Scowcroft and Brzezinski's Five Most Interesting Ideas

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21:  Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft (L) and Zbigniew Brzezinski (R) testify during
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft (L) and Zbigniew Brzezinski (R) testify during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, January 21, 2015 in Washington, DC. The committee was hearing testimony from former cabinet officials regarding global challenges and United States national security strategy. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

You're busy. So you didn't have time to watch last week's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing when former national security advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski reviewed the state of the world over two riveting hours. As the saying goes, "class was in session."

Don't worry. We are happy to share our notes. Here are five of their best insights:

The U.S. needs to deal with the Middle East as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Unsavory leaders do bad things, but that doesn't mean the U.S. can intervene in every situation. Intervention needs be restrained and self-interested, and guided by a nuanced understanding of the countries in question.

  • Brzezinski: "I never quite understood why we had to help or at least endorse the overthrow of Assad. ... Whether we liked it or not, Assad does have some significant support in Syrian society, and probably more than any one of the several groups that are opposing him."
  • Scowcroft: "I think we have to be a participant in the Middle East, but we should not want to be an owner. ... To try to go in and end the Syrian war, I don't think we want to own Syria. It is a very, very complicated country, as are some of the others in the Middle East. And I agree with Zbig basically. We have to be in the Middle East but not of the Middle East."

Diplomacy can work with Iran -- and it's a lot better than war.

Yes, diplomacy with Iran is tough, but what are the alternatives? The entire international community favors a peaceful resolution with Tehran, and it's unclear that a military approach will ultimately work, let alone benefit the United States. For these reasons Congress should allow negotiations to run their course before imposing new sanctions.

  • Scowcroft: "I think two things are likely to happen if we increase the sanctions. They will break the talks. And a lot of the people who have now joined us in the sanctions would be in danger of leaving -- because most of the people who joined us in sanctions did not do it to destroy Iran. They did it to help get a nuclear solution."
  • Brzezinski: "All of the parties negotiating, including our closest allies as well as the Russians and the Chinese, favor a continuation of the negotiations for reasons specific to their own interests. If the negotiations broke down, the whole process would collapse. And then what would be the alternative? Should we then attack and bomb them and thereby make the war in the Middle East even more explosive? We have to ask ourselves: Why should we do this? ... I don't see any benefit in the United States in that transpiring."

Iran isn't the problem; it could even be part of the solution.

Creating stability in the Middle East depends on finding partners with an ability and interest in playing a constructive role. Egypt is one such country; Turkey may be another. With a nuclear deal, Iran could potentially be a third.

  • Scowcroft: "Iran is different. We don't know how different and we don't know what the results will be. But their behavior is quite different from when Ahmadinejad was head of the government. And it seems to me that ought to try to take advantage of that. The foreign minister has served in the UN, at NATO. ... The mullahs are not nearly as vociferous as they were before. Does that mean anything? We don't know. But it seems to me it's worth testing."
  • Brzezinski: "Iran is beginning to evolve into what it traditionally has been a very civilized, important historically country. But we have to be very careful not to have this dramatic and suddenly reversed. Not to mention the negative consequences for global stability that this would have. And the reduction and a willingness in Iranian, a willingness in some fashion to prevent the extremists and the fanatics that are attempting to seize control over the Muslim world from prevailing."

NATO needs a makeover.

NATO needs an overhaul that both creates conventional deterrence to Russian aggression and generates political buy-in from wayward members of the alliance. Although Putin has taken steps in Ukraine most would have thought unfathomable, he is probably not fool enough to try it against a NATO country. The alliance can make sure he doesn't by creating credible conventional deterrents and better articulating its role in the 21st century.

  • Brzezinski: If Putin invades a Baltic country, were not going to "storm ashore like in Normandy to take it back. We'll have to respond in some larger fashion, perhaps. But then there will be voices [saying], 'Well, but this will plunge us into nuclear war.' Yeah, I think deterrence has to have meaning. It has to have teeth in it. And it has to create a situation in which someone planning an action like that has no choice but to anticipate what kind of resistance will lie in counter."
  • Scowcroft: "I believe the contribution of some of the Europeans to NATO is deplorable. ... First of all, they don't feel threatened. And secondly, they're basically exhausted after two wars. And they're just happy to leave everything up to us, including paying for it. There I think we ought to give it some thought. But my sense is we would get greater European support if we had ideas about how to use NATO usefully now that, to me, a threat of a march of Russian troops into Western Europe is not a reasonable thing to happen."

The world has changed, and our policy making needs to catch up.

Cyberwarfare, climate change, the Arab Spring, and other issues are defying long-held assumptions about the international system. Meeting these challenges will require nuanced, principled policy making from the United States and a willingness to cooperate with allies and adversaries alike in unfamiliar ways.

  • Brzezinski: "I'm not quite sure that in recent years, particularly in the face of the novelty of the challenges that we face, that there has been enough of the bipartisan dialogue about these critical issues at the highest level. ... My hope is that your deliberations will shape a bipartisan national security strategy. Such bipartisanship is badly needed and I think we all know that, given the complexity and severity of the challenges that America faces."
  • Scowcroft: "Globalization says that modern technology, modern science, and so on, is pushing the world together, and the Westphalian system says, 'Nonsense. We're all unique, separate, sovereign.' ... And we've barely begun to deal with it. And I add climate change to it because it demonstrates what we cannot do, the nation state alone. No nation state can deal with climate change. We have to cooperate to make it work. It's just that way."

The 114th Congress would do well to heed the advice of its elder statesmen. Their words are a helpful antidote to the tendency to let good politics drive bad security policy.

Class dismissed.

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