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09.17.09

How Obama Flubbed His Missile Message

Scrapping missile defense was the right thing to do, says former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski—but how the U.S. conveyed the decision to its Eastern European allies couldn’t have been worse.

President Obama’s decision Thursday to scrap the Bush administration’s missile-defense umbrella for Europe is being bemoaned by Republicans at home and top diplomats from Poland, which was slated to be the main staging ground for the missile system.

But Zbigniew Brzezinski—who as Jimmy Carter’s Polish-born national security adviser confronted problems in Iran, Afghanistan, and the Middle East—says that dropping the missile-shield program gives the U.S. more defense options in Europe. At 81, Brzezinski, an early and enthusiastic Obama supporter, is as opinionated as ever about what America is doing right and wrong when it comes to the key foreign-policy issues.

“The Bush missile-shield proposal was based on a nonexistent defense technology, designed against a nonexistent threat, and designed to protect West Europeans, who weren’t asking for the protection.”

Brzezinski, who was considered a hawk in the Carter administration and was often touted by Democratic politicians as the party’s response to Henry Kissinger, spoke to The Daily Beast about how Obama flubbed the delivery of his decision to the Czechs and the Poles, why dropping the program won’t convince Russia to help us on Iran, and the effect of a possible Israeli preemptive strike on Tehran.

Is the Obama administration decision to end the missile-defense program the right one?
Well, let me first of all say that my view on this subject for the last two years has been that the Bush missile-shield proposal was based on a nonexistent defense technology, designed against a nonexistent threat, and designed to protect West Europeans, who weren’t asking for the protection.

Does scrapping the missile program weaken our defense options in Europe vis-à-vis the Russians?
Not at all. What is left is militarily sounder. It gives the U.S. more options while still enhancing America’s ability to develop more effective defense systems, which is what the Russians really dislike. But now they have less of an excuse to bitch about it.

What about the way we informed our allies of our decision?
The way it was conveyed to the Czechs and Poles could not have been worse. It involved [laughs] waking up the Czech prime minster after midnight with a sudden phone call from President Obama. The Polish prime minister was at least allowed to sleep late. But as far as Poland was concerned, unfortunately, poor staff work did not alert the United States that today, September 17, is a particularly painful anniversary for Poland. In 1939, the Poles were still fighting the Germans when on September 17 the Russians stabbed them in the back. To the Poles, that is something very painful. And since they misconstrued—and I emphasize the word “misconstrue”—that the missile shield somehow strengthened their relationship with the U.S. when it comes to Russia, it was immediately suggestive of the notion of a sellout. It’s the wrong conclusion, but in politics, even wrong conclusions have to be anticipated.

How is it possible that the State Department did not bring up the sensitivity of this day to the Poles?
Lousy staff work. Period. I don’t know who precisely to point the finger at. It was obviously not anticipated in this case.

There are some pundits who believe that by abandoning the missile-defense program, we will gain the help of Russia when it comes to arm-twisting Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Anything to that?
I doubt it. The Russians have their own interests in Iran, which are far more complex than the simplistic notion that the Russians want to help us with Iran. The Russians have a complicated agenda with Iran. They also know in the back of their heads that if worse came to worse—and I am not saying they are deliberately promoting the worst—but if worse came to worse, which is an American-Iranian military collision, who would pay the highest price for that? First, America, whose success in ending the Cold War the Russians still bitterly resent. And we would also pay a high price in Iraq, Afghanistan, and massively so with regards to the price of oil. Second, who would suffer the most? The Chinese, who the Russians view as a long-range threat and of whom they are very envious, because the Chinese get much more of their oil from the Middle East than we do, and the skyrocketing price would hurt them even more than us. Third, who would then be totally dependent on the Russians? The West Europeans. And fourth, who would cash in like crazy? The Kremlin.

Is the fallout as bad if Israel preemptively strikes Iran?
Absolutely. That is the way, more importantly, how the Iranians would view it. They really can’t do much to the Israelis, despite all their bluster. The only thing they can do is unify themselves, especially nationalistically, to rally against us, and the mullahs might even think of it as a blessing.

How aggressive can Obama be in insisting to the Israelis that a military strike might be in America’s worst interest?
We are not exactly impotent little babies. They have to fly over our airspace in Iraq. Are we just going to sit there and watch?

What if they fly over anyway?
Well, we have to be serious about denying them that right. That means a denial where you aren’t just saying it. If they fly over, you go up and confront them. They have the choice of turning back or not. No one wishes for this but it could be a Liberty in reverse. [Israeli jet fighters and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty in international waters, off the Sinai Peninsula, during the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel later claimed the ship was the object of friendly fire.]

Did it surprise you that it took the Obama administration so long to do away with the missile-defense program? Is he setting firm lines that can’t be crossed, such as with Iran and Israel?
Well, Obama has been very impressive in refining our policy toward the world on a lot of issues, very impressive. But he has been relatively much less impressive in the follow-through.

You mean his policy sounds ideal but the follow-up isn’t good?
Not as precise, clear-cut, and forthcoming as would be desirable.

What would you like have seen already from this administration?
By now we should have been able to formulate a clearer posture on what we are prepared to do to promote a Palestinian-Israeli peace. Simply giving a frequent-traveler ticket to George Mitchell is not the same thing as policy. It took a long time to get going on Iran, but there is an excuse there, the Iranian domestic mess. And we are now eight months into the administration, and I would have thought by now we could have formulated a strategy that we would have considered “our” strategy for dealing with Iran and Pakistan. For example, the Carter administration, which is sometimes mocked, by now had in motion a policy of disarmament with the Russians, which the Russians didn’t like, but eventually bought; it had started a policy of normalization with the Chinese; it rammed through the Panama Canal treaty; and it was moving very, very openly toward an Israeli-Arab political peace initiative.

Where did the impetus come from in the Carter administration, and why aren’t we seeing it with Obama?
There was a closer connection between desire and execution. Also the president was not as deeply embroiled, and buffeted, by a very broad, and commendable and ambitious domestic program as President Obama is. I think the Republican onslaught to the president, the wavering of some Democrats, has vastly complicated not only his choices in foreign affairs, but even limited the amount of attention he can give to them.

Is there truth that the more issues he is embroiled in, the less he can act?
I don’t think it’s the number of issues; it’s how decisively a president acts. A president, in his first year, is at the peak of his popularity, and if he acts decisively, even if some oppose him, most will rally around him, out of patriotism, out of opportunism, out of loyalty, out of the crowd instinct, just a variety of human motives.

Some in the Obama administration have told me that it’s only just over half a year, and we are jumping to too early conclusions about anything. Are the early months more critical than other times in an administration?
The first year is decisive. How much you can set in motion the first year sets the tone for much of the rest of the term. In part, that’s because all these things take more than one year to complete. But the point is you want to have a dynamic start that carries momentum with it.

President Carter early on ran into strong opposition from American-based pro-Israeli lobbying groups that opposed the administration’s ideas for a peace initiative in the Middle East. What lesson should the Obama administration learn in formulating its own approach to an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue?
The lesson is if you are forthright in what you are seeking, you tend to mobilize support within the Jewish community. Because a majority of American Jews are liberal, and in the long run they know that peace in the Middle East is absolutely essential to Israel’s long-term survival.

Are you concerned about Afghanistan?
Quite unintentionally, but potentially and tragically, we are sliding into a posture which is beginning—and I emphasize the word “beginning”—to be reminiscent of what happened to the Soviets.

We have plenty of time to reverse course?
There is some time to reverse course. But time flies.

Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. His latest book, Miami Babylon: Crime, Wealth and Power—A Dispatch from the Beach , will be published in October. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.