walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: May 25, 2012
Look Before You Leap

It used to be, I think, that the vast majority of strategists and statesmen played chess, or in non-Western cultures some comparably complex game that required players to anticipate what their opponents might do in an extended sequence of moves. This was good training for the real world. If you read in the history of diplomacy, you can find many excellent examples of careful statecraft resembling what we may call sequence assessment. (A masterful and also quite brief description of the phenomenon, as seen by a social scientist, may be found in Erving Goffman’s little-known 1969 book Strategic Interaction.) One can also find examples of hotheads going off half cocked, usually to their and everyone else’s regret. Big mistakes make big news historically. But my sense is that responsible individuals, who made up the vast majority a century and two ago, generally understood the difficulty of their task, and worked at it in a fairly disciplined fashion.

Now consider some recent events in that light. For several years now the United States has been using Predator drones to attack terrorist and insurgency targets in several countries. We hear most about Pakistan, but we have also been doing this sort of thing in Yemen—especially recently—and elsewhere.  From a strictly military point of view these strikes have been effective. As many observers have pointed out, however, their broader political impact over time is harder to measure, given the political blowback potential of such methods. And as some observers have warned, once this technology gets loose there is nothing to prevent very nasty folks, state and non-state actors alike, from attacking American and allied targets with armed drones. What goes around comes around, indeed.

The Predator issue is a subset of a larger concern about technology designed and produced by the United States and other advanced allied countries eventually trickling down, one way or another, into the inventories of other nations. The anti-access and area denial dilemma that has arisen in recent years, particularly with regard to the U.S. military being able to access bases in allied countries in Asia in a crisis, is the larger and more significant case in point. The general phenomenon describes a race in which we need to not only maintain a technological lead, but be able through that lead to defend against our own stuff one or two developmental generations removed in the hands of adversaries. This is not as easy as all that to do, especially when the challenge is taken to be an afterthought.

Note, too, that just last week the press carried stories about EU forces attacking Somali pirate bases with helicopters. The European troops never set foot on Somali soil, and apparently they did not kill anyone—just destroyed some boats used in the Somali piracy enterprise. I was surprised to read about this, for two reasons. The first reason is that it is a rare occasion when the Euroweenies manage to gird themselves up to do anything more than talk, unless we have first pounded on their heads and necks to rouse them into a kinetic mood. The second reason is that the operation struck me as dangerous. I hope that the European decision-makers who ordered this assault thought through what Somali pirates might do in response. They are not exactly helpless; they have a few options.

I am not squeamish about the use of military force when there is good reason for it, but I am leery of the way force has been used in recent times—not least in Afghanistan, and we’ll come back to that in a moment. But as to the piracy business, let me tell a brief story, if I may.

When I was ship-riding the U.S.S. Boxer last year, and the U.S.S. Farragut the year before that, the question of our ROEs (rules of engagement) in dealing with piracy came up in my conversations with several soldiers, sailors and marines. I was at first stunned, to be perfectly honest, with how restrictive our ROEs were.

One sailor, who of course I will not name, described having a Somali pirate square in his sights from the deck of an American DDG—and this was a pirate who had clearly been involved in a very recent assault on a ship—but was told not to shoot. The rule was that U.S. personnel could only shoot at pirates to defend themselves, which meant in practice if the pirate was aiming a weapon at them. If the pirate turned his body a few degrees away from an American target, even if he had been shooting at it just two minutes earlier, U.S. military personnel were not allowed to fire. Others in uniform nodded, and the general sense was that these restrictions were frustratingly unreasonable. Why send out anti-piracy patrols, they waxed rhetorical, without a set of engagement rules enabling the patrols to cause the pirates pain?

Well, that is what we want our warriors to say. But a talk with their superior officers, which apparently reflected the views of their civilian superiors, yielded another perspective. We could escalate the conflict with piracy, and we could win it at least temporarily if we wanted to, but at what price? The kind of piracy the Somalis were practicing amounted to an irritant, not a strategic threat. It’s cheaper to pay the tolls than to destroy the floating tollbooths. To try to extirpate the problem threatens to raise all kinds of political, legal and literal costs that might not be worth paying. Hence the limited rules of engagement.

