Zbig’s Plotting over Chilean Sea Bass

Earlier this month, President Obama hosted a dinner with past foreign policy luminaries to explain his plan to combat ISIL. He served Chilean sea bass and d’Anjou pear salad as they discussed the future of America’s empire.

Harman described the dinner on Monday as “focused and thoughtful.” Over a dinner of d’anjou pear salad and Chilean sea bass, Obama, Vice President Biden and the outside experts engaged in a deep discussion of the options to combat the Islamic State, those who participated said.

Among the attendees was Zbigniew Brzezinski (see the full list of attendees below), Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor.

I thought it a curious choice, given how much of the Blowback we’re still fighting he birthed. As NSA, after all, Zbig crafted what he thought was a brilliant plan to draw the Soviet Union into a quagmire in Afghanistan. Even after al Qaeda had started attacking the US in Africa, Zbig thought fostering well-trained Islamic terrorists was an acceptable trade-off for having lured the Soviet Union into an embarrassing defeat.

Brzezinski: Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

Q: Despite this risk, you were an advocate of this covert action. But perhaps you yourself desired this Soviet entry into war and looked to provoke it?

B: It isn’t quite that. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.

Q: When the Soviets justified their intervention by asserting that they intended to fight against a secret involvement of the United States in Afghanistan, people didn’t believe them. However, there was a basis of truth. You don’t regret anything today?

B: Regret what? That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war. Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war unsupportable by the government, a conflict that brought about the demoralization and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.

Q: And neither do you regret having supported the Islamic fundamentalism, having given arms and advice to future terrorists?

B: What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?

Zbig doesn’t acknowledge it here, but another reason he thought this was such a great idea is because the Iranian revolution was already in full swing, and he hoped to counter our loss of footprint there with something to keep the Russians busy next door.

In so many ways that decision has led inexorably to where we are, doing the bidding of dangerous Saudi allies who are actually a cause of the extremism we fight, not its solution.

Even before the Chilean sea bass dinner, I’ve been wondering whether the US would double down on its commitment to the Saudis, in spite of the way they’ve fostered this terrorist threat, or whether we’d use the opportunity to cement the deal with Iran, giving us more space from the Saudis.

I’m embarrassed I even wondered. I should have known from heavy-handed intercept of Russian jets and the increasing sanctions on both Russia and Iran that we intended to gain advantage both against ISIS and against those who question our unlimited hegemony.

But this account of how the Saudis came to join in bombing campaigns against Islamic extremists makes it rather clear.

The Americans knew a lot was riding on a Sept. 11 meeting with the king of Saudi Arabia at his summer palace on the Red Sea.

A year earlier, King Abdullah had fumed when President Barack Obama called off strikes against the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. This time, the U.S. needed the king’s commitment to support a different Syrian mission—against the extremist group Islamic State—knowing there was little hope of assembling an Arab front without it.

At the palace, Secretary of State John Kerry requested assistance up to and including air strikes, according to U.S. and Gulf officials. “We will provide any support you need,” the king said.

That moment, more than any other, set in train the U.S. air campaign in Syria against Islamic State, according to U.S. and Gulf officials. Mr. Obama made clear he would only authorize strikes if regional allies agreed to join the effort.

[snip]

The process gave the Saudis leverage to extract a fresh U.S. commitment to beef up training for rebels fighting Mr. Assad, whose demise the Saudis still see as a top priority.

[snip]

After Islamic State made startling gains in Iraq, Saudi officials told Mr. Kerry in June that Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite with close ties to Iran, needed to go, according to U.S officials. Once that happened, Riyadh would step up its role against Islamic State and work to bring other Gulf states onboard. The Obama administration had come to a similar conclusion and started to maneuver Mr. al-Maliki out of office.

[snip]

Two of the F-15 pilots were members of the Saudi royal family, including Prince Khaled bin Salman, son of the crown prince. In the third wave of the initial attack, half of the attack airplanes in the sky were from Arab countries.

There’s far more at the link: the Saudi agreement to host the training (something I’ll return to), Bandar’s presence — and smiles — at the meeting on September 11,  (Though, if I’m not mistaken, the story had more details about the meeting between Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir and Obama when it was first posted last night, including that they used first names.)

Whether the US means to faithfully execute their half of the bargain or not, and whether the Saudis are dealing with us in good faith, remains a very good question.

