Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday October 25th, 2015 

There is one point on which most “experts” on the Middle East agree – the complexity of today’s problems in the region exceed anything which has been seen in the past century. Having spent a good part of my professional life reporting on the Middle East, I confess that I too am struggling to see a way out of these multiple crises.

Two men, who as a reporter I came to know and whose opinions I respect although don’t always agree with, this past week have pronounced themselves in considerable detail on current Middle East events. Today, I would like to share some of their thoughts. But first some background.

Henry Kissinger served Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as Secretary of State from September 1973 to January 1977. He was also the National Security Advisor from January 1969 to November 1975.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was President Carter’s National Security Advisor from January 1977 to January 1981. He was a counselor to President Lyndon Johnson from 1966-1968.

In many respects the two are quite similar. Both were foreign born. Kissinger, now 92, was born in Germany. He was fifteen when his family fled the Nazis in 1938 and came to the United States.

Brzezinski, now 87, was born in Poland.  When WWII began, he and his family were living in Canada where his father was a Polish diplomat.

Both men have doctorates from Harvard. Both are considered to be part of the realist school of foreign policy. Both are respected as among this country’s best minds in the field of foreign policy with notable diplomatic successes in the Middle East. Both also have a strong distrust of the Russians although Kissinger was one of the main proponents of détente with the Soviet Union, while Brzezinski was the major anti-Soviet hardliner in Carter’s administration. I can tell you that neither man is close to being warm and fuzzy- and they especially don’t like to be compared.

Kissinger is a Republican, who has been very critical of President Barack Obama’s Middle East Policies.  Brzezinski is a Democrat and has been generally supportive of Obama, although not on Syria.

This past week Kissinger wrote an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal that began, “With Russia in Syria, a geopolitical structure that lasted four decades is in shambles.” That Kissinger is unhappy with the Russian military intervention in Syria should come as no surprise. It was Kissinger himself who was largely responsible for that “geopolitical structure” designed to keep the Russian military out of the region. I watched him do so as a reporter on his plane when the term “shuttle diplomacy” was coined.

Kissinger makes the case for how we got to this point. He especially does not spare the Obama administration and is skeptical of the Iran nuclear agreement. However it is worth noting that he gives little attention to a major factor in the creation of the current instability- the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

But I believe Kissinger’s most important points come in what he describes as a new strategy. He writes, “So long as ISIS (or Islamic State) survives…it will compound Middle East tensions. The destruction of ISIS is more urgent than the overthrow of Bashar Assad, who has already lost over half of the area he once controlled. Making sure that this territory does not become a permanent terrorist haven must have precedence.”

As for the Russians, “The U.S. has already acquiesced in a Russian military role. Painful as this is to the architects of the 1973 system (namely himself,) attention in the Middle East must remain focused on essentials. And there exist compatible objectives.” By this he implies Americans, Russians, Iraqis, Syrians, Turks and Saudis have common interests in defeating ISIS. Then he adds, “For Russia, limiting its military role to the anti-ISIS campaign may avoid a return to Cold War conditions with the U.S.”

Taken as a whole, I read this as a proposed Kissinger strategy that does not demand Bashar Assad’s departure; which concedes a Russian military role in the defeat of ISIS; and which accepts that a multinational approach is the way to go.

In his latest interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, Zbigniew Brzezinski was introduced as someone whose message about Syria was “keep calm.” In short, he is not overly alarmed by the Russian military intervention. In his words, “I think they may be sending a message, that they are still a significant international power that has to be taken seriously. That’s constrained by reality. Their economics are not in the best shape. Their adventure in Ukraine has not proven to be successful. And I don’t think they’re going to prevail in any large scale sense, in the Syrian environment. But preserving what they traditionally feel they are entitled to enjoy, namely, the status of a kind of protector power, particularly in regards to Syria -that is something within their doing and is not illegitimate”

When asked about Putin's awareness of the inherent dangers of the Russian military intervention in Syria,  Brzezinski responded, “I have no way of interpreting what is in Putin’s head. But I am assuming he is not insane, that he doesn’t want a major confrontation with the United States. And, that he doesn’t entertain the illusion that somehow Humpty Dumpty can be put together by a few Russian planes, and none or few feet on the ground. So I see what they are doing, essentially, as having to accommodate that the problem is too complex, too international, and it is in the Russian interest to engage in serious talks with the United States and the local powers- Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia. They want to be a party to that. I find that troublesome, but I don’t find it to be wicked or likely to provoke some major world war.”

I think it significant that Kissinger and Brzezinski have come to similar conclusions about how to end this greatest of Middle East crises. Unfortunately neither sees a breakthrough any time soon.

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