So in that light I wonder if the West European decision-makers who ordered the attack on those boats took into consideration that to defer future assaults Somali pirates might decide to sink a few ships instead of merely hold them for ransom, and to kill several people instead of holding them all hostage. (Of course, Somali pirates did kill some Americans, and paid the price for doing so—but we’re still wondering if something we did catalyzed their behavior… it might have.)  Perhaps they did think it through over in Brussels, and are ready for the next possible and likely sequence of moves. If so, good for them (and us). And perhaps not. We’re bound to find out sooner or later.

Which brings me back to Yemen. Just a few days ago a horrific bombing in the capital, Sanaa, killed ninety people and injured scores more. Most of the dead were Yemeni military personnel, and the target of the apparently al-Qaeda attack was clearly a military facility. Given the accelerated pace of attack against anti-regime forces in the country in recent weeks, the bombing was clearly a payback. And its message was clear: Stop shooting at us or we’ll blow you into clouds of pink meat.

(The Sanaa bombing was, by the way, not terrorism if by terrorism we stick to the proper definition: random attacks against civilians aimed at spreading fear and, yes, terror. Attacks against uniformed military personnel do not fit this definition. Such attacks are acts of insurgent warfare, not terrorism, even if they are perpetrated by people who also engage in terrorism. It is important to keep this distinction clearly in mind, lest we allow nefarious others to spin the meaning of the word for their own purposes. It is plainly not true that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but our conflation of acts of war with acts of terrorism makes that falsehood seem plausible. This is why the October 2000 attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Aden harbor, and the October 1983 attacks on U.S. troops in Lebanon, were not and should never have been described as acts of terrorism. Alas, some of us lose our verbal composure when we get upset. You can lose a rook like that, or even your queen.)

To get back to Sanaa, it’s simply not a good idea to start a fight, or to deepen a fight, that you are not prepared to do what is necessary to win it. If our right hand, along with that of our Yemeni associates, is going to rev up attacks against jihadi militants there, our left hand needs to be raised in anticipatory defense against the likely-to-inevitable reaction. For that to happen we need our brain to be working. So you see the problem. Big organizations of all kinds sometimes have trouble engaging their brain to properly oversee distributed standard operating procedures.

In the Yemeni case we have every reason to believe that threats against us are brewing. We need to preempt them if we can. So I am not arguing for quiescence, and certainly I am not arguing for a 21st-century version of graduated response. If it were possible to pre-emptorily clobber the bad guys senseless and really finish the matter, great—I’d be first in line to say “let’s do it.” I doubt, however, that the strategic equivalent of a knockout punch exists in a situation where insurgency is so deeply embedded in social/tribal realities.

All I’m pointing out here is that we need to think through the various contingencies that may arise as a result of our actions before we undertake them. I am not entirely confident that we do this these days on both a regular and serious basis. Maybe we’re playing too little chess and too many video games where, when you get whacked, you just dial up another game and quickly put ignominy in the rear-view mirror.

Obviously, there are tough calls in this business. Most of the important ones are tough. And since it is never possible to know for sure what the unfurling future will bring, a very good case for letting the urgent drive out the eventual is not hard to make. That is why it is a completely false argument to say, for example, that U.S. support for Afghan mujaheddin against the Red Army in Afghanistan was a bad idea because it eventually created 9/11. It did no such thing in any way that any reasonable person could have anticipated in the early 1980s. Al-Qaeda did not exist when that decision was made, Osama bin-Laden did not base himself in Afghanistan until 1996, and anyway the frequent journalistic assertion (or assumption) that the mujaheddin then and the Taliban a la 2001 and now are one and the same is complete nonsense.

Still, the point remains: Don’t jump off the diving board until you’ve checked to make sure there’s water in the pool. And so let us continue, in closing for today, with a few words about contemporary Afghanistan.

This past weekend’s Chicago NATO Summit was all about agreeing on a plan to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan. That will start to happen, as best we can tell, by the summer of next year. In advance of the summit the United States signed a complex agreement with the government of Afghanistan that appears to keep us in close association for many years to come, but exactly what it says and means isn’t entirely clear. Nonetheless, the impression the Obama Administration wants to convey is that it is acting in a deliberate and responsible manner to end the war—or at least American participation in it—after accomplishing many, if admittedly not all, of our goals. No one can blame the Administration for wanting and trying to do this: If it preserves American reputational capital, it’s the right thing to do. I hope lots of people all over world swallow the hook, the line, the sinker, and for that matter the entire canoe.

But I don’t. One reason I don’t is that the entire enterprise of responsible U.S. and allied withdrawal depends on the fiction that the Afghan National Army and police are capable of defending the regime in Kabul from its enemies. (And it is a fiction—see the September/October 2011 TAI essay by Alim Remtullah if you really want to understand why.)

