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What Syria Strategy Should U.S. Pursue if Diplomatic Efforts Don’t Bear Fruit?

September 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Russia has opened up the potential for diplomatic movement on Syria, but can the U.S. trust them to follow through? Judy Woodruff talks with former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who recommends a "patient and persistent" UN-sponsored effort, engaging powers from Europe and Asia.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And now for a different perspective.

And for that, we turn to Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and the author of “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power.”

Dr. Brzezinski, welcome to the program.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, former U.S. national security adviser: It’s nice to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, do you share Senator McCain’s skepticism that the Russians are sincere in this whole effort?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I wouldn’t say skepticism.

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I do have some uncertainties, because, after all, what the Russians have proposed is merely a generalized outline of an approach how to deal with the weapons, chemical weapons, that the Syrians are expected to yield. But that, of course, raises a lot of additional questions. And I don’t know how far the Russians are prepared to go with us.

But it opens the door to something that Senator McCain mentioned and with which I actually agree, even though, on some other issues, we do not namely, that what is needed is really a U.N.-sponsored effort, U.N.-sponsored effort.

What does that mean? It means, first of all, the principal powers with veto rights in the U.N. That means not only the Russians or us, also the Chinese, for example, who can be a very important player here, given their stake in a stable Middle East.

And I think the senator was correct in saying this will take time, and we have to be patient and persistent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But isn’t the administration’s position that they have tried the United Nations, that Russia has vetoed, the Chinese have not been cooperative, and that’s why this new opportunity, this opening that just came up in the last few days is the one hope right now of avoiding a military action?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: That is correct, and this is why we have to pursue it.

And if we pursue it seriously and systematically, we will eventually establish whether the Russians are serious or not. My own personal guess is that they are serious, up to a point, in that the Russians are beginning to realize that we are on the brink of a region-wide explosion, and if that occurs, not only will we be adversely affected, but eventually they will be adversely affected.

The Caucasus is just on the point of explosion.


JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the western part of Russia.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Yes — well, southwestern.


ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: And the Russians have made a very major investment, and Putin personally, in the Olympics, and that could go up in smoke.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying that if the Russians are now looking at a situation that they think it could blow up. So do you think this is a way to avert that happening? Do you think that this effort to work with the Russians could produce a result that could lead to success?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think there is the potential for it. And, in any case, we shouldn’t discount it in advance without trying to see if there is some reality to it.

I happen to believe — and I have said this many times on this issue — and the senator and I have disagreed publicly — that an expansion of the conflict to include the United States would be very disadvantageous to the United States. And I think the senator now agrees with that, because he says we don’t want any boots on the ground. If we use force, we will only use airpower.

Well, airpower is not going to win this conflict. If we are going to be decisive in asserting an outcome, we would have to step in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is the signal the administration — isn’t the signal the administration is sending, though, Dr. Brzezinski, that is if this effort with the Russians doesn’t work out, the president is prepared to go in with a limited military strike to punish the Syrians?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: That’s right. It is a limited military strike, which means it really doesn’t have an impact on the outcome of the conflict, but if the conflict in the meantime escalates, we can be sucked into it.

And, in any case, the region becomes so volatile that even the global economy begins to be affected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, my question to you is, if this effort Secretary Kerry is making with the Russians doesn’t bear fruit, what should happen next?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think, first of all, we shouldn’t really publicly commit ourselves to something different on the assumption it will not bear fruit. It is worth exploring.

And I think we ought to approach it somewhat differently. For example, we have taken the stand that we and our friends are engaged in a [inaudible] point of view. Who are these friends who are so visible? Britain and France.

Can we overlook their role in the region and their standing in the region? They’re hated in the region. They’re the former colonial powers, imperialist powers. We want to engage. We should be engaging the European Union as a whole, which has a slant and a point of view, which is not for military action, incidentally.

We should also seek to engage some major Asian powers, who are very dependent on continued flow of oil from the Middle East, and particularly China, which has a veto in the U.N. Security Council. China is not linked at the hip to Russia. China has its own interests, and I think it could be a constructive player.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying the United States has not been doing this?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: That’s exactly right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And are you confident that that’s what the administration will be prepared to do?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I can’t speak for the administration. I have talked to some members of it, but I really can’t even speculate publicly on that.

I think it’s a reasonable course of action, and I think it should be explored and pursued. And if we become engaged with the Russians, I think the dynamic of that process will have that effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think that right now the administration has the right larger strategy in the region?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think it’s moving in that direction.

I have been a critic of our position so far, because I have felt all along that we have been articulating either demands or red lines, but we haven’t been pursuing a strategy. I think circumstances now are beginning to force us to really think strategically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you — and you believe the president is doing that? He’s been — he’s received some praise for his address last night, but he’s certainly also been criticized.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, the address was to some extent triggered by the commitment to use force.

And I think it’s quite evident that the kind of force that he is willing to use is not going to resolve the issue, and to resolve the issue, we will have to use much more force, including eventually boots on the ground. And even Senator McCain says he doesn’t want that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, we thank you very much.


JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s good to have you with us.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Nice to be with you.