Brzezinski: Professor in the halls of power

Zbigniew Brzezinski has never thought of himself as damaged goods. While Democratic candidates to this day steer clear of any association with President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, its most prominent architect is still riding high on the reputation he earned almost four decades ago. 

If anything, Brzezinski says, he’s increasingly in demand as both parties contend with a new set of challenges around the world.

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“To be perfectly frank — and you may not believe me — I really wasn’t at all conscious of the fact that the defeat of the Carter administration [in 1980] somehow or another affected significantly my own standing,” Brzezinski told The Hill last week in his office at the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he’s a counselor and trustee. 

“I just kept doing my thing, minus the Office of the National Security Adviser in the White House.”

Brzezinski’s tough stances — whether confronting the Soviet Union on human rights or urging Carter, unsuccessfully, to intervene against the mullahs in Iran — helped earn him repeated invitations from Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush to provide advice.

He was shut out of the George W. Bush White House, however, as a new breed of Republicans developed their “freedom agenda” for the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, a war Brzezinski has excoriated as “totally self-destructive.”

Over the past four years, the man often described as the Democratic dean of foreign policy or Democrats’ answer to Henry Kissinger has found himself back in favor — with foreign leaders, Democrats and even Republicans who have discreetly sought his views.

“It’s more a case of being asked than pounding on the doors,” he said. “But if I have something to say, I know enough people that I can get in touch with to put [my thoughts] into circulation.”

The strategist obsessed with winning the Cold War peacefully 40 years ago is now consumed with avoiding a head-on collision with a politically awakened Middle East. 

He lays out his arguments through his professorial perch at Johns Hopkins University and in prolific writings, such as the recent Strategic Vision.

“Populism, suddenly awakened in very intense circumstances, tends to be very much more fanatical, much more extremist, much more fundamentalist religiously” than democracy nurtured over time, he said. 

“I’m trying to moderate and limit the extent of our collision with them.”

It’s a role perfectly suited to Brzezinski’s temperament.

He traces his interest in foreign policy back to his father, a Polish diplomat in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, and to his Soviet studies at Harvard. Brzezinski’s first big break was advising John Kennedy’s 1960 campaign when he was still a young assistant professor. By the middle of the decade, he was serving in the State Department and consulting one on one with President Lyndon Johnson in the White House.

“I became an academic because that was a way of mastering a subject which would help me shape events,” he said. “The moment I became an academic, I oscillated in the direction of policymaking.”

That ambition explains Brzezinski’s determination to remain relevant today.

His office walls are covered with photos and mementos of a lifetime spent in the corridors of power: Hosting a dinner at his home with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1979 as China and the United States cemented their alliance against the Soviet Union; meeting with Pope John Paul II; sitting facetiously in his tennis whites behind the president’s desk in the Oval Office; or jogging alongside Carter in Jerusalem.

“Zbig — at least once we’re in step,” Carter wrote, capturing his adviser’s reputation for forceful advocacy that often infuriated Carter’s State Department.

Determined not to live in the past, the Carter adviser, who turns 85 in March, has been one of the most vocal opponents of war with Iran and of renewing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Those positions have led to a complicated relationship with the Obama administration.

Brzezinski endorsed Obama for the presidency in the summer of 2007, giving the junior senator from Illinois crucial foreign-policy gravitas against the likes of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. However, the campaign kept him at arm’s length.

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“Brzezinski is not an adviser to the campaign,” the campaign’s Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, told the New Jersey Jewish News in 2008. 

“Brzezinski came out and supported Obama early because of the war in Iraq. A year or so ago, they talked a couple of times. That’s the extent of it, and Sen. Obama has made it clear that on other Middle Eastern issues, Brzezinski is not who he looks to.”

Brzezinski became even more controversial a year later, when he said the U.S. should “confront” Israel if the country followed through on threats to fly through Iraqi airspace to bomb Iran.

“Heaven forbid — I said it’s nothing to be wished for — there could be a collision,” he told The Hill last week.

“Well, of course the extremists immediately came out and said I was urging that the U.S. shoot down Israeli planes on the way to Iran.”

He’s still clearly rankled by the episode.

“Some people intentionally quote, of course, the misquotation,” he said, as he brought out a tape recorder at the start of his interview with The Hill. “So I have to be cautious.”

Still, Brzezinski remains very much in demand. He attended a dinner hosted by visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai just two weeks ago.

“I have a standard joke that I am on the No. 2 or the No. 3 must-visit list in this city,” he said. “That is to say, if a foreign minister or an ambassador or some other senior dignitary doesn’t get to see the president, the secretary of State, the secretary of Defense, the National Security Adviser, then I’m somewhere on that other list as a fallback.”

Brzezinski says he’s worried Washington’s hyper-partisanship will spill over into the national security debate like never before. 

Exhibit 1, he says, are the attacks against former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Obama’s pick to be secretary of Defense, including charges that he’s an anti-Semite.

“I think the discussion started in such a vulgar and vicious fashion,” he said, arguing it precluded intelligent debate about Iran or defense budget cuts. 

“That kind of stuff can be discussed seriously and responsibly, and that’s what Congress should be able to do.”

He said some Republican leaders — he wouldn’t name names — continue to consult him. But their influence is limited because of the splits within the party over how deeply the nation should be engaged with the rest of the world.

“The party is very broken up,” said Brzezinski, who himself supported three Republican presidents: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. “And that, I think, is in fact unfortunate for the United States.”

He confided optimistically at the end of the interview that some young Republican staffers have sought his advice.

“In a way, that shows a healthy reflex, in my view.”