It seems to me that there are two kinds of people in our government and military who believe this fiction, or pretend to. The first kind are those whose jobs it is to make this work—mostly soldiers who have been trying their hardest to train Afghan soldiers and police over many years. What a lot of people who have never worked in government seem oblivious to is that when it is your job to make the policy work, it usually leaves scales on your eyes. You can be so deep in the details of your day-to-day responsibilities that you are unable to discern broader patterns, particularly negative ones.

I think the nation-building (really state-building, to be precise) mission in Afghanistan has been utopian lunacy from the start; it’s something we never should have started—never should have jumped off the diving board. It is impossible to create a modern functioning democracy, let alone a liberal one of Western-like provenance, in a place where there is not and never has been even a modern state. It’s foolish to have willed the end with no solid idea in mind of how to will the means. But my heart goes out to those who have tried to make this crazy policy work. That is what I meant a moment ago when I said that it pains me that our decision-makers sometimes fail to think through the consequences of what they set in motion, because it is the guys on the ground—the very best our country has to offer—who often end up paying the price.

The other kind of people who believe in the prowess of the ANA and the Afghan police are those for whom it is simply convenient to believe it, because it hopefully affords us that famed “decent interval” of Frank Snepp Vietnam fame. Last Saturday the New York Times carried a front-page feature on how Barack Obama’s view of Afghanistan allegedly changed over time from a war of necessity to something a whole lot less than that. It was a plausible tale except for just one thing: It never mentioned politics.

According to the article, written by the consummate pro David Sanger, Obama changed his mind when he realized how hard, how expensive and how long achieving the military’s goals would really be. All I can say is that if it took Barack Obama a year or more to realize this, then he is not nearly as smart as some people think he is—either that or he really wasn’t paying much attention to this “war of necessity” before his Inauguration Day.

I have a somewhat different interpretation of what has happened. I think Senator Barack Obama understood very well that to be elected President he had to pick a war to support. Democrats seen to be soft on national security don’t get elected; Obama knew that, just like everyone else (except, of course, those geniuses in the Democratic Party who nominated people like Michael Dukakis and John Kerry). Since Obama obviously could not pick Iraq, that left Afghanistan, which perforce became the war of necessity.

But when the military and its civilian adjuncts could not do the impossible there, and the war became both unpopular and a political liability, Obama turned on a dime to dissociate himself from his necessary war of choice. That, Mr. Sanger, is when he discovered what a tough deal Afghanistan really was—some coincidence, huh?

Frankly, I’m glad he did because, as I said, this was a fool’s errand to start with if ever there was one. And since Obama himself had changed the mission in 2009 to make the military’s task even more impossible (I realize that for anything to be “more impossible” is logically impossible—relax, it’s just a figure of speech….), it’s only right that he be the one to change course. But I don’t believe for a minute that the President’s behavior can be described strictly in the strategic tense; political calculation drips from every pore of this policy.  Barack Obama may indeed be playing a kind of chess, but it’s a match that seems to me to have only a little to do with U.S. foreign policy and national security concerns.

The only problem with how Obama has played the game thus far is that he’s now ceded the initiative to a select group of top Taliban commanders. He has to hope that his decent interval lasts at least until early November. Since we’re not withdrawing beyond a point of no return until after the election, this hope can be backed by combat force if need be. But if the appearance of a responsible and orderly withdrawal is foiled by aggressive and successful Taliban tactics this summer and into the fall—or if the Karzai regime implodes for any number of imaginable reasons—then the President is going to have a real problem on his hands. With just a little luck, these guys could drain the pool while the Administration is in mid-swan dive.

show comments
  • WigWag

    “That is why it is a completely false argument to say, for example, that U.S. support for Afghan mujaheddin against the Red Army in Afghanistan was a bad idea because it eventually created 9/11.” (Adam Garfinkle)

    It’s not a “completely” false argument. Even the author of the policy, Zbignew Brzezinski (who takes credit for tricking the Soviets into invading Afghanistan and giving them “their Viet Nam”) admits there was a connection. Here’s the precise quote from Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor,

    “Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire…What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?”

  • Anthony

    The long and short of essay: engagement, militarily or diplomatically, requires both knowing who you’re dealing with and the ending is everything (therefore take into account all possible twist and turns – consequences). Sequence assessment as handmaiden to strategic interaction is also critical component of statecraft.

