How to Stay Friends with China

Chinese president Hu Jintao comes to Washington this month for what could turn out to be one of the most important bilateral visits of the Obama presidency. According to former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, writing in The New York Times, the president should use the visit to redefine Sino-American relations.

China and the United States have been far from cooperative in recent months. Even as both powers remain heavily interdependent economically, discord has emerged on monetary and climate policy. With America mired in recession, protectionism rears its ugly head once more while China, still rising, has become more assertive. Read more “How to Stay Friends with China”

Obama’s Afghan Policy One Year Later

A year after surging troop levels in Afghanistan by some 40,000, President Barack Obama proclaimed, on a surprise visit to Bagram Air Base after Thanksgiving, that American forces are now “on the offensive.” But is the counterinsurgency strategy, led by General David Petraeus, really working?

Last week, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour that the past year had been a difficult one for the war in Afghanistan. “And I would expect next year to be a very difficult year, as well,” he added. The security situation may have started to change but the tactical gains threaten to be undermined by the eroding credibility of the Afghan government.

Even if American trust in Hamid Karzai’s ability to end corruption is minimal, the Afghan president claims to be confident that the war in his country can be won. “We have to win,” he said in August, “but in order for us to do that, we must end the business as usual and we must begin to reexamine whether we are doing everything correctly.” He specifically mentioned providing security and protection while further reducing civilian casualties.

General Petraeus’ campaign appears to be intensifying by contrast. American combat operations have mounted in number and scope with each passing week. Night raids are up sixfold. Airstrikes nearly doubled. The war is more visible even in parts of the country that used to be least affected and public discontent is increasing as a result.

The situation on the ground, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, who served respectively as Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations during the Bush Administration, is mixed. On the one hand, there is improvement in security locally, in some parts of the country where American and NATO troops are present. On the other, relations with the Afghan government, balancing politics among the tribal factions of the country and targeting the insurgents’ sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan all remain problematic.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, added another dimension. “Is the society, underneath this umbrella warfare, actually making some progress or is it deteriorating?” To assess whether overall progress has been made, he said, Afghan income levels and commercial activity need to be taken into account.

According to ABC study, those economic indicators are actually worsening. That makes it extremely unlikely that the central government in Kabul will gain in strength which is supposed to be a key objective of the American strategy.

After nearly ten years of war however, the people of Afghanistan “have lost their faith,” said Sakena Yacoobi, an Afghan activist for women’s rights. Without the foreign military presence, she warned, “the lives of the women and children will be completely demolished in Afghanistan.”

If Afghanistan remains impoverished; the central government remains corrupt and the Taliban are still strong especially in the south and southeast of the country, is America doomed to fail?

Not necessarily, said Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, former presidential candidate, on Meet the Press. “Afghanistan is just not Vietnam.” The war can be won, he stressed, but the American strategy should not encompass nation building rather focus on fighting terrorism, “with a smaller footprint,” and turn control over to local authorities “as rapidly as possible.”

Transition of security responsibility to the Afghan government is supposed to commence next year. By 2014, the NATO allies agreed in Lisbon, Portugal last month, Western forces are no longer to engage in combat operations. Some will likely remain in the country after that date in an advisory capacity but the “war” is supposed to be over in three years. That means the president “doesn’t have too much time,” said Brzezinski. “Three years is not much.”

Isolating Iran

Sanctions and negotiations aren’t working anymore. Iran is determined to acquire the Bomb so the West must start thinking ahead. How to deal with a nuclear Iran?

“Containing” the country has been suggested before, specifically by cutting Iran’s financial ties abroad and quietly working to destabilize the regime from within.

Last December, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, placed some serious question marks with this theory however. She opined that the Cold War notion of containment won’t apply to Iran. For one thing, there is no mutually assured destruction in place. Pletka specifically blamed the Obama Administration for failing to signal to Iran that it is be prepared to undertake military action should it threaten allies in the region.

Former Secretary of State James Baker shared a similar concern in February. The threat of nuclear retaliation could be effective, he said, but only if Iran truly fears America’s willingness to retaliate.

