Commentary Magazine

Power and Principle, by Zbigniew Brzezinski

A Record of Failure

Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981.
by Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Farrar Straus & Giroux. 571 pp. $22.50.

Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book is an honest and well-written account which will be valuable to historians and attractive to many readers. Inevitably, it is also a record of failure—not his own personal failure, of course, and not necessarily the failure of the nation’s foreign policy either (for it is only in the retrospect of decades that the ultimate results of the doings and undoings of a world power can truly be known) but certainly the political failure of the Carter administration, in whose 1980 defeat at the polls foreign affairs played a most unusually large part.

The National Security Adviser’s major role is to protect the President’s interest in the conduct of external affairs. What may seem desirable to the State Department, the Arms Control Agency, the Pentagon, or to an “inter-agency” committee of all three may still be damaging to the President, and it is the National Security Adviser who is supposed to protect him in such circumstances; in addition, the National Security Adviser can also attempt to protect the President from himself—as Henry Kissinger apparently did with some frequency especially in the last phases of Richard Nixon’s Presidency.

Brzezinski as National Security Adviser obviously failed to protect Jimmy Carter. Without manifesting a resentful disloyalty to the man who placed him so high, without perhaps being fully conscious of doing so, Brzezinski explains throughout the book why Carter could not be protected from the departments, notably State, and why above all he could not be protected from himself.

A classic example of a very clever but basically unintelligent man, Carter was incapable of understanding the fundamentals of international affairs even while acquiring much detailed knowledge of their mechanics and surface manifestations; and since he never realized how much he was in need of help, he would not let Brzezinski guide him, either. Nixon, when driven by violent emotions, would sometimes want to do foolish things; but if his orders were simply ignored for a brief interval by Kissinger, no harm would follow because his rational judgment would reassert itself as soon as he calmed down. Carter was much better at controlling his emotions but unwisdom was his permanent condition, revealed in foreign affairs as soon as he chose Cyrus R. Vance as his Secretary of State and finally exposed in full view by the Iranian crisis.

One example will suffice. On November 10, 1979, there was a meeting (without the President) at the National Security Council to discuss the possibility of expelling the Shah from the United States. Vance and Vice President Walter Mondale favored expulsion, while Defense Secretary Harold Brown suggested that the Shah be prevailed upon to announce his intention to leave once he recovered from his illness. Brzezinski opposed this concession to the “students” who had seized the U.S. embassy and its staff in Teheran the week before. He quotes himself at the meeting: “A month ago we backed down to the Soviets and the Cubans after declaring that we found the status quo [the presence of a Soviet brigade in Cuba] unacceptable. Now we shall back down again. What will this mean for our international role as a global power? Who will find us credible hereafter?” When the question was referred to the President, he “flatly” pronounced against expulsion.

In making this decision Carter had apparently showed that he understood the foreign-policy content of the issue—that is to say, the worldwide loss of American authority which an expulsion would entail. But not at all. In a matter of days (on November 14) Carter reversed himself, and decided that Mexico should once more be asked to receive the Shah. The Mexicans, reflecting in their conduct the very loss of American authority which Carter’s decision brought about, naturally refused to accept the Shah (who was eventually consigned to the extortionist Omar Torrijos of Panama).

Brzezinski does not report why Carter had earlier “flatly” rejected expulsion. It cannot have been because he truly understood what was at stake, for then he could not possibly have changed his mind so soon (no new relevant facts had intervened). Carter’s reasons must have been of a lesser order, perhaps personal pique at being bullied by the Teheran “students” or misplaced optimism concerning the early release of the hostages.

In any event, in a pattern that was repeated incessantly in his administration, Carter made himself an expert on all the details of the hostage question, while failing to grasp the fundamentals, namely, that a world power must always consider the worldwide effects of its action in any particular setting. In the circumstances, this meant that the Teheran anti-Americans had to be confronted, not appeased.



In one case, to be sure, the peculiar defects of Carter and his foreign-policy team had a most productive outcome: had it not been for the evident intention of the Carter administration in 1977 to reconvene the Geneva conference on the Middle East under joint American and Soviet sponsorship, President Sadat would never have decided to go to Jerusalem. The Egyptian president had risked his neck to get the Soviet Union out of Egypt; he had built his entire policy on a deliberate rejection of the Soviet alliance and on a reassertion of Egypt’s national identity (as opposed to Nasser’s pan-Arab fantasies). When Sadat discovered that the Americans, of all people, wanted to cast Egypt back into the Arab fold, and under the patronage of the Soviet Union as co-chairman of the Geneva conference, he had the courage and inspiration to break out by creating his own context of negotiation, directly with Israel. The risks of going to Jerusalem were great, but the spectacular un-wisdom of American policy entailed even greater dangers: at Geneva, Egypt could only expect to find itself outflanked by the Syrians and blackmailed by the Russians.

Then came the prolonged bilateral and trilateral negotiations which eventually resulted in the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Cyrus Vance’s contribution to these negotiations, which Brzezinski generously stresses—his treatment of Vance spells out all their differences, but in a most gentlemanly fashion—owed a great deal precisely to the quality that made Vance unfit for his office. The kindly man who in dealings with Iran would not sanction the use of force to protect American interests, was kind to Egyptians and Israelis alike, infinitely attentive to all the nuances of their interests. As always he concentrated relentlessly on the single issue at hand, always searching for every possible avenue of accommodation, treating Egypt and Israel as if they were two well-paying clients of his law firm, and never as client-states of the United States of America.

As for Carter, he most certainly deserved a Nobel Prize for attending so assiduously to the negotiations which he had so strongly promoted. Both the Egyptians and the Israelis were astonished to discover that Carter was willing, over a very extended period, to immerse himself in the most minute negotiating details. It would be churlish to deny Carter’s deep-seated commitment to peace, but it is also plain that his attitude to the negotiations owed much to the fact that once again he never understood the fundamentals. Carter saw himself throughout in the role of a mediator. Yet it was not his diplomatic abilities that the Egyptians and Israelis wanted but rather his commitment of American prestige and resources—which would greatly add to each side’s “take” from the negotiations. Sadat and the Israelis could have made peace on their own, but they would have been foolish to do so: each impasse in the negotiation was resolved as much by American contributions as by reciprocal concessions.



Brzezinski writes a great deal in this book about the “policy process.” Again we are reminded of the extent to which the elaborate machinery of policy-making, which is supposed to coordinate the large and undisciplined departments of the executive, produces paralysis or confusion as its most natural result. The Constitution calls for a separation of powers between the branches of government; it cannot be blamed for the “checks and balances” which have arisen within the executive as a consequence of luxuriant bureaucratic growth. Brzezinski notes, for example, that the normal consequence of overruling the State Department was a hostile leak, a very effective, if certainly improper, “check.” Kissinger simply accepted that the “process” did not work, and that it had to be circumvented if serious initiatives were to be launched. Brzezinski could not or would not emulate his predecessor. Hence his impact on the making of policy was small.

One instance of confusion is worthy of special mention. In January 1979, with the Shah still in Teheran and the Bakhtiar government about to be formed, General Huyser was to be sent to Iran to make direct contact with the military chiefs. A meeting was convened on January 3 to decide what instructions Huyser should be given. Vance, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and Mondale insisted that the military chiefs should be warned against a coup. Brzezinski agreed, but argued that Huyser should also encourage them to stage a coup “in the likely event that Bakhtiar should fail.” In practice, therefore, Huyser received directly contradictory instructions. The predictable effect was to paralyze the Iranian military, the one group that might yet have saved the situation.

The next day, Brzezinski met with the President in Guadeloupe, where a four-power summit was being held. The scene was characteristic: Carter in a bathing suit in his cottage, sitting on an icebox, Hamilton Jordan also in a bathing suit, sprawled on a sofa. (Such scenes, which occur frequently in the book, can easily persuade one that formal attire has its uses after all.) Vance was on the phone, in “considerable agitation” because the Iranian military had told U.S. Ambassador William Sullivan that they wanted to keep the Shah in Teheran and suppress the rebellion in full force, with as much bloodshed as it would take. Vance and Mondale wanted permission to tell the military chiefs that the United States would oppose their use of force. Brzezinski joined in the argument, which “lasted a long time.” Finally, he records: “. . . much to my satisfaction . . . the President took a very firm line. He told Cy that he did not wish to change General Huyser’s instructions.”

This “decision,” however, merely reaffirmed the earlier contradictory instruction, Huyser’s yes/no to a coup. Obviously, the Iranian military chiefs had not approached Sullivan because they were in need of conversation. With mobs on the rampage and the Soviet Union in malevolent proximity, they were seeking a firm and unequivocal U.S. endorsement of a dangerous but potentially decisive act. To add the impact of military choreography to mere words, U.S. aircraft carriers could have been sent into the Gulf, military supplies (needed or not) could have been airlifted. Instead, there came from Washington only conditional statements, full of ifs and buts.

Even in retrospect, Brzezinski does not seem to recognize what had to be done to implement the policy which he so eloquently promoted. For after the Guadeloupe episode he notes, with apparent surprise, “Alas, nothing happened. Vance conveyed the instructions orally to Sullivan, and I have no doubt that he did so faithfully. At the other end, the military . . . simply procrastinated.”



Toward the end of this book, Brzezinski produces a formal list of what he loyally defines as President Carter’s accomplishments in the areas of foreign policy and defense. The list encapsulates the entire problem of the administration, and of this book. Naturally, it includes the Camp David peace agreements and the Panama Canal treaty, along with the post-Afghanistan “Carter Doctrine,” and so on. But the first item on the list is the Carter human-rights policy, which as it happens left the Soviet Union more repressive than ever while doing in a number of friendly rulers, and the last item is the SALT II agreement, which remained unratified. In many ways, and not only in its honesty, this is an innocent book.

About the Author

Edward N. Luttwak is senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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