    Additionally, author’s pointing out of predator issue (what goes around comes around) warrants serious concern vis-a-vis technology trickling down – 2nd., 3rd. generation.

  • wes george

    Interesting analysis. The flaw seems to be in the complexity of it all, which must discourage politicians from even trying to think beyond the next election.

    Modern warfare isn’t as simple as the stark choices – defined by honour – on an 18th century battlefield. The number of globally interconnected moving parts today introduces a range of possible outcomes far greater than when say, Grant allowed Custer to return to the Black Hills in 1874. It’s impossible to imagine Lakota warriors flying aeroplanes into the Brooklyn Bridge as a consequent.

    What you seem to be trying to say is not that modern politicians aren’t calculating “sequence assessment” of their military strategies, but Obama, at least, is doing so only in terms of the domestic political chess game.

    This kind of cynicism on the part of so-called statesmen seems to be more prevalent among “progressives” than conservatives. A strong case can be made that Clinton’s military forays were prompted by sequence assessment scenarios based on their effect domestically, while achieving the stated goal in battle was of secondary importance.

    I’ve long thought it possible that if Obama’s team calculates he’s likely to lose the coming election, then he might suddenly discover America’s vital interests align with Israel’s to see off Iran’s blossoming nuclear threat capacity before the November election.

    Of course, doing a sequence assessment of a new Middle Eastern war is fraught with nonlinear complexity involving so many players that the only probable scenarios involve massive economic disruption and at least short term crisis too good to let go to waste, if not extended warfare in possibly more than one theatre.

    How could this help Obama win the election? Maybe, that’s the wrong question. If he thinks he going to lose anyway why not kick the whole chess board over? There’s more than one way to sequence events.

  • Walter Sobchak

    Conscience must make cowards of us all.

    In the 19th Century the Royal Navy eliminated piracy off the coast of East Africa by hanging pirates when they found them, without delay, without lawyers, and without consequences, other than deluding Westerners into believing that piracy was a thing of the past.

    But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree; and he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.”

    The Afghanistan problem is even easier. Obama has acted on nothing other than domestic considerations because that is all he cares about. But, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

    We must remove our people from Afghanistan ASAP. The Taliban are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pakistani military establishment. The moment we leave Afghanistan, even if it were a century from now, they would move in and reassert their control. They cannot be stilled without attacking their command and control in Islamabad.

    This became obvious to the whole world when we whacked ObL in Abbottabad. The Pakistanis could have ended the whole affair years ago. Clearly, ObL was their guest, and just as clearly, they protected him.

    Before the Democrat Party adopted the protection of terrorists from unkind treatment as the main plank of their program, we might have picked up ObL and peeled him like an onion. We might have found out who his real masters were, my guess is that he would have named somebody in the al’Sa’ud family, and would have told us of the involvement of Iraqi and Pakistani intelligence in his operations.

    Which brings me to real issue. Our real failure came on 9/12/2001. By the time the sun had set on that day we should have dropped nuclear weapons on Mecca and Medina. Pearl Harbor cost the Japanese 2 cities. The attacks on New York and Washington should have cost the Muslim world just as much.

    If we had done that, we would not have had to invade Afghanistan, or Iraq, and we wouldn’t be chasing low rent pirates around the coast of Somalia.

    The idea of attacking the American homeland would have been scratched off every bad guys list then and for many years to come.

    • alex scipio


      And had we not had the stomach for Mecca and Medina (which ARE the correct targets), certainly when OBL was in Tora Bora – with NO cities or farms or civilians around, we should have removed the top few hundred feet of the entire range with a few nukes. OBL – Dead. His command structure – Dead. A VERY STRONG line in the sand – dont’ mess with the US – Drawn. And thousands of American lives – Saved.

      Here’s how the wrold really needs to get it done… and CAN:

  • Kris

    WigWag@1, the sources I can find for that Zbig quote are somewhat shady and seem to be disputed. Has there been a reasonably definitive conclusion regarding its veracity?

  • alex scipio

    With a little luck, Karzai will grasp that his lifespan will be measured in a single-digit number of days once we leave, and he will move himself and what oney he has not already stashed overseas OUT of country sometime in late summer — BEFORE November, so we can see that even the islamist we have propped-up doesn’t believe in a non-Taliban future in Umbrellastan.