But if they really intend to help the Saudis and Qataris take out Assad (not because he’s a brutal dictator, of course, but because he’s not their brutal dictator), certain things must come with that: a means to undercut the momentum our fight against ISIL will necessarily give Iran and Russia. Otherwise, no amount of training of “moderate” rebels will make a difference — or keep the Saudis happy.

Maybe that’s not what we intend. Maybe we’ve still got a plan in place to ditch the Saudis. But if not, expect some kind of Zbig plan that will likely backfire worse than his earlier one.


Sandy Berger

Zbigniew Brzezinski

Tom Donilon

Michele Flournoy

Richard Haass

Steve Hadley

Jane Harman

Michael Morell

Strobe Talbott

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

16 replies
  1. Don Bacon says:

    Some say that US strategy has been guided by Zbigniew Brzezinski more than anyone.
    –from B’s 1998 book:The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And Its Geostrategic Imperatives, the Amazon blurb:

    The crucial fault lines may seem familiar, but the implosion of the Soviet Union has created new rivalries and new relationships, and Brzezinski maps out the strategic ramifications of the new geopolitical realities. He explains, for example: Why France and Germany will play pivotal geostrategic roles, whereas Britain and Japan will not. Why NATO expansion offers Russia the chance to undo the mistakes of the past, and why Russia cannot afford to toss this opportunity aside. Why the fate of Ukraine and Azerbaijan are so important to America. Why viewing China as a menace is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why America is not only the first truly global superpower but also the last—and what the implications are for America’s legacy. Brzezinski’s surprising and original conclusions often turn conventional wisdom on its head as he lays the groundwork for a new and compelling vision of America’s vital interests. Once, again, Zbigniew Brzezinski provides our nation with a philosophical and practical guide for maintaining and managing our hard-won global power.

    And some quotes from the book, courtesy of an Amazon reader:
    – “America is now the only global superpower, and Eurasia is the globe’s central arena. Hence, what happens to the distribution of power on the Eurasian continent will be of decisive importance to America’s global primacy and to America’s historical legacy.” (p.194)
    – “That puts a premium on maneuver and manipulation in order to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that could eventually seek to challenge America’s primacy…” (p. 198)
    .
    and a review of the book:
    It displays an unabashed and unapologetic view of the U.S. as a world ‘hegemon’ (author’s word) and divides the rest of the world in ‘vassals’ (author’s word), rivals, ‘pivots’ and strategically irrelevant countries. Western Europe and Japan are the prominent members of the first category, Russia and China of the second. The pivots are the countries that have strategic choices important to the U.S., such as the Ukraine. United Kingdom is an (amusing) example of strategically irrelevance.

  2. orionATL says:

    so we keep on potentially and actually using military and economic power to destabalize certain parts of the world we feel are threats and exploit others we consider as oppportunity.

    this is certainly a historical european mode of dealing with the rest of humanity, but it is not the only way or the best way. i don’t know of an international relations expert who has discussed this set of more modern, stabalizing, enhancing the welfare of all possible theory.

    is there one?

    zbig’s heritage and thoughts are classic european. how about the historical chinese model of dealing with the other.

  3. TarheelDem says:

    Excellent article pulling together some context for the current war on Syria. The tragic consequence: whoever claims credit for ending the Cold War also claims credit for setting in train the events that led to 9/11. The continuity of policy across the administrations of Presidents becomes more striking as the ideologies of those Presidents have diverged. What was unnoticeable between Wilson and Coolidge becomes dramatic dissonance between W and Obama. The tragedy is that these decisions still are claiming innocent and not so innocent lives–exactly contrary to their frequently stated intent. And more territory gets the “benefit” of decades of unexploded ordnance to deal with.

    The “old hands” certainly have a way of crushing any brief moment of detent.

    I wonder who is flying those Saudi planes. Do Saudis do that sort of stuff for themselves? And when this is done, do you have ambitious veterans who see the Saudi royal family as a problem? It has happened before.

  4. orionATL says:

    one of the things that bothers me about u.s. diplomacy in the middle east is the way we continually mistreat iran as a “serious” enemy and a pawn in the israeli-saudi-u.s. checker game. that policy seems stupid – 60 million well-educated people with a functioning though highly imperfect hybrid (state and church) democracy.

    always, it seems, we are playing to win in the moment; the future be damned.

