NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.
Two high-profile cabinet nominations go before the Senate soon. Senator John Kerry is expected to face little opposition to become the next secretary of state. Former Senator Chuck Hagel may have more problems. But as mentioned earlier, his nomination as secretary of defense is also expected to win approval.
In an op-ed for the Washington Post, former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, argues both men need to answer tough questions about the potential effects of a U.S. strike against Iran. In a separate piece for foreign policy, the former national security adviser also wrote that a president has two moments of grand opportunity, the first year of his presidency and if re-elected, the first year of a second term. Zbigniew Brzezinski is the author most recently of " Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power" and joins us by Skype from the Center for Strategic International Studies here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program.
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It's good to be with you.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask you - we'll get to the nominations for the secretaries in just a moment. But one of the things is, as much as the president would like to focus on domestic issues, we saw him come out today on guns. He's going to be also talking about immigration reform and other things that he would like to get done. The world will not leave him alone. He has current crisis in Syria and in Mali. And today, news of, perhaps, related situation where workers at a gas installation in Algeria have been taken hostage, including some Americans. Given your experience, with all of that domestic agenda, how much do these crisis take up time in the White House?
BRZEZINSKI: An enormous amount of time because the risks involved are also so high. So on this, the president has to keep his hand on the stirring wheel, so to speak. But I think in the second term and particularly between the scale of our domestic and particular financial problems, it's very important for the president to have a highly professional, cohesive foreign policy national security team. And I think with the appointments that his planning to make, he is creating such a team.
CONAN: We've mentioned, Senator Kerry, the current chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, expected to have few problems in front of that same committee. Of course, he will not be chairing his own hearing. But Senator Hagel, former Senator Hagel, he's run into more problems in that.
BRZEZINSKI: Yes, he has. But I think the problems that were raised were raised in such an extreme fashion, such a fundamentally unfair fashion, basically un-American in terms of the accusations. But I think serious, responsible people, even if they have some reservations about him, are likely to support him. So I think he's going to be approved.
CONAN: What was un-American about the accusations? Essentially...
BRZEZINSKI: I don't even want to repeat them. They were so unfair. They were essentially stigmatizing him, someone that we consider very naturally for good reasons as to be highly, highly unacceptable such as anti-Semitism. And I think the arguments that were made by some of the people who attacked him were essentially based on that. That was really scandalous. And I'm pleased to see that the majority of the Jewish community, which is moderate and decent, doesn't identify itself with this.
CONAN: Nevertheless, there are legitimate questions to be asked, and you raised several of them yourself, about, well, how they should think about the possibility of a strike on Iran. I have to say, in recent weeks, the alarm bells have quieted a bit. You quoted, though, some in the Israeli media as quoting a former national security council member of the Obama team, saying there could be an American strike on Iran by the middle of this year.
BRZEZINSKI: That's correct. There has been talk to that effect. And I suspect, and rather expect, that these issues will come up in the course of the discussion. But in any case, the people that he's choosing to serve him are people with the experience, with a strategic perspective. But ultimately, he, the president, will be the decision-maker.
So I don't think that one has to expect that everyone chosen by him has to agree in every respect with every single aspect of the past policies that we have had, that he wants people who can think independently and give an independent advice, which he will then accept or reject, as president - as commander in chief.
CONAN: We have been - a lot of people say that President Obama retains an enormous amount of control over national security policy there at the White House. You, of course, served President Carter. Before you, the national security advisor, the secretary of state, and then before that, national security advisor Henry Kissinger, I guess, inaugurated that idea of so much of the national security policy being held in the White House.
BRZEZINSKI: That's quite true, but I think that depends in each instance on the degree to which the president wants to be or can be preoccupied with foreign affairs. As I've said just a second ago, I rather expect that the president, while remaining, of course, the decision maker and remaining interested in foreign affairs, will not be able to give it as much time as he would like. He will be much more preoccupied with domestic affairs. And that puts a premium on a cohesive, strategically minded team that has experience, that can work well together and, of course, commands the president's confidence. And I think he has made the right choice in Kerry, in Hagel, in Brennan.
