Mother Jones: What seems to be happening is an argument over whether we go down to 130,000 troops in March-April or whether there is some symbolic moving of troops ahead of that day. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Zbigniew Brzezinski: First of all, a symbolic drawdown might be useful simply as a signal to everyone concerned—the Iraqis, but also the countries around Iraq—that the United States intends to disengage at some point. But in my view, the real need is for a political decision to engage in a direct discussion with Iraqi leaders about mutually setting a date, jointly by the U.S. and Iraqis, for American disengagement. There will be no progress politically within Iraq or within the region in terms of the neighbors unless there is a clear and unequivocal setting of a date jointly by the United States and the Iraqis and not surreptitiously by gradual disengagement or maybe even abruptly by just withdrawing. That would be a mistake.
MJ: Why does setting a date offer more political ability for the parties to have some sort of political reconciliation than they otherwise would have?
ZB: Because the American occupation unintentionally creates an umbrella in which it is easier to avoid making difficult choices, and that applies to all of the conflicting parties in Iraq. Some of the choices that they will have to make are indeed very difficult, but our presence there paralyzes the whole process. Some people don’t participate in the decision making, such as al-Sadr and his militia, Sistani is on the margin, the Sunnis are uncertain whether they are going to be left alone and have to bite the bullet on some accommodation or whether they will have to fight to the end, but the really difficult choices are simply delayed, and delayed, and delayed, and in the meantime the situation deteriorates gradually and none of Iraq’s neighbors are prepared to really become engaged in some external effort to stabilize Iraq as long as they think we are there indefinitely.
MJ: What motivates the White House’s extreme reluctance to have a date or timetable?
ZB: I think the president is first of all fanatical on this issue, and secondly, even if he has some inner doubt about the success of his misbegotten adventure he clearly prefers to bequeath the war to his successor and he has said as much. So in effect, he doesn’t want to bite the bullet on the difficult decision because in his thinking, any decision to set a date is an acknowledgement of the failure of his policy, and therefore he wants that failure to be attached to whoever is the next president.
MJ: If you are a presidential candidate now, or you are advising a president, how do you then position yourself given that the White House is not going to set a date and it doesn’t look like Congress may force it?
ZB: I have been saying publicly, and it is not a question of advising anyone, that the United States should do two things: First, engage all Iraqi leaders in a serious discussion as to when the American occupation ought to be terminated and at what point they are prepared to stand on their own legs and agree with us that our disengagement would be in their interest. And don’t forget that the Iraqi Parliament has actually passed a resolution requesting that a date be set for the end of the occupation. And secondly, once we make it public that we are talking to the Iraqis about setting a date, we can simultaneously go to all of Iraq’s neighbors and say, “We are engaged in the process of setting a date for our disengagement, so it is time for all of us to sit down together and start discussing what kinds of arrangements are needed from the outside to help contain any violence or intensified conflict that might be associated with our disengagement.”
MJ: What do you say to those in some of the think tanks and on the ground with the military who say Iran and to some degree Syria have played such actively, deliberately destabilizing roles in Iraq, that find it insulting to go to the players they think are playing a destabilizing role in Iraq to ask them to play nice?
ZB: I think most of the people who make that argument are the neocons who insisted that we go into Iraq in the first place and made a case based on false assumptions. The one thing we do know is that Iran was helpful to us in Afghanistan. Now why was it helpful? Because it was afraid that violence within Afghanistan would spread to Iran. Iran obviously has no interest in helping us succeed in our occupation of Iraq, but Iran has no interest in Iraq exploding because its explosion would spill over into Iran, which has a variety of ethnic and religious conflicts, potential conflicts. Exactly the same is true of Syria. It is also true of Turkey. It is even true of Saudi Arabia, so actually as long as we stay there, none of these states have any incentive to be helpful. Once they know we are going to be leaving, each of them for different reasons has very specific reasons why it will wish to be helpful. Because otherwise it will become volatile.
MJ: Should there be some sort of transition force of U.S. forces in Iraq, or are we either in or out?