    • TarheelDem says:

      It’s a State Department grudge about the 1979 hostages. Just like the CIA grudge about the Bay of Pigs keeps us from recognizing Cuba.

      And the grudge against Russia, which might have to do with senior officials who spent 20-30 years of their life in the Cold War.

      • Don Bacon says:

        No, it’s because the US can’t countenance any government that doesn’t take orders, and especially one that nationalizes its oil supplies rather than let ExxonMobil & friends handle it. Being a world leader means that all the rest of the world must be followers. Same with Cuba., Libya etc.
        .
        So it goes ‘way beyond hostages.

        • TarheelDem says:

          We’re pretty selective between countries that tell us to buzz off. Only some get denied normal diplomatic relations over long periods of time. It’s saying no to hegemony plus something else. Last I heard, we still had diplomatic relations with Venezuela and Russia to name two examples.

          • Don Bacon says:

            we still [have] diplomatic relations with Venezuela and Russia
            .
            “Diplomatic relations” (AKA undiplomatic relations) with Venezuela consist of years spent trying to overthrow the government, and with Russia they consist of increasing sanctions for its “aggression against Ukraine.” (see pot/kettle)

  5. GKJames says:

    One more case showing that there’s little intellectual heft to US “strategy.” When it’s not simply local politics that drive policy, it’s a personal grudge (and the myopia that comes with it). Zbig’s obsession was the USSR; everything else–including his own country’s long-term interest–was subservient to it. Lucky for him that he lives in a country that’s short on memory and even shorter on accountability for its guiding lights.

  6. ArizonaBumblebeeper says:

    Overlooked in the coverage of Obama’s air campaign against IS was the meeting that took place in New York City in recent days between the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Zarif. While I’m sure Syria was a major topic of conversation, the situation in Yemen likely was also a topic of conversation. The seizure of power in Yemen by the Zaidi Shia Houthis over last weekend represents a direct threat to the Saudi regime. Reportedly, there is fear in Riyadh that the Iranians are trying to create a Shia crescent at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. This crescent would span from Bahrain in the north and then go down through the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia (which have large Shia populations) to Yemen. This area is also where the Ghawar Oil Field, the largest in the world, is located. The Saudis reportedly are concerned that Iran will attempt to disrupt oil production in its eastern provinces using local Shia militants or armed members from the Houthi tribe, who live in the mountainous region of northern Yemen next to the Saudi border. Meanwhile, for the first time in history, a Chinese destroyer docked at the Port of Bandar-Abbas in Iran. The port is located close to the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

  7. Gordon Wilson says:

    One thing we shouldn’t overlook is how a president is locked into the foreign policy decisions of his predecessors. As weary as we’ve become with the war on terror, the Cold War was far longer, and even Kissinger’s less than honorable activities need to be viewed in that light. The blowback from the Cold War presented Bush with an opportunity to move the world in a completely different direction from the past, and his greatest failure was in failing to do so. We cannot fault him for unoriginal thinking here, for he is, and was, an emotional man, whereas foreign policy requires the blood of a lizard on a winter’s night. Cheney fit the bill, but unfortunately he is as dumb as a rock.

  8. decader says:

    Christ, Zbig basically destroyed the Russian military machine by getting them bogged down in Afghanistan, killing their appetite for boots-on-the-ground worldwide. This was roughly $300 billion a year military behemoth by 1985, with the war costing perhaps $8 billion a year in 1980’s dollars. The Stinger missile brought down 350 Soviet aircraft in the last 2 years of the war, with the total Russian military killed up to 50,000.

    So Zbig basically brought this down, including the military that kept East Europe imprisoned, with no US casualties and little expense, aside from a couple embassies blown up 15 years later and 4 hijacked planes that Bush should have stopped 20 years later? Get real.

    If you want to argue that the Afghani civilian costs were too high, that’s a different issue, but obsessing over the tiny mouse Osama who only got his “Blowback” effect because Bush & the US *PANICKED* and did very stupid things, well, that’s a bit too much discredit for Zbigniewski to have to endure.

    (and yeah, Reagan could have managed the end of the war treaties to put a functional government in when Russia left – seems that our conservatives are piss-poor at managing any sort of invasion or takeover.)

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