  • WigWag

    I am almost certain that the quote from Brzezinski is accurate. It appeared in a French Magazine, “Le Nouvel Observateur” in 1998 in the aftermath of the revelation of the then CIA Director, Robert Gates, in his memoir “From the Shadows” that the United States began to arm the Afghan Mujahadeen six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. It seems to me that it is hard to claim that the Mujahadeen was not a precursor to the Taliban which gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda. That’s why I disagree with Adam Garfinkle that it is a “completely” false argument to link the arming of the Mujahadeen with the eventual tragedy of 9/11.

    In the 1998 interview even the author of the policy, Zbignew Brzezinski, admits that the Mujahadeen morphed into anti-American Islamic radicals.

    We can only guess what might have happened but for the Afghan policy of the Carter Administration. But it seems perfectly reasonable to me to speculate that the world might be a better place today if the incompetent communist bozos had remained in power instead of Islamic radicals trained and funded by our Government. Certainly Afghans, especially Afghan women and girls would be better off. My guess is that but for Brzezinski’s trick the Communist Government in Afghanistan would have fallen anyway and probably would have been replaced by a secular state rather than an Islamic theocracy. It also seems absurd to me to suggest that but for the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan the Soviet Empire would still be with us.

    Of course, we will never know.

    In case your interested, here is the entire 1998 Brzezinski interview with “Le Nouvel Observateur.”

    Question: The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [From the Shadows], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan six months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct? Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

    Question: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it? Brzezinski: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

    Question: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today? Brzezinski: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, in substance: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

    Question: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalists, having given arms and advice to future terrorists? Brzezinski: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?**

    Question: Some stirred-up Moslems? But it has been said and repeated: Islamic fundamentalism represents a world menace today. Brzezinski: Nonsense! It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries

  • WigWag

    Kris, there is one more irony I would like to bring to your attention. In your comment you mentioned that the sources you had found for the Brzezinski quote were “shady.” I presume you use that term because the sources you found were part and parcel of the radical left. The Brzezinski interview was widely quoted in leftist circles in an attempt to excoriate Brzezinski and even Jimmy Carter. For years the left hated Brzezinski because of his staunch anti-communism. He was widely viewed on the left as a character with “Strangelovian” proclivities. For a time even Carter was disliked by leftists because he had the audacity to be anti-communist enough to cancel American participation in the Olympics to protest the Soviets invasion of Afghanistan.

    Of course, now all of that has changed. Instead of being despised by the left, Brzezinski and Cater are adored by leftists. How can we explain this about face?

    It’s quite easy actually. Brzezinski and Carter are revered by leftists despite their history of anti-communism because the both share what has become almost a mantra to leftists; they both hate Israel and they both believe American Jews have too much influence when it comes to American foreign policy.

    The left has decided that almost any sin committed by Carter and Brzezinski can be forgiven as long as they both continue to criticize Israel loudly and frequently.

    By the way, unless I am mistaken the man leftists once mistook for Dr. Strangelove is on the editorial board of the American Interest.

  • Gary L

    Excellent essay – my only off-topic criticism:

    It used to be, I think, that the vast majority of strategists and statesmen played chess, or in non-Western cultures some comparably complex game that required players to anticipate what their opponents might do in an extended sequence of moves.

    The origins of chess are shrouded in mystery, but it’s generally agreed that it originated in India. The legendary origins of chess have been
    marvelously musick’d by Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Anderson & Tim Rice in the 1984 musical Chess.

    It seems, if Chess‘s creators are accurate, that the West’s acquisition of chess was a sort of consolation prize for the collapse of the Byzantium Empire….

    Not much is known
    Of early days of chess beyond a fairly vague report
    That fifteen hundred years ago two princes fought
    Though brothers, for a Hindu throne

    Their mother cried
    For no-one really likes their offspring
    fighting to the death
    She begged them stop the slaughter
    with her every breath
    But sure enough one brother died

    Sad beyond belief
    She told her winning son
    You have caused such grief
    I can’t forgive this evil thing you’ve done

    He tried to explain
    How things had really been
    But he tried in vain
    No words of his could mollify the queen

    And so he asked the wisest men he knew
    The way to lessen her distress
    They told him he’d be pretty certain to impress
    By using model soldiers on
    A chequered board to show it was his brother’s fault
    They thus invented chess

    Chess displayed no inertia
    Soon spread to Persia, then west
    Next the Arabs refined it,
    Thus redesigned, it progressed

    Still further yet
    And when Constantinople fell in 1453
    One would have noticed every other refugee
    Included in his bags a set

    Once in the hands
    And in the minds of leading figures of the Renaissance
    The spirit and the speed of chess made swift advance
    Through all of Europe’s vital lands
    Where we must record
    The game was further changed
    Right across the board
    The western touch upon the pieces ranged

    King and queen and rook
    And bishop, knight and pawn
    All took on the look
    We know today, the modern game was born

    And in the end
    We see a game that started by mistake in Hindustan
    And boosted in the main by what is now Iran
    Become the simplest and most complicated
    Pleasure yet devised
    For just the kind of mind
    Who would appreciate this well-researched and fascinating yarn….

