Day By Day

Friday, January 02, 2009

Zbigniew Brzezinski and The Realist Fantasy

Recently former Secretary of State, Zbigniew Brzezinski, engaged in a less than polite confrontation with former Congressman, Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show. You can watch it here.

It was interesting in part because Joe's co-host is Zbig's daughter, Mika, and she was obviously embarrassed by the contretemps, but far more fascinating was the substance of the argument. This was ignored by nearly all of the bloggers who commented on the incident. They simply took sides and attacked Joe as being uninformed or Brzezinski as being arrogant. So much for reasoned discourse on the internet.

Prior to the disagreement Secretary Brzezinski was laying out the liberal "realist" position on the currently ongoing Israeli/Hamas clash. In doing so he advanced a number of interesting and, to my mind, questionable propositions.

1) The Israelis and Palestinians will never be able to come to a satisfactory agreement on their own. Here the history of the relationship would seem to back up his assertion. As Brzezinski noted the conflict has been going on for a long time. However, it should be pointed out that there are a number of actors, both in the region and in the international left who have a vested interest in keeping the conflict going. In the absence of outside interference it is conceivable that Israelis and Palestinians, left to themselves, might eventually arrive at some mutually tolerable agreement.

2)Brzezinski then asserts that there is tremendous suffering taking place on both sides of the conflict and that the United States cannot ignore this fact. He suggests that we have a moral obligation to resolve the conflict that is causing the suffering. However, we should point out that the United States under President Clinton did ignore genocide in Rwanda, withdrew from Somalia during a brutal and genocidal conflict in that country, and only entered the Balkan struggles belatedly and reluctantly, long after most of the damage had been done in that unfortunate region.

3) Dr. Brzezinski then raised the issue of "proportional response" asserting that the Israeli response to Hamas' rocket assaults was far too deadly. He then went on to argue that massive response simply hardened the Palestinian people's determination to resist, making a suitable accommodation more difficult to achieve, and that it undercut efforts of those in the region who were seeking such an accommodation, making them look like quislings. It radicalizes the Arab masses and ultimately benefits Iran. Here Brzezinski reveals a touchingly naive approach to international relations, one that assumes that the Palestinian radicals could hate Israel even more than they already do, that the use of force is almost always counter-productive, and that diplomacy represents an alternative, rather than a complement, to effective deployment of military power. And, this is most damning, he assumes against all evidence to the contrary that a rationally calibrated series of half-measures will provide an adequate response to radical provocation. This is the kind of thinking that doomed American efforts in Southeast Asia, embroiling us in a seemingly endless and escalating conflict that was politically unsustainable. It is the kind of thinking that allowed al Qaeda to portray the United States as a weak horse that could not be taken seriously. And it betrays the incredible arrogance of the Western foreign policy elites who assume that through conversations with their opposite numbers deep cultural, political, and religious antagonisms can be resolved.

Brzezinski does make one valid point when he notes that international organizations are practically useless in resolving serious conflicts. However, he then goes on to argue that, absent effective international leadership, it is the responsibility of the United States, acting as an honest intermediary, to set things right. Then he launches into a self-serving narrative regarding the progress of the peace process in recent decades.

By Brzezinski's account, the Clinton administration, building on the successes of the Carter years was close to getting a final settlement in 2000, but the election of Ariel Sharon scotched the deal. He further asserted that the Bush administration, through inattention and incompetence, then allowed the situation to deteriorate to the point where open conflict broke out. He arrogantly slapped down Scarborough's statement that the Palestinian Authority was responsible for the collapse and asserted that there is no international double standard that places blame for every bad outcome primarily on the United States and Israel. When Joe objected to this blatant attempt to blame the present troubles on President Bush by pointing out that journalistic reports and public pronouncements at the time were quite different from Brzezinski's interpretation, the former Secretary of State brushed him aside, declaring that contrary accounts were "just rhetoric". The segment concluded with Scarborough pointing out that many people in the foreign policy community saw things quite differently from Dr. Brzezinski.

This was a fascinating exchange because it highlighted the quintessential liberal "realist" perspective on foreign affairs. To the realist, cultural, religious, ideological and political factors are ultimately unimportant and can be effectively managed by elite actors. What really matters is the "process" wherein elites negotiate among themselves complex and sophisticated arrangements that are then imposed on the peoples they rule. Realists actually prefer to work with dictators because democratic polities are relatively uncontrollable. Never mind that the process time after time has failed to produce a satisfactory negotiated settlement. "Realists" continue to insist that with a bit more time and effort the settlement will magically appear and be accepted. Caroline Glick, writing in the Jerusalem Post rightly calls this "the Realist fantasy" [here]. Michael Ledeen is contemptuous of the realist position. He writes:
It requires an act of religious faith to believe that our enemies will agree to a durable peace, and respect its conditions. Or, to put it differently, one of the definitions of a madman is a person who keeps doing the same thing, hoping for a different outcome.

And then there is the moral dimension. As I said a few days ago:

There is a disgusting conceit that underlies the realist position that negotiations will solve these problems: the conceit that tyrants will be easier to deal with than free peoples. Rabin and Peres actually said this, once upon a time, with their smug statements to the effect that Arafat and the others would control the terrorists because they didn't give a damn about the Geneva Conventions or other legal niceties. They, and those who think the same applies to the Iranians, forget that our enemies want us dead or dominated, they don't want a world at peace in which they will have to deal with real problems of governance. They are waging jihad, not diplomacy.

Read it here.

Well said Michael. The realist position, at least as put forth by liberal Democrats, is indeed a fantasy, and a pernicious one at that. Former Congressman Joe Scarborough was quite right to raise objections to the former Secretary of State's blatant and arrogant attempt to whitewash his failures and to shift blame onto President Bush.