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Sunday, December 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Commentary
America's credibility gap: U.S. image, ideals take a hit

By Zbigniew Brzezinski
Special to The Washington Post

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Forty years ago, an important emissary was sent to France by a beleaguered president of the United States. It was during the Cuban missile crisis, and the emissary was a tough-minded former secretary of state, Dean Acheson. His mission was to brief French President Charles de Gaulle and solicit his support in what could become a nuclear war involving not just the United States and the Soviet Union but the entire NATO alliance and the Warsaw Pact.

At the end of the briefing, Acheson said to de Gaulle, "I would now like to show you the evidence, the photographs that we have of Soviet missiles armed with nuclear weapons." The French president responded, "I do not wish to see the photographs. The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me. Please tell him that France stands with America."

Would any foreign leader today react the same way to an American emissary sent abroad to say that country X is armed with weapons of mass destruction that threaten the United States? It is unlikely. The recent conduct of U.S. foreign policy, by distorting the threats facing America, has isolated the United States and undermined its credibility. It has damaged our ability to deal with issues in North Korea, Iran, Russia and the West Bank. If a case ever needs to be made for action against a truly imminent threat, will any nation take us seriously?

Fifty-three years ago, following the Soviet-sponsored assault by North Korea on South Korea, the Soviet Union boycotted a resolution in the U.N. Security Council for a collective response to North Korea's act. That left the Soviet Union alone in opposition, stamping it as a global pariah.

Today it is the United States that finds itself alone. In recent weeks, there were two votes on the Middle East in the U.N. General Assembly. In one, the vote was 133 to 4, and in the other, it was 144 to 4 — the United States, Israel, the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Japan and all of our NATO allies, including Great Britain and the so-called "new" Europe, voted with the majority.

The loss of U.S. international credibility and the growing U.S. isolation are aspects of a troubling paradox: American power worldwide is at its historic zenith, but American global political standing is at its nadir. Maybe we are resented because we are rich, and we are, or because we are powerful, and we certainly are. But I think anyone who thinks that this is the full explanation is taking the easy way out and engaging in a self-serving justification.

Since the tragedy of 9-11, our government has embraced a paranoiac view of the world summarized in a phrase President Bush used on Sept. 20, 2001: "Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."

I suspect officials who have adopted the "with us or against us" formulation don't know its historical origins. It was used by Lenin to attack the social democrats as anti-Bolshevik and justify handling them accordingly. This phrase is part of our policymakers' defining focus, summed up by the words "war on terrorism." War on terrorism reflects, in my view, a rather narrow and extremist vision of foreign policy for a superpower and for a great democracy with genuinely idealistic traditions.

Our country suffers from another troubling condition, a fear that periodically verges on blind panic. As a result, we lack a clear perception of critical security issues such as the availability to our enemies of weapons of mass destruction. In recent months, we have experienced perhaps the most significant intelligence failure in U.S. history. That failure was fueled by a demagogy that emphasizes worst-case scenarios, stimulates fear and induces a dichotomous view of world reality.

It is important to ask ourselves, as citizens, whether a world power can provide global leadership on the basis of fear and anxiety. Can we really mobilize support, even of friends, when we tell them that if you are not with us you are against us?

That calls for serious debate about America's role in the world, which is not served by an abstract, quasi-theological definition of the war on terrorism. That definition oversimplifies a complex set of challenges that needs to be addressed. It talks about a phenomenon, terrorism, as the enemy while overlooking the fact that terrorism is a technique for killing people. It doesn't tell us who the enemy is. It's as if we said that World War II was not fought against the Nazis but against blitzkrieg.

We need to ask who is the enemy. They are not, to quote the president again, people who "hate things," whereas "we love things." Or people who simply hate freedom. I think they do hate, but I don't think they sit there abstractly hating freedom. They hate some of us. They hate some countries. They hate some particular targets. But it's a lot more concrete than these vague quasi-theological formulations.

In the debate over U.S. foreign policy, Democrats should not be naysayers only. They certainly should not be cheerleaders as some were roughly a year ago. Democrats