ZB: I think once we start such a dialogue, first of all with all Iraqi leaders—and I emphasize all, not just those in the Green Zone—and then secondly with the neighboring countries, there may well emerge some common interest, maybe temporary, maybe for brief duration, maybe for longer, which would provide for a continuous American presence in Kuwait, maybe something even in Jordan, and in the Kurdish parts of Iraq where American forces would be a buffer minimizing the risk of an Iranian or Turkish collision with the Kurdish regions of Iraq. These transitional arrangements for various times could emerge out of that dialogue with the Iraqis themselves, some of whom might well say, “Well, we don’t mind if you leave in a year, but don’t leave completely; let’s have some conditional arrangement.” And it could emerge also in discussions with some of the states around Iraq. Some of them might welcome some transitional American presence, particularly in the early phase following the disengagement.
MJ: If you were advising Bush, would you recommend that he appoint a figure to do a Dayton-type process, or what’s the historical example of the kind of negotiations with the neighbors that you envision?
ZB: I think there is a difference between talking to the Iraqis and talking to the countries around Iraq. With the Iraqis, I think we would want to engage in discussions that would be conducted both by our diplomatic or foreign policy people and by our military, because the issues of logistic redeployment, removal of forward munitions and equipment, those issues would require both a political and a military negotiation. With the countries around Iraq, I think a high-level foreign policy person, let’s say Negroponte, deputy to Condi Rice, would be an appropriate designee for this administration.
MJ: Do you liken the U.S. situation in Iraq to the Soviets in Afghanistan?
ZB: I think we are in a better position in that we are a stronger country, a healthier country; our economy is far greater. We can afford to waste $600 billion, which we have already wasted without really feeling an acute pinch. But in terms of hostility toward us within the country, I think it is comparable.
MJ: What is going to happen in Iraq over the next 16 months of this administration, and Bush’s successor’s?
ZB: The president is determined to string this out and hand this war over to his successor, but he is at the same time determined to try to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem before he leaves office, and I am afraid, very seriously afraid, that the conjunction of the two—continuous conflict in Iraq and impatience over Iran—may produce a situation whereby before he leaves office he plunges us into some sort of semi-accidental and semi-deliberate conflict with Iran.
MJ: Do congressional Democrats or congressional Republicans have any means to try to constrain what some see as a potential for a new conflict with Iran?
ZB: Theoretically they do, because Congress could pass a resolution making it very clear that the president under existing mandate does not have the authority to initiate a new conflict, but a cluster of congressmen, I think more of them actually Democrat, has been opposing this because some of them are gung-ho for having a showdown with Iran.
MJ: It seems like it would be such a politically explosive action to expand the conflict before they leave office…
ZB: It really does depend on how it takes place. I don’t see the administration expanding the conflict the way it started the conflict with Iraq. That is to say, very deliberately and openly pushing for a collision, obtaining congressional approval for it, and then capitalizing on the post-9/11 sentiment to start a war that when it was started actually probably enjoyed very significant popular support. I think far more likely is a series of incidents, aggravations, collisions, provocations which are mutual, a negotiating posture which doesn’t give Iran any leeway, and then some explosion, some collision that creates a great deal of emotion in the country, conceivably even a terrorist act which is credibly blamed on the Iranians, and then there is a patriotic wave and a military action launched before the election, which actually inflames the country in a wave of kind of hysterical patriotism that benefits the Republicans.
MJ: In July, intelligence community leaders were giving open briefings to the House Armed Services Committee and then later in a paper on terrorism about the resurgent Al Qaeda threat on the Pakistani-Afghani border. What about the potential for a surprise happening to the U.S.?
ZB: I wonder who knows that Al Qaeda in one of the strategic documents actually has said that an American-Iranian collision would be of great strategic benefit to Al Qaeda’s cause. So here is a party that might even have an interest in provoking such a collision.
MJ: At this point, some of the wise men and women, the more ideological and radical people in the administration have left, but there must still be some inside.
ZB: Well, I’m sure there are, but I really can’t speculate who they might be. I just don’t know.