Transcript: Zbigniew Brzezinski on the geopolitical lessons of the Iraq War

Partial transcript of Q&A with Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and Professor at Johns Hopkins University, on the geopolitical lessons of the Iraq War at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 21, 2013:

Jessica Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
Zbig, I spent all of 2002 and with many of my colleagues here at Carnegie arguing passionately that every bit of at least of declassified information available suggested that there was nothing other than some very old chemical weapon shells in Iraq, many of which had been shown to be inactive by that time, several years before.

That the record from past U.S. interventions to armed military interventions to change the nature of governments in countries had a very, very, very slender record of success and that Iraq had none of the characteristics that would lead to success of such a venture.

And third, that the argument that was being made that such an invasion would trigger a tsunami of democratic transformations across the region was, at best, in General McMaster’s phrase, a faith-based argument.
You were not there in 2002. But later, you became a very strong critic of this effort. What was it that changed your mind, that led you to make the arguments you did in the mid-2000s?

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and Professor at Johns Hopkins University:
I remember vividly in the night when the war commenced, you know, I was asked by the “NewsHour” at PBS to be there. The expectation was that war was imminent. And Walter Russell Mead and I were asked to comment on it.

And I remember vividly the moment when all of a sudden the news came that major explosions are taking place in Baghdad, that Baghdad is under air assault and that the war begun. And I had such a sick feeling in my stomach. I said to myself, I just hope to God that we now find those weapons of mass destruction, because that was the reason why the war was started.

And I was already by then conscious of the fact that there was a deliberate confusion in terminology used by the administration to justify the initiation of hostilities. For the weapons of mass destruction were alleged to include atomic weapons, long-range capability to deliver them, and chemical weapons as well as bacteriological ones. And of course, anyone knows that chemical weapons were invented back in 1916 and used in World War I and were generally not liked very much by the military as actual tools of war.

Although they were employed by the Iraqis against the Iranians in the 1980s and there is now increasing evidence that they used them in – (inaudible) – with us. A book has just come out based on documentary evidence, entitled “The Making of Enemies” pertaining to Iran and the United States, which provides some evidence for the proposition that the targeting by the Iraqis of the Iranian objects and particular population centers was known to us and we were providing them precise information where to strike, knowing that the effect would be massive casualties.
I remember that evening well because by then I had begun to worry that perhaps what was being publicly asserted was not true. But I wasn’t convinced of it; I was uncertain; I was a skeptic.

And a few days before the initiation of the conflict, several former officials – for example, Henry Kissinger, myself, I don’t remember exactly who else, but there were several there – were invited to a meeting with Rumsfeld, Powell and Rice.

And I remember asking them – and I was conscious of that that evening when I saw the beginning of the war – I asked them, how certain are you that the Iraqis have these weapons of mass destruction? And the answer from all three of them was, it’s not a question of how certain we are, we know they have them.

And that impressed me because these are people whom I have known for a long time, and when you say you know that someone has something, it means to me you know. It’s not a question of probability, it’s a statement of certitude.

Nonetheless, a few minutes later, it still occurred to me to pursue the subject so I asked them one more question. If you know that they have weapons of mass destruction, what is the order of battle for their use and particularly for nuclear weapons? Because obviously, if they have them and they’re ready to use them, there has to be an order of battle authorizing either divisional commanders or brigade commanders or whoever else has the possibility to actually execute the initiation of their use.

And here, the answer was perplexing. They said, we don’t know. I found that surprising because it seemed to me that if they have certitude over the fact that they have them, presumably that certitude would extend to some sources of information that would give us an insight into how these weapons would be used in combat, what would be the process of initiation of their use.

So that evening, I was profoundly troubled. And I wrote an article basically arguing that we should defer the attack until Blix of Sweden has had time to conclude his research, his search within Iraq for such weapons of mass destruction. And he was being increasingly provided with targets to inspect from the CIA. And thus, one could assume that the knowledge we have was being put at his disposal and he was pleading for that time so that he could complete his reports to the U.N., but in effect, the United States and indirectly to the two countries that were egging us on, Prime Minister Blair of Great Britain, particularly, and also the Israelis. Well, we know what happened subsequently. The weapons were never found and the war was therefore initiated on the basis of assertions which were most charitably described as inaccurate and probably simply as fraudulent.

