected revolution in this sense, that what we’re seeing now is the impact of globalization in terms communication, because now the world is politicized.

For most of our history, the average man didn’t know what was going on in anything other than his own village. And he didn’t care much. Now everybody is within eyesight of a TV or earshot of a radio. They hear what’s going on.

JIM LEHRER: Or one of those little — those little instruments.

BRENT SCOWCROFT: That’s right, whatever. And they moved and they’re activated by it.

And, in addition, these devices like Facebook make it possible to organize a demonstration. You can contact a million people in 30 minutes, turn out in a square at 10:00 in the morning. This is unique. And I think that’s the reason that the immolation of a fruit peddler in Tunisia has swept the region.

And I think it’s a new phenomenon that we’re going to have to deal with from now on.

JIM LEHRER: And back to your point, Dr. Brzezinski, that — is how the United States — is there a U.S. policy that could be formed that would accommodate each one of these developments and it would all fit under there very neatly and tidily?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I don’t think we can dominate that process, because that process is autonomous. It’s part of history. It’s part of a phenomenon I have been writing about for years, the global political awakening of different parts of the world becoming activated the way Brent just described it.

But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that it is inevitably pointed in a democratic direction, because, typically, the first phase of this political awakening that I have been talking tends to be extremist, fervent, euphoric, but potentially very dangerous.

And this is why, for example, right now, I think we’re caught in a situation in which choices seem to be bad, but, in my mind at least, one is worse than the other. If we didn’t react, for example, to what Gadhafi was about to do in Benghazi and elsewhere, we might have precipitated a situation in which others elsewhere in places at play would act similarly.

So, we had to make a difficult choice. It came slowly. It still isn’t clearly articulated. I’m somewhat in agreement with Sen. Lugar, who today talked about the need for a clearer statement of our goals. But I think we are pointed in the right direction.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? Pointed in the right direction?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: I’m not sure we are, no. I think we know…

JIM LEHRER: You mean we’re talking now about intervening militarily in Libya, correct?


We know little about the opposition in most of these places. One thing that is clear — that they are unified on getting rid of the leadership in most of these places.

What’s not clear is what they represent afterwards. And as Zbig said, frequently, the aftermath of throwing out the old bad guys is a period of turmoil and the success of the introduction of the toughest elements who know how to run a society. And that’s one — that’s one of the things that we have to be concerned about.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about the other side of the coin, to sit back and have done nothing while people were slaughtered in Benghazi, say?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: OK. Everywhere that there are people killed, the United States needs to intervene? How about Zimbabwe? You know, you have the same kind of circumstances.

I think the pressures were great. Gadhafi is a man that is easy to hate and so on. But this is not the only place there’s violence in the region. There’s violence in Yemen, violence in Bahrain. Do we follow the same thing, that we’re going to protect the protesters at any cost?

JIM LEHRER: That’s the question, is it not?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, obviously, if you can’t intervene everywhere, you don’t conclude that you interfere nowhere. You have to make a judgment: What are the circumstances?

And in this particular case, once it became clear that there was a significant uprising in Libya, and once it became clear that Gadhafi was setting out to crush it, and to crush it absolutely brutally, not to respond to that would not only be morally dubious, but it would be, too, politically questionable, because its aftereffects would be felt in Bahrain, in Yemen, perhaps even in Egypt and elsewhere. We have Tunisia, Algeria and so forth.

Remember, the Arab League came out quite clearly in opposing what he was doing. So, we had no choice. Now, how we go on from here is a difficult question. And we have to define our objectives. My own gut feeling is that, now that we’re engaged, we have to make certain that the outcome is not a divided Libya, it’s not a civil war, nor is it an entrenched, fierce — fierce and revengeful Gadhafi in power.

JIM LEHRER: Is that your point, Gen. Scowcroft, that we can’t make sure of all those things?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: We can’t make sure.

And — and, first of all, we are not unified about what we’re about. We, the British and the French have described it somewhat differently. The Germans abstained on the U.N. resolution. The Italians have gone back and forth on whether they would let their air bases be used. The Turks have grave reservations.

And even the Arab League, who called for intervention, called for us to intervene, not them to intervene. And even within the Arab League, there’s — the problem is there is no unity on what it is we’re trying to do. Are we trying to protect civilians? Are we trying to throw out Gadhafi? Are we going to end up owning Libya, like we own Iraq, like we own Afghanistan? Is it going to be our problem?

JIM LEHRER: What about your communications issue turned the other way, that the people in Bahrain, if we, if the U.S. — devil’s advocate question — if the U.S. and the others did not intervene, that would send a message to somebody in Bahrain and to Yemen and all these others, a ha, they’re going to sit back; we can do anything we want to; we can kill our people, too, if we want to?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: That’s right. So — but, in Bahrain, if we intervene, are we going to intervene to throw out the king in Bahrain, who is being supported with Saudi troops?

JIM LEHRER: Good question.

Dr. Brzezinski?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Look, we are where we are, right?


ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: And if we now stop and disengage, it will be a calamity for us and for the region, and even for the Arab League, which endorsed it. So, now we have to ask our seriously — ourselves very seriously what Lugar was asking this afternoon. What are our objectives?

And, in my judgment, that objective has to be an outcome which permits in Libya a free political choice under the sponsorship, hopefully, of the Arab League and also the United Nations, a situation in which Gadhafi is no longer a serious player, perhaps through the degradation of his armed forces, and at the same time, surreptitious approaches to the Libyan military. We can split his military, because many of his generals must be concerned that they’re about to lose an army, and create a situation which, in the end, looks like a success for us and for the wider principles that we’re trying to promote.

At this stage to turn back and simply to say this was a terrible mistake, we shouldn’t have done it, would be a disaster.

JIM LEHRER: So, the dice have been rolled?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, clearly, they have been rolled. They were rolled several days when the military action started. They were rolled even a few days earlier, when there was a vote by the United Nations which seemed to authorize several things at the same time, giving those who were prepared to act an enormous degree of latitude, and perhaps that in part is some of the source of the confusion.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, General, that, like it or not, opposed to it as policy — as policy, as you are, that right now, there’s no choice but to move on?

BRENT SCOWCROFT: Right now, there is no choice but to move on. I just wish we had thought more seriously, strategically, down the road five years, where are we likely to be?

First of all, a no-fly zone by itself is unlikely to defeat Gadhafi. Our director of national intelligence said, even in light of a no-fly zone, he’s likely to win. That means we’re going to have to do something else.

What I worry about — and it’s — maybe it’s hand-wringing — because I agree with Zbig — we are on a course now, and we probably have to continue it. But I hope we will continue it with a more thoughtful view of all the other things that may happen as we go down this course.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you very much.