CONAN: Brennan, of course, the nominee, his former counterterrorism chief, to be the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency. As you look, though, at the - you say he's got a good team, but what about that coherent strategy?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, I think that team will be able to fashion a coherent strategy. I think they delve deeply enough with the issues with which we are likely to be confronted to have some sort of shared perspective. They may not agree in every instance, but I think these are people of experience and with a strategic orientation.
I think under Secretary Clinton, we had a very energetic and extremely intelligent secretary of state, and she had her own team. But it was more of a visionary team. What's striking to me that in course of her travels, so much of her efforts were concentrated on what might be called the longer range global issues, which are going to be of paramount importance in this century. But they are longer range - and on human rights and on social development and on gender issues and so forth.
I think this team, by necessity, given the circumstances, is going to be focused more on the more immediate dual strategic challenges that could suck us into international adventures that will be devastating to our national interest.
CONAN: And primarily, at the top of that list, I think you would put Iran.
BRZEZINSKI: Yes, and the Middle East, more generally; or perhaps now even some parts of the Sahara in Africa.
CONAN: Now there are going to be crises like this situation that's developing in Algeria. We obviously still don't know a lot about what's going on there. But where do you see an opportunity to create - for a geo-trategic approach? Iran - everybody says there are a lot of options. None of them, very good.
BRZEZINSKI: None of them are very good, but there are some which are extremely bad. So first of all, we have to be aware how bad they are. But if we avoid them, I think we can manage the problem. But we have to be very deliberate about it and think out of the box. The notion that the only way to deal with Iranian problem is to start a war with Iran, I think, is really lunatic, and it's not a service to the American national interest to be committed to it.
CONAN: There are many, particularly in the Republican Party, who would disagree with you.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, let's see whether they are prepared to be in the front ranks of those who march off to Iran to fight. It's very easy to advocate war from here, but who is going to do the heavy lifting? The country as a whole? The people who volunteered for the Armed Services? And think of the economic costs, in addition to the human costs, and think of the regional consequences of a war with Iran. And then ask yourself: How does any of that serve the national interest and why is this so urgently necessary? This is what mystifies me.
What is the case we're going to war against Iran when we didn't go into preventive war against the Soviet Union, which, at one point, could have killed all of us instantly, or when we don't have to be go into preventive war against North Korea? Why do we have to go to preventive war against Iran when it doesn't even have any nuclear weapons?
CONAN: You can see a list of Zbigniew Brzezinski's questions for the possibilities of - the bad possibilities, certainly from his point of view, of a war with Iran, in his Washington Post op-ed. And there's also another op-ed from the Miami Herald that we posted a link to both of those at our website. Go to our npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
It's not just the United States, though, that is involved in this confrontation with Iran. There is also Israel. And does the United States have a veto over an Israeli strike? I don't think so.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, I don't know whether we have a veto. Israel is an independent country. But I think most sensible people in Israel know that a solitary strike by Israel could prove to be very unproductive in terms of its act of military impact, and very much so in terms of these political consequences. So I certainly hope that there would be no such unilateral undertaking because it could be devastating in the long run to Israel's own, basic, fundamental, national interests.
CONAN: As you look at the situation as it develops, there is clearly this looming confrontation with Iran. There is the current crisis, of course, in Syria. Is this going to devolve into a failed state, anarchy, civil war, sectarian battles with chemical weapons and, indeed, uranium stocks as prizes?
BRZEZINSKI: Well, it might, in fact. I think there is a growing danger of that. And that could incidentally merge with the problem of Iran and contribute to a wild fire across the entire region; because Iraq is on the brink of an explosion, Jordan is becoming increasingly vulnerable, Lebanon is linked intimately with the problem of Syria. So I think while - what I'm about to say is not terribly popular in some respects because it's not flashy, I think being prudent is probably preferable to just plunging into a problem which we neither fully understand, nor which we are capable of getting a complete control over. That I don't think is not a solution to what maybe insoluble from our point of view, but which is nonetheless a less dangerous alternative than one setting the whole region on fire.
CONAN: As part of a ongoing series of conversations about the looming confrontation with Iran, we're speaking today with Zbigniew Brzezinski, currently the author most recently of "Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And that is a bleak vision that you outlined, I guess, it's possible. One a lot of people would say, there is much America could do to prevent such an outbreak of violence and indeed ought to do.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, I would like to hear from those people, what it is exactly they advocate. So far on these issues, the only thing that's been stated explicitly is that we should, at some point, attack Iran. And I'm - for reasons that you've already heard me explain, there is (unintelligible) against that. I think that would be fatal and there are things we can do to keep Iran under control. But I don't hear anyone advocate, specifically, what it is that should be doing in Syria. Do we start a new war? Should we send our forces in? What is that we're supposed to do?
CONAN: Some people say we should establish a no-fly zone to prevent those terrible bombing raids by Syrian jets and helicopters. We should have troops standing by to be ready to go in seize chemical weapons should they come into play there, and also arm rebel factions in Syria to make it possible for them...
BRZEZINSKI: But can you tell me who the rebel factions are?
CONAN: There is any number of rebel factions.
BRZEZINSKI: The problem is we don't really know and a great deal of the heavy lifting id being done by people that we don't particularly care for and who are extreme hostile to us. Like al-Qaida, like the Salafi groups that some people in Saudi Arabia are financing. So it's not such a needed choice about the god guys versus the bad guys, as people prefer to think.
CONAN: There is also the question of the stable country in that part of the world that the United States has invested many billions in support. That is, of course, Egypt. It's gone to its own revolution of sorts. There is Mr. Morsi, who was, well, cooperative with the United States in helping to arrange a ceasefire after the outbreak of fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza. Then, we, of course, see some of those despicable comments that he made about Jews that - just a couple of years ago.
BRZEZINSKI: That's quite true. You're absolutely right. What conclusion do you draw from that? Are we going to ignore the fact that he is now the president of Egypt and that he, in fact, has been helpful in some important issues; or are we going to put him in a dock and ask him to apologize on his knees for what he said? You and I may disapprove of it entirely. But the fact of the matter is, we're dealing with a very volatile, very emotional, unstructured, potentially very radical and violent upheaval in the Islamic world. And we have to make practical choices, (unintelligible) content in that setting.
And I think that if we are going to act as if we could assert our domination by use of force, we're going to dig ourselves into a hole. Because in our era, we are no longer facing prospect of easy-to-win colonial wars. We're increasingly facing the prospect of prolonged wars with aroused populations, which is very difficult for us to crush, unless we begin to act like Nazi Germany and just murdering everybody in sight.
CONAN: And so 60,000 dead in Syria and counting - we stand by.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, if you have a better alternative and you yourself are prepared to volunteer to be in the first rank of those who go in, spell it out. But as a matter of fact, my argument is we cannot do that effectively and the whole thing might explode and they've done much worse. You know, a lot of people were killed in Rwanda. A lot of people were killed in Sri Lanka. I didn't hear you or people, like the one who make the argument you just did, advocating we go in. So why are we supposed to be the ones who get more and more deeply involved in Middle Eastern conflicts, which in some cases can be avoided by alternative policies?
For example, in the case of Iran, you can make is explicit that if Iran threatens any of our friends in the Middle East, and particularly including Israel, we will view in the same way as in the Soviet Union was threatening our allies in Europe, or North Korea was threatening Japan and South Korea. I think that's a preferable response in simply hinting, or suggesting or pushing us to start a war with Iran.
CONAN: And do you think the president and his new national security team will have time to sit back and say, right, let's take a deep breath and work on establishing a coherent policy before events can start controlling them.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, don't you think that's preferable to not taking a deep breath and just jumping out of the window?
CONAN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, thanks as always for your time. We appreciate it.
BRZEZINSKI: Well, good to talk to you.
CONAN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, of course, served as national security advisor to former President Jimmy Carter. His new book is " Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power." He joined us by Skype from the Center for Strategic International Studies here in Washington. Tomorrow, we'll talk about what we know about rape, its aftermath and how it could be prevented. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.