And that concerned me enormously, because I said I felt that at stake was American credibility worldwide, that this had really significant implications for the position of the United States in the world. And I’m afraid that this has unfortunately come to pass.

The standing that the United States enjoyed at the end of the Cold War and which lasted into the beginnings of the 21st century has been very badly dissipated. And that affects us adversely around the world and has serious implications for future decisions that involve war and peace.

On the basis of what has happened, what level of confidence are we as citizens, is America as a country entitled to have, for example, before initiating a war against Iran? We do have some parties who tell us that there are red lines that should be drawn immediately. Some of these red lines that were recently drawn have been in fact crossed. Now they’re being extended by one year.

But then what happens after that one year from now? And whom are we to trust? On what basis are these assertions being made? How reliable are they? And are there alternatives to war that could be feasible?

I cannot ignore the fact, having been deeply involved in the Cold War, that we managed to deter the Soviet Union, not only from an attack on the United States, but we managed to deter the Soviet Union from the use of force regarding Europe, our friends and our allies, because we protected them credibly, that is to say we made it very clear in advance that we identified our security with the security of Europe, and that any action against Europe would be tantamount to action against the United States.

And we knew very well giving these assurances that we were directly vulnerable because of them, vulnerable on a huge scale. We once had a false alarm, and if that alarm had not been false, within roughly eight hours, about 85 million Americans and Soviets would have been dead. I was then national security adviser so I was involved in that.

So we had this consciousness of serious responsibility and also credible obligation; and we prevailed. The Soviet Union never did it, and we never did it either.

And we’re doing the same for the Japanese and the South Koreans vis-a-vis a country that is acting openly in a somewhat seemingly irrational fashion – maybe it’s calculated by them – but the impact is disturbing in terms of its questionable rationality.

And it’s a country which already has eight bombs and it has delivery systems that cover all of South Korea and Japan, and potentially for the first time, though they’re not, I believe, yet in fact the Northwestern parts of the United States. And yet, we find it sufficient to protect South Korea and Japan.

Why is it we can’t do that for Israel? Why does the president have to use vague language about all options on the table, which is a threat of use of force? And why does he have to make categorical, verbal guarantees which commit him to the use of that force and create a presumption that he will? Has the country as a whole been consulted?

I dare say that in the present atmosphere, much of Congress probably would support it for reasons more connected with our domestic politics than with foreign policy. But would probably lean that way also on the assumption that it will never happen, but it could happen.

But we’re certainly able, if we wish, to protect Israel in a credible fashion, by guarantees which are as binding or even more binding than those that we gave to the Europeans and are giving to the Japanese and to the South Koreans, and especially so vis-a-vis a country which doesn’t have the opportunity to threaten us directly because there is no way the Iranians can reach us.

And at the same time, we should not lose sight of the fact that if we do repeat vis-a-vis Iran what we did vis-a-vis Iraq, we’ll probably be engaged in a conflict that’s more protracted and more regionally widespread than was the case with Iraq a decade ago. So these are some of the concerns that are rooted in history.

Beyond that, let me make one more observation about the nature of war. Democracies are very able to wage total war if they’re attacked, they’re not so good, they’re not predisposed, I think they’re mentally not prepared to wage total war if they have themselves started the war, but were not attacked. It’s an important psychological as well as historical difference.

We were able to break the will of the Germans, in large measure, by massive air assaults on their civilian population. Yes, of course, it was justified by the need to disrupt transportation, undermine industry, but a great part of the motive was also let’s break their will by destroying and burning their cities and, in the course of destroying and burning their cities, killing as many civilians as possible.

The most classical example of that was provided by two single strikes, each of very short duration and of absolutely calamitous human casualties, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where in the course of minutes we incinerated, literally incinerated, several hundred thousand people. We were able to do it because we were the victims of an attack, we were defending ourselves, we didn’t want to assume the burden of major casualties for our military, which an invasion of Japan would have necessitated. We broke their will and we won the war. But look at the last several wars we have waged where we were not, in a sense, the objects of a threat from an enemy that could devastate. We settled for compromise in Korea after several years of bitter war. We withdrew from Vietnam. And we did not prevail fully, judging from circumstances now occurring every day in Iraq or in Afghanistan in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

If we wish to do so, we could have incinerated their populations. We could destroy them. But that is something, thank God, that democracies do not do lightly unless they feel themselves totally threatened. And I think that’s an important consideration to bear in mind, because we are today facing the prospect of regional wars in which we’ll be fighting aroused populations and not formal states capable of threatening us.