  • Kris

    WigWag, thanks for your response. I fully agree with your @8, though I’d suggest that conversely, Brzezinski’s anti-Israel attitudes earned him the opposition of people who would otherwise have strongly supported him for his anti-Communism. Regarding @7, we can quibble, but to little purpose as we are dealing in counter-factuals and classified information. More importantly, a fact’s a fact, regardless of whether we like it or its consequences. My main problem with this quote is that it sets off all of my “too good to be true” alarms, and the fact I can only find it in radical left sources isn’t helping. This very obviously doesn’t prove the quote to be false. I suppose I’ll just have to eventually try to track down the original interview from Le Nouvel Observateur (not on their site), which is a reasonably reliable paper.

  • WigWag

    “I suppose I’ll just have to eventually try to track down the original interview from Le Nouvel Observateur (not on their site), which is a reasonably reliable paper.” (Kris)

    The text of the interview appeared in the issue dated January 15-21, 1998 on page 76. Of course it is in French so you either need to speak French yourself of find someone to translate it for you.

    By the way, the number of days between the date when “Le Nouvel Observateur” published the Brzezinski interview in which he said both,

    “What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe…”


    “Nonsense! [Islamic fundamentalism does not represent a menace]. It is said that the West had a global policy in regard to Islam. That is stupid. There isn’t a global Islam. Look at Islam in a rational manner and without demagoguery or emotion. It is the leading religion of the world with 1.5 billion followers. But what is there in common among Saudi Arabian fundamentalism, moderate Morocco, Pakistan militarism, Egyptian pro-Western or Central Asian secularism? Nothing more than what unites the Christian countries.”

    and September 11, 2001 was 3 years, seven months and 27 days or 1,335 days.

    While funding and training the Afghan Mujahadeen may not have been a proximate cause of the 9/11 attacks or even an important cause, there can be no doubt that Brzezinski’s inclination to pooh pooh “stirred up Muslims” turned out, in retropsect, to look unwise.

    It is also interesting to look at the quote from Brzezinski about the Muslim world and notice that he neglected to mention Iran at all. The reasons are obvious; he and Carter had made a mess out of Iran; no wonder he didn’t want to remind anyone of that fact.

    To be fair though, the mess that Carter and Brzezinski made of Iran is no worse than the mess that Obama has made of Egypt. Even Obama deserves a little fairness; truth be told, while he was making a mess of Egypt he had plenty of support from Americn neocons.

  • WigWag

    Kris there is one final irony to all of this that makes you realize how cynical the world of international relations really is.

    Assuming the Le Nouvel Observateur interview is legitimate and assuming that Brzezinski was telling the truth (and not exagerating by tooting his own horn) then President Carter cancelled the American participation in the Olympics to punish the Soviets for invading Afghanistan when he and Brzezinski deliberately tricked the Soviets into invading.

    Here’s what Brzezinski said,

    “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would…That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, in substance: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.”

    In other words, President Carter made a big public show of punishing the Soviets (it was the American Olympic atheletes who bore the brunt of the punishment), when his Administration deliberately lured the Soviets into the invasion.

    Amazing; don’t you think?

  • Kris

    While I’m hardly Brzezinski’s biggest fan, I wouldn’t be too quick to criticize him on this particular point. The Islamist threat must be taken very seriously, but I am still not convinced that it is a threat on the order of the USSR (yet). I’ll grant that Zbig was being somewhat too dismissive, probably for rhetorical reasons, but his views were unexceptional in 1998, and dominant in 1979.

    Nice catch re Iran.

    On the original point, I’ve found an interview in which Zbig denies what was attributed to him. I’ll try to track down the original Nouvel Obs piece in the next few days, and will post here if I find anything.

  • Kris

    WigWag@15: Indeed. :-) And that’s one of the reasons for my skepticism about the claim: it doesn’t fit into my image of the Carter administration as feckless rather than Machiavellian.