Speaking with The Wall Street Journal, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski was not so hawkish. He proposes a series of actions to contain Iran: offer a robust American defense umbrella to protect friends in the region; provide rhetorical support to Iran’s opposition while accepting America’s limited ability to help it; eschew thought of a preemptive strike against the country’s nuclear facilities; and keep talking to Tehran.

Baker actually suggested that the United States extend its nuclear umbrella over moderate Arab regions in the region as well. Iran has few allies. Other Middle Eastern states, around the Gulf and especially Turkey, aren’t at all looking forward to having a nuclear power in their midst.

Brzezinski warns that containing Iran will be a long game. In spite of recent protests, change won’t come easily to the Islamic Republic. Nonetheless, facilitating, “carefully and cautiously, the political evolution in Iran toward a more acceptable regional role,” preferably in the vein of secular Turkey, should be one of America’s foremost objectives with regards to Iran.

At the same time, the West must be careful not to interfere to such an extent that it might undermine the “forces at work within Iran” that promote regime change. Sanctions should be crafted so that they don’t encourage “more anti-Westernism, or a fusion of Islamic extremism and nationalism.”

In short: Careful now! All the more reason to bring back Brzezinski.

Bring Back Brzezinski

On The Daily Beast former New York Times columnist and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations Leslie H. Gelb suggests that Barack Obama “desperately needs a sweeping staff shakeup to save his presidency.”

Gelb is most concerned about White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who, although “a terrific political mind”, lacks the “management skills and discipline” to run the president’s office. He also proposes that National Security Advisor James Jones “has to move on.”

The career Marine was greatly admired and respected as Commandant of the Corps and as NATO’s military chief. He handled those duties with great skill. But by wide acclamation inside and outside the White House, he has not emerged as a strategist — perhaps the key requirement of this key position. The person in that job has to pull everything together — laying out achievable objectives and precise plans to dispense carefully packaged carrots and sticks.

The man to replace him? Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor. “He has a first-rate strategic mind — a rare quality — and knows how to deliver results.” Obama will just have to iron out his lack of sympathy for Israel and Russia.

Brzezinski is the Henry Kissinger of the Democratic Party and despite his age, deserves serious consideration.

The Obama Administration got off to a good start abroad. Transatlantic ties were restored, an effort has been made to “restart” relations with Russia while a policy of “strategic reassurance” is now pursued with regards to China. It is time to step up the pace.

The president’s current team seems to believe that every foreign policy hiccup can be fixed with the giving of a new speech. But this won’t push the Russians into signing a new START agreement. It won’t smooth things over with the Chinese who are still a bit wary about America’s commitments to Taiwan. And it won’t be enough to get anything done in the Middle East.

As Gelb puts it, “Obama doesn’t know what’s really going on.” The president admitted that he had underestimated the difficulty of revitalizing the Middle Eastern process last year. “He had to be totally out of it not to realize that the Palestinians and Israelis were nowhere close to sitting down with each other and dealing.”

Brzezinski on the other hand seems to understand the hardships ahead and has both the experience and the vision to advise the president thoroughly. He was critical of the Bush Administration’s neoconservative stance and its War on Terror. Foreign policy, according to Brzezinski, ought not to be conducted with the purpose of shaping the world in America’s image. But Obama, he said in 2007, “understands that we live in a very different world where we have to relate to a variety of cultures and people.”

His plans for the future range beyond the Middle East. As early as 1997 he published his take on American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era under the title The Grand Chessboard. Brzezinski asserted that the United States is the first, only and last truly global superpower and as such, “Eurasia’s arbiter, with no major Eurasian issue soluble without America’s participation or contrary to America’s interests.” The country ought to be much more engaged in the Caucasus and Central Asia for that reason, besides the Near and Far East.

James Jones is a good man who deserves a place in any administration. But for the sake of ensuring American leadership into the twenty-first century, Obama needs to get someone like Brzezinski on board.