What goes on in Iraq today poses no military threat to the United States, but it is a geopolitical consequence of some cost to us.

The same is true of Afghanistan. And God knows what will happen after we’re out of the Afghanistan and the region as a whole. A war with Iran would certainly spread to Iraq and through Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and Jordan. It would engulf western Afghanistan as well, which is relatively peaceful and where Shi’ites live. And Iran would be able to extend the conflict of war to there as well. The consequences would be massive because we are now facing the possibility of confronting populations that are politically aroused and who, for a variety of ethnic, religious, nationalistic reasons choose to fight. And that is a new reality which, for the United States, if we become more and more embroiled in this kind of conflict will absorb us, tie us down and repeat on a massively larger scale the bitter costs of the engagement that we have had to undertake in Afghanistan and of the one that we did not have to undertake in Iraq 10 years ago.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and Professor at Johns Hopkins University:
One idea with Iraq and Iran – and there’s another issue, which I won’t address – on Iraq, the question is very simple, who bears responsibility? I think the answer is very obvious: We do. We started the war, the Iraqis didn’t attack us. We went in, you know, some may feel for legitimate reasons, others may feel for dubious reasons, some, like myself, feel for fraudulent reasons.

But in any case, the fact is we started it, so we’re responsible for what happened. I wish we had done better, even though I am critical of the war. I wish we had been more successful, less brutal.

The general referred several times to the murderous character of those whom he fought. He’s doubtless right. But I wonder how they look at us in that connection? Every war is murderous; and therefore, it depends a little bit also on what its historical antecedents are and what its geopolitical and moral consequences are.

On Iran, well, I don’t know what a surgical strike means because we haven’t tried one in that set of circumstances. We will be attacking nuclear facilities. Some of them are located close to urban centers, one particularly. What about the fallout? What about radiation? How surgical can an attack on a nuclear facility be?

What about, even without radiation, simply the casualties from the explosives used, casualties, first of all, of the scientific staff that’s working in there, and then of people in the adjoining areas? How surgical will that be?

Then beyond that, how decisively effective will that strike be? Well, of course, it depends on its scale. And if it depends on its scale, then the consequences of the earlier question, how costly it will be, depend a little bit on that scale. So it may be surgical, but it may be lethal on the massive scale at the same time.

And then suppose it has to be repeated in a year or two from now. What happens in Iran itself? Will the Iranian people joining us in justified outrage at the mullahs rise in righteous indignation, overthrow the regime and apologize to us for having provoked us into attacking them? I think the probability of that is not very high.

And I think a more likely probability is that they will join the regime in a fierce, frustrated, protracted anger at us, which depending on the scale of the casualties and the damage wrought, may last for decades.

But without even waiting for decades, they certainly can do some things around Iran immediately: Impede the access of the world to energy by causing incidents in the Gulf, which our Navy can overcome, but our Navy cannot prevent insurance companies for tripling, quadrupling the costs of acquiring energy. So there’s an enormously negative impact on global economy immediately, particularly in Asia, for which neither the Japanese nor the Chinese will be particularly grateful to us, but also pushes Europeans much more in the hands of the Russians.

And then every adjoining area next to Iran is susceptible to local war, which used to be called in the communist lexicon “people’s war.” I once had a meeting with Deng Xiaoping in which he informed us that he is going to invade Vietnam and he wanted us to be sort of passively friendly, expecting Soviet reactions. And he was asked what is the likely Soviet reaction, by the president of the United States. And he sort of breezily said, well, you know, they may do this, they may do that, they may send arms, that will take a long time because we’re not going to be doing it for a long time, and they may stage border incidents, we have had lots of them so we can have a few more, so what.

And then he says, they may invade us from Mongolia, where they have 22 armored divisions, and strike southward toward Beijing directly. And he says we will use people’s war on them, and I know what he meant. It meant the kind of thing that we had experienced also. And people’s wars don’t end that quickly.

And at the same time, the aggressor is less inclined to go all out for total war because the aggressor wasn’t threatened, so they are self – self-inhibitions at work here, and particularly so in a case like us and democracy. We’re not going to go and kill all Iranians, even if they do these things in the region.

So we’re going to be faced with a protracted conflict, which will make this experience of the decade ago really seem like a trifle; and therefore, I am worried as to why we’re trying to buy off this pressure that the president is feeling for commitments to military action against Iran without fully contemplating large-scale geopolitical consequences, the effect that we’ll be alone in this adventure.

Have no illusions, even those who are kind of semi egging us on, as was the case with Sarkozy, less now with Hollande, as is the case with the British somewhat, they’re not going to be in there with us and there will be a lot of countries that will indirectly suffer that will resent it bitterly. So it’s a bad choice.

I don’t think the president wants to do it. I think the president wants to avoid it and I am sympathetic to his position, but I just wish that some of our rhetoric was more careful because that rhetoric could then be, so to speak, applicable and used by those who favor war as in fact already legitimating such a decision.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and Professor at Johns Hopkins University:
I think the brief question addressed to me was, you know, how has our expenditures on Iraq affected our ability to operate elsewhere. Well, the United States is the number-one super power, we have the largest economy, so we manage to remain engaged in other parts of the world and, I hope, act responsibly and effectively. But that doesn’t refute the proposition that the war in Iraq was excessively expensive, not only morally, but financially and physically, and it has not contributed to greater regional stability, but has enhanced greater regional instability.

The kind of phenomena that were described in terms of internal conflict in a variety of these countries is an increasingly pervasive global reality. If the lesson to be drawn from it is that whenever there are, quote-unquote, “murderous groups” doing nasty things, the United States has to go in militarily and to deal with it, I think is a recommendation for a policy that it will be ultimately suicidal.

I think that is the kind of a policy that our adversaries, who would like to see our power decline, who would like to see ourselves spent in endless conflicts all over the place for doubtful reasons. It will be in fact a gift to them. So I’m sure we can maintain a reasonable and stable policy towards the Far East, and we’re doing it, but I hope we also draw some lessons from the experience of the conflicts that we have waged in recent years with rather dubious geopolitical effects.

Jessica Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
Can I ask you, maybe both, to address the question of Syria, which seems, more than Iran, to have echoes about the kinds of choices that we – and the kinds of difficulties of intertwined military and political considerations that we faced in Iraq.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and Professor at Johns Hopkins University:
What I would say on Syria is that we got off on the wrong foot in the first place. Remember the trouble started about two years ago. Not long thereafter, the president of the United States declared publicly that Assad of Syria has to go, and that was a choice that he made. One would assume that declaring it publicly involves a commitment by the United States or that the United States is prepared then to make effective and that, therefore, we have the means and the strategy for achieving that objective.

It soon turned out that this was a rhetorical commitment without a real capacity for follow- through on our part.

So we went to the U.N. and we demanded that the U.N. Security Council support us on this. Not surprisingly, the Russians and the Chinese said, well, we don’t share this conclusion and we’re not going to join you in forcing Assad out. And we object, and the resolution fell.

We thereupon denounced the Russians and the Chinese as having engaged in a stance that is infantile and disgusting, those were the words used by our ambassador to the U.N., which is not a way of soliciting support for further common policy.

On top of it, it became increasingly clear that the opposition to Assad is very mixed. Some of it involves some of our friends who are sponsoring Salafi movements, some of it involved infiltration of al-Qaida types into Syria, some of it involves Iranian involvement; and therefore, the picture is far from clear.

It was also increasingly evident we didn’t really have strong support from groups that were capable of organizing an effective military resistance. So we have been stalemated.

Recently, we have announced that we will provide money to the resistance groups and humanitarian aid, but we’ll not give them arms, which is a curious decision because, first of all, we don’t really know to whom to give arms, in the first place. So we’re not going to give arms because we don’t know who the recipients are, how reliable they are, but we are going to give some people some money and humanitarian aid. Since humanitarian aid, and particularly money, is fungible, they can buy arms. So who are we really arming indirectly, having decided in the first place that there aren’t any people that we want to arm?

So I think our policy really is rather shortsighted and not particularly effective.

I think the best that we can hope for is some international settlement still, in which somehow we will manage to get the Russians and the Chinese and through them, therefore, also the Iranians to participate, because otherwise the conflict will go on. It will involve the fragmentation of Syria and probably will have a negative destabilizing impact on Iraq, as well as in Lebanon and on Jordan. And these are not conditions that are felicitous to the kind of Middle East that we would like to promote.


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