The Beginning of the End for Israel?
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security advisor to US President Jimmy Carter. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels.
NPQ | Israel beat the big Arab states in six days of war, but it wasn’t able to defeat Hezbollah after more than a decade of occupation before it withdrew in 2000; and it wasn’t able to stop missile strikes after a month of intensive air and artillery pounding, plus special operations on the ground.
Does that mean Hezbollah has “won” by standing up to Israel, damaging the Israeli deterrent by revealing it is not invincible?
Zbigniew Brzezinski | It is important to recognize that Israel defeated formal armies led in most cases by inefficient and often corrupt regimes. Hezbollah waged “asymmetrical” warfare against Israel based on increasingly radicalized and even fanaticized mass support. So, yes, Israel will have much more difficulty in coping effectively with this latter in contrast to the former.
NPQ | Over the years, Israeli hardliners like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu have argued that Israel lives in a “tough neighborhood” where its enemies only listen to force. The American neocons argued the same—that going into Iraq unilaterally would provide “a demonstration effect” of overwhelming United States might that would scare the “tough neighborhood” into compliance with US goals.
Hasn’t this turned out to be wrong? Doesn’t military superiority as a blunt instrument lead to eternal enmity, not security? Touring the devastation of towns across southern Lebanon after Sharon’s invasion in 1982, one could predict that something like Hezbollah’s hatred of Israel would emerge years later.
Brzezinski | These neocon prescriptions, of which Israel has its equivalents, are fatal for America and ultimately for Israel. They will totally turn the overwhelming majority of the Middle East’s population against the US. The lessons of Iraq speak for themselves. Eventually, if neocon policies continue to be pursued, the US will be expelled from the region and that will be the beginning of the end for Israel as well.
NPQ | Don’t the deaths of so many innocent civilians in Qana in the south of Lebanon—like the massacre in Haditha, Iraq, by American troops—send a message to Arabs and Iranians that the “new Middle East” coming from the US and Israel will amount to occupation, carnage and bloodshed? Even Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize, told me recently that Iranians would rather suffer the mullahs for now than the horrors they see in Iraq.
Brzezinski | This is precisely why neocon policies are recklessly dangerous both to America and Israel.
NPQ | Beyond the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, where does US diplomacy for the region go from here?
Brzezinski | The new element today is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the Iraq problem and Iran from each other. Neither the US nor Israel has the capacity to impose a unilateral solution in the Middle East, though there may be people who deceive themselves into believing that.
The solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue can only come if there is serious international involvement that supports the moderates from both sides, however numerous or few they are, but also creates the situation in which it becomes of greater interest to the warring parties to accommodate than to resist, both because of the incentives and the capacity of the external intervention to impose costs.
When Iraqi Prime Minister (Jawad) al-Maliki recently harshly criticized Israel in the Lebanon conflict, it was an indication of things to come. The notion that the US was going to get a pliant, democratic, stable, pro-American, Israel-loving Iraq is a myth which is rapidly eroding.
That is why the US needs to start talking with the Iraqis about the day of our disengagement. We shouldn’t leave precipitously. US Ambassador to Iraq (Zalmay) Khalilzad told me in September that four months would be precipitous. I agree. But we should agree that the US will disengage at some period beyond that.
As far as Iran is concerned, we have made an offer to the Iranians that is reasonable. I do not know that they have the smarts to respond favorably or at least not negatively. I lean to the idea that they’ll probably respond not negatively but not positively and try to stall out the process. But that is not so bad provided they do not reject it.
While the Iranian nuclear problem is serious, and while the Iranians are marginally involved in Lebanon, the fact of the matter is that the challenge they pose is not imminent. And because it isn’t imminent, there is time to deal with it.
Sometimes in international politics, the better part of wisdom is to defer dangers rather than try to eliminate them altogether instantly. To do that produces intense counter-reactions that are destructive. We have time to deal with Iran, provided the process is launched, dealing with the nuclear energy problem, which can then be extended to involve also security talks about the region.
In the final analysis, Iran is a serious country; it’s not Iraq. It’s going to be there. It’s going to be a player. And in the longer historical term, it has all of the preconditions for a constructive internal evolution if you measure it by rates of literacy, access to higher education and the role of women in society.
The mullahs are part of the past in Iran, not its future. But change in Iran will come through engagement, not through confrontation.
If we pursue these policies, we can perhaps avert the worst. But if we do not, I fear that the region will explode. In the long run, Israel would be in great jeopardy.