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A Realist Foreign Policy
Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, who served in that capacity to both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, was interviewed by The National Interest on some of the issues facing the Obama administration. Following are excerpts of his thoughts on Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Russia.
Scowcroft: We must not abandon Iraq. On its own merits, the Middle East is important, but Iraq and the surrounding countries also contain two-thirds of the world’s petroleum reserves. A dangerously unstable Iraq could have hugely negative economic consequences for the world, and therefore also for us. The way to start reversing our fortunes in the region is to take a more realistic tack. Our objective in Iraq ought to be facilitating a country that is an influence for stability in the region, not a source of chaos and conflict. Democracy is not a precondition for stability. Should it happen, all the better. But we must accept that such a change would now take more than is realistic for us to provide.
In Afghanistan, we must also redefine “victory.” We have tended to distort our original mission to destroy the Taliban (because of its refusal to deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda) into a mission to transform Afghanistan. Traditionally, Afghanistan has been a loose coalition of ethnic-religious groups, tribal leaders and warlords presided over by at times an almost-ephemeral central government. If America can restore that kind of Afghanistan, we can call it a success. To do so we will need to reach out to any groups and people that might be able to be useful in restoring such a system. Kabul should be helped to the extent it seeks our involvement – and as long as we can be useful. Again, the goal should be stability.
Q: How does all of this affect our Iran policy? Will we be able to prevent them from realizing a full-blown nuclear capability?
Scowcroft: When looking at Iran, we can see the spillover effects of our actions elsewhere. I do not believe the situation is hopeless at this point. We have not exhausted all of the possibilities for discussions with Iran that could yield positive results. There are two issues to keep in mind. First there is Iran in the region – we must consider what Iran’s goals are, as well as our own (what kind of Iraq might satisfy both of us), and the broader desiderata of the region. Iran is an outlier of sorts in the region. It is an ancient, historic culture, but it is a Shia culture in a Sunni region, a Persian culture in an Arab region. We should work to construct an Iraq of such a character that it will not cause Iran to fear another attack of the type perpetuated by Saddam Hussein. We should consider what kind of regional framework could be developed to deal with these concerns, and to give everyone in the region a greater sense of security.
The second issue is Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiating that issue are Iran on the one side and the five permanent members (P-5) of the Security Council, plus Germany, on the other. Neither the United States nor its negotiating partners wants Iran to have nuclear weapons. But, so far, Iran has been able to play one party against another, and to proceed without significant hindrance.
[Ed. Over the weekend the United States admitted Iran has enough enriched uranium for one nuclear weapon.]
We need to approach Iran with a united front and demonstrate why it is not in Tehran’s security interests to develop the capability for uranium enrichment. Whether a country seeks nuclear weapons or not, such a capability is a relatively simple matter once a supply of enriched uranium is assured. And if Tehran produces enriched uranium, then countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will be encouraged to follow suit to protect themselves. None of that improves Tehran’s security. The P-5 plus Germany can offer to supply Tehran with enriched-uranium fuel, guarantee that supply and remove spent fuel as long as Iran adheres to IAEA safeguards. That is, after all, far more economical than Iran building an enrichment facility, and it is also better for Tehran’s own security.
One of the reasons is the interests of other powers. China, for instance, does not want Iran to have nuclear weapons, but it imports a great deal of oil from Iran and considers Tehran an important commercial partner. Washington should explain to Beijing that it is much better to take tough multilateral economic measures to convince Iran to refocus its nuclear program, as any military action in the Middle East would disrupt or destroy the oil supplies so vital to the Chinese economy. It is better, then, to make a concerted, sincere, joint effort now.
Russia has an even greater stake in all of this. And on the Iranian nuclear issue, Moscow has been largely helpful. The Russians do not want Iran to have nuclear weapons. But in pique at the United States, they may be prepared to do things in their short-term interests that are against their long-term objectives. The United States’ problem right now, in addition to our somewhat-bristling relationship, is the very specific issue of Georgia.
The realist way to deal with that is, first of all, to sit down with the Russians. But before we do that, we must develop in our own minds a strategy for Russia, something we have not fundamentally rethought since the end of the cold war. Is our overall goal in Russia democratization? Is it to build a “cordon sanitaire” around Russia so it cannot spread its influence? Is it to try to get Moscow to help with the world’s energy problems? Is it something else? Washington has thus far done a little of everything, in the process we have treated Russia as an afterthought, deepening the sense of humiliation held over from the end of the cold war and Russia’s subsequent economic crisis.
We need to convince the Russians that we take them seriously and their views do matter. One of the areas in which we can tangibly demonstrate that is on the nuclear front. Telling Moscow, as we have done, that we do not need to renegotiate lapsing arms-control treaties because Russia is no longer an enemy has produced an unintended effect. Such a proposition in essence translates as “You no longer matter.” Instead, we should approach Moscow by saying that we – America and Russia – the custodians of the nuclear age, need to start down a path with a goal of ensuring that nuclear weapons are never used. We should work together on issues of proliferation and devise a program to make nuclear power available to all nations without the threat of creating a nuclear-weapons capability.
Q: Does America still have the energy to take the lead in addressing these issues?
Scowcroft: The United States remains the only country with the ability to coalesce people’s goodwill around great enterprises – Russia cannot, China cannot. The European Union may someday have the ability, but for now it also cannot.
America is not in decline. America is not in a state of exhaustion. Of course, we are no longer at the point where we stood almost alone in the world in terms of power. The world has changed. We need to be smarter. We need to realize we cannot accomplish our larger goals unilaterally….