    Even better is that the Soviet invasion was widely presented as a further falling domino. By making a big deal of it, Carter made himself look even more ineffectual, with the obvious electoral result.

  • WigWag

    Kris, as I mentioned, Dr. Brzezinski is on the Editorial Board of the “American Interest.” Someone who works there could simply ask him whether the interview with “Le Nouvel Observateur” took place and, if it did, whether the widely distributed English translation is an accurate account of what he said.

    I won’t be holding my breath though.

  • Damir Marusic

    Here’s an interview Adam Garfinkle did with Dr. Brzezinski a few years back.

  • Kris

    Damir@16, the interview is interesting, but it doesn’t address my main question: Did the US deliberately intervene in Afghanistan so as to knowingly provoke a Soviet invasion, a fascinating claim attributed to Dr. Brzezinski?

    (For the record, I agree with Brzezinski’s claim in the interview that aiding the Afghan “opposition” was the right call, despite the Islamism question.)

    I would be grateful If you or Adam could get a clear-cut answer to this question of some historical significance.

  • WigWag

    Here’s what we know for sure, Kris; the Carter Administration began arming the Afghan Mujahadeen at least six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. We know this because Robert Gates who had recently retired as the CIA Director revealed it in his memoirs.

    You can find information about the Gates memoir here,

    There are many plausible explanations about why the United States would arm radical Afgan Islamists even before the Soviets invaded the country. One of those plausible explanations is that the Carter Administration tricked the Soviets into invading.

    Damir, how about being a mensch and emailing Dr. Brzezinski to ask him if the “Le Nouvel Observateur” interview provides an accurate rendition of what he said.

  • WigWag

    It’s obvious that Adam Garfinkle is smart, thoughtful and eloquent. I downloaded “Jewcentricity” today and so far it is very interesting. With that said, there are critical aspects of Adam’s interview with Dr, Brzezinski that simply strain credulity.

    Adam goes on at some length about how a major failure of senior leaders in the Bush Administration was the failure to take into account or even think about the relevance of the Sunni-Shia divide. Specifically he says,

    “Here’s another example of your point: One outcome of the Iraq war, so far anyway, has been a significant exacerbation of the Sunni-Shi‘a rivalry throughout the Muslim world. When I was in government, I asked several people in a position to know if anyone had studied this issue before the war as a possible concern. The answer I got was of the yes-and-no variety. Yes, there were people in the intelligence community who had flagged this as an issue, but no, no senior decision-maker had evinced the slightest curiosity about it. Therefore, since nobody asked our experts to study the issue, it was never evaluated in-depth. That’s alarming.”

    Brzezinski, always anxious to take a pot shot at Condi Rice readily agrees with Adam. Brzezinski responds,

    ” It is, yes, and it all pertains to public statements about conditions in the Persian Gulf in the phase preceding the decision to go into Iraq. The President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense rarely referred to the cleavage between the Sunnis and the Shi‘a or the potential implications of these cleavages. I strongly suspect that when the President announced the decision to go into Iraq, he wasn’t intellectually aware of the ramifications of the Sunni-Shi‘a divide.”

    Not satisfied with implying that President Bush was a moron, he goes on to suggest that Condi Rice was a moron. Brzezinski says,

    “…we may have had a National Security Advisor at the time who wasn’t particularly curious about these things either, and worse, wasn’t determined enough to compel the President to address the ramifications of this issue.”

    Are we really supposed to believe that neither Colin Powell or Condi Rice were smart enough, informed enough or curious enough to reflect on the pertinence of the Sunni-Shia divide before the American invasion?

    Which other senior officials involved with the Bush Administration do Adam and Brzezinski want us to believe were too dimwitted to think about or even know about the Sunni-Shia divide? Do they expect us to believe that John Negroponte was too oblivious to know about tensions between the Sunni and Shia worlds? Are we supposed to believe that Zalmay Khalilzad who is Muslim himself was blissfully unaware of hostility between the Sunni and Shia communities? Do Adam and Brzezinski and Adam think that General John Abizaid, the CENTCOM Commander whose parents were born in Lebanon didn’t know or care about the pertinence of the Sunni-Shia divide?

    The idea that one of the key failings of the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy was a dearth of senior leaders who knew about and cared about the hostility between Sunni and Shia is simply silly.

  • WigWag

    There are other aspects of Adam’s 2008 interview with Dr. Brzezinski that also fail to pass the smell test. Brzezinski makes the absurd argument that the Taliban insurgency had it’s roots in the Soviet pulverization of Afghanistan. Specifically Dr. Brzezinski tells Adam,

    “The fact of the matter is that the Taliban came into the region after ten years of sustained Soviet pulverization of Afghan society, and after at least half a decade of American indifference to Afghanistan after the Soviets left. That’s the backdrop against which to view the Taliban’s rise.”

    It’s hard to understand precisely what the former National Security Advisor meant when he said the “Taliban came into the region…” Al Qaeda may have eventually come into the region, but the insurgents who became the Taliban were already in the region; they were Afghan natives; many were Pashtuns and many had been trained, armed and paid by the Americans. The fact that some of the Mujahadeen eventually affiliated with the Northern Alliance because of their ethnicity changes nothing.

    When Brzezinski blames the rise of the Taliban on the Soviet pulverization of the country, he neglects to mention what he inadvertently admitted in the Le Nouvel Observateur” interview; the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and pulverized it because they were tricked into invading by Brzezinski’s policy of arming the Mujahadeen at least (according to the Gates memoir) six months before the Soviet tanks rolled in.

    Brzezinski wanted to weaken the Soviets by giving them “their Viet Nam.” Maybe it was a good idea, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was an important factor in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Empire, maybe it wasn’t.

    But if the pulverization of Afghanistan gave rise to the Taliban and if the proximate cause of that pulverization was the American trick that lured the Soviets to invade (as Brzezinski claimed), then the Carter Administration is ultimately responsible for the pulverization of Afghanistan and thus according to Brzezinski himself, the rise of the Taliban.

    The only logical conclusion is that Adam’s interview with Brzezinski read in combination with the “Le Nouvel Observateur” interview destroys Brzezinski’s credibility and proves exactly the opposite point that Brzezinski (and Adam) were trying to make.

  • WigWag

    The other thing that comes out in Adam’s interview with Brzezinski is the sheer hubris of the former National Security Advisor; could he be more arrogant?

    Brzezinski says,

    ” I think you’re putting your finger on a major weakness of contemporary America. The weakness is that we’re more democratic than we’ve ever been before, in the sense that popular pressures translate into policy pressures very quickly.”

    Got it; that’s the problem we simply have too much democracy. If only we would leave all the really hard problems to the Mandarins; that is to the brilliant experts like him everything would be just fine. Especially when it comes to foreign policy, if the American public would just stick it’s nose out of all the affairs that are none of it’s business, the world would be a much better place. I wonder if Brzezinski has the Middle East in mind? I wonder if he thinks that if those damn Jews and evangelical Protestants would mind their own business the likes of him would have the Israel-Palestine problem solved lickity split.

    One thing you’ve got to give Zbig is that he doesn’t mince words. He’s happy to tell Adam’s audience what he thinks of them,

    “The public really has no grasp of complexities, no sense of intellectual refinement in judging them…”

    Yep Americans are just way too stupid to grasp complexities. Thank goodness we have a tiny cadre of intellectually well endowed geniuses like Zbignew Brzezinski to keep us dopes on the straight and narrow. If only we could muster up the wisdom to let Zbig and his fellow experts call all the shots.

    According to Zbig the future doesn’t look bright. After all, he is sad to inform us that our society is ” increasingly imbecilized.”

    My question to Adam Garfinkle is simple; do you agree with the drivel Brzezinski provided to you in this interview?

  • Kris

    WigWag@18: “There are many plausible explanations about why the United States would arm radical Afgan Islamists even before the Soviets invaded the country. One of those plausible explanations is that the Carter Administration tricked the Soviets into invading. ”

    Whereas I consider the most plausible explanation by far to be that this was just another standard Cold War proxy battle, susch as support for the Contras in Nicaragua. The “trick” explanation strikes me as too clever by far, as demonstrated by the actual short-term results. (Then again, given your not incorrect comment @21, a “too clever” explanation might be the best fit. :-) )

    Anyhow, my own interest is not in judging Brzezinski, but merely in knowing whether he acknowledges or denies the Nouvel Observateur interview. He has seemed to deny it, but I’d like a clear-cut statement. (In fact, given that the Nouvel Obs is generally considered trustworthy, if this interview was indeed published as quoted here, it would help if such a statement by Brzezinski was made immediately following the interview itself, or at least before 9/11.)

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