A rook exits the global chessboard
M. K. Bhadrakumar
May 28, 2017
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who died Friday, Henry Kissinger and Madeline Albright have been three foreign-born scholars who significantly influenced American policies and impacted global affairs through the past half century. For better or worse, Brzezinski and Kissinger were grand strategists too. Both left a trail of influence through their protégés.
Brzezinski was an indefatigable ‘Cold Warrior’ and was in danger of becoming an anachronism. The leitmotif of his “doctrine” was his virulent anti-Russian outlook, which could have been due to his Polish origin. (Albright, another hardliner on Russia, was Czech.) He and Albright – apart from Strobe Talbott, who served as deputy state secretary in Bill Clinton administration – were instrumental in burying whatever prospects existed for a historic rapprochement between the West and Boris Yeltsin’s Russia (which the latter was keenly seeking).
Clinton’s decision to expand NATO to the former Warsaw Pact territory was the turning point. (George Kennan, the architect of the Cold War, was prophetic in warning Clinton that such a move would be a catastrophic blunder and shut the door on any prospect of friendly ties with Russia.) Plainly put, Brzezinski and Albright ensured that Cold War flames were kept burning in the post-cold war era – although Ronald Reagan or George HW Bush were open to accommodating Russia.
Kissinger, who advocated détente, once described Brzezinski “a total whore”, someone who could be on every side of every argument. (Two years earlier, Brzezinski too gave a terse summary of Kissinger’s approach as Richard Nixon’s security advisor: “fascination with enemies and ennui with friends” – that is, supposedly Chinese and Russian enemies and Western European friends.) It has been said that for every book about international politics authored by Brzezinski, there is a corresponding book about Kissinger. Brzezinski published close to 20 books, but didn’t attempt any memoirs, and no one seems to have written his biography either. The two personalities were poles apart. Kissinger was terrific at self-promotion, while Brzezinski’s razor-sharp intellect that could be intimidating, provocative and combative (albeit unfailingly stimulating) created an aura of aloofness. As a thinker, he outstrips Kissinger.
On the other hand, his track record as a diplomatist in Jimmy Carter’s White House remains hugely controversial on two templates – during the tumultuous Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (1978-1980) and the aftermath of the historic Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979). Simply put, Brzezinski scripted the “Afghan jihad” – unabashedly deploying jihadi forces as geopolitical instrument to bleed the Red Army. (That was how the al-Qaeda – and later the ISIS – was born.) Brzezinski’s stunning memos to Carter, exulting over the tantalizing prospect of creating a “Soviet Vietnam”, are the stuff of throbbing history.
Brzezinski later admitted that the US set up a bear trap for the Russians in Afghanistan. In a frank interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, he said, “We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” There is a riveting essay in the nature of a book review on that momentous slice of international politics written by an American historian entitled Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Retrospect.
Brzezinski was a cold-blooded strategist rooted in Halford Mackinder’s famous Heartland Theory regarding the Pivot Area of Central Eurasia. In his complex thought process, “The key point to bear in mind is that Russia cannot be in Europe without Ukraine also being in Europe, whereas Ukraine can be in Europe without Russia being in Europe.”
Where Brzezinski and Kissinger would agree and disagree is when it comes to China. Both advocated the need for a stable, strong, predictable Sino-American partnership as an imperative of our times and, of course, in the US’ core interests. However, whereas Kissinger envisions the desirability of a trilateral US-Russian-Chinese “balance” in the interests of global stability, Brzezinski differs. Although Brzezinski grudgingly came to accept US-Russia détente, he saw it nonetheless as a paradigm where the US must keep the upper hand. (He saw no future for Russia.) Brzezinski argued that US should focus on building up ties with China, leaving Russia out in the cold, which would inevitably pressure Moscow to compromise lest it got “isolated” in big-power politics.
The problem with Brzezinski’s logic is that it blithely assumes that China would gang up with the US to isolate Russia – or would relegate its ties with Russia to the backburner. This is delusional thinking. The Sino-Russian strategic understanding gives the partnership a raison d-etre of its own, creating more space for both to negotiate effectively with the US.
Brzezinski’s departure can be compared to the exit of a rook from the chessboard. No doubt, the rook is a “heavy piece” on a chessboard, especially in the “endgame”. Like a rook, Brzezinski also moved horizontally or vertically, but never diagonally. But then, Brzezinski’s “heaviness” can also be taken very far. Good diplomacy needs plodders.
A case in point will be Brzezinski’s disastrous advice to Carter to mount a rescue mission – code named Eagle Claw – in April 1980 to bring home the 52 American diplomats held hostage in Iran. It was a reckless move. Eagle Claw never got near the American prisoners. Helicopters that were the mainstay of the mission were disabled in an unanticipated sandstorm in the Iranian desert. Eight American servicemen died and eight aircraft were lost.
Imam Khomeini later said in a memorable message titled The mistake of Carter and its consequences that the Iranian nation got the ultimate confirmation from Carter’s “foolish mischief” that the big Satan should never be trusted. The Imam warned,
- I admonish Carter if he repeats again such a foolish act it will be difficult for us and the government to control the Muslim fighters and youths who are guarding the (American) spies.
That tragic folly probably cost Carter his kingdom in the November 1980 election. Carter’s Secretary of State Cyrus Vance had advised against Eagle Claw. Vance was by no means a pacifist; nor had he any liking for the revolutionary government in Iran. Vance’s rival for Carter’s ear was Brzezinski who was brash, clever, ambitious and held Vance in contempt as a relic of the once-dominant WASP. Vance was indeed a WASP, born to a prosperous family in West Virginia and expensively educated. He had a successful career as a lawyer and seemingly was without political ambition.
But Vance’s plodder’s advice was spot on: Give the revolution, like for any revolution, the time to settle down, while patiently negotiating the release of hostages. Vance eventually resigned in protest over Eagle Claw – indeed, the only American state secretary to do so over policy differences, after being outmaneuvered by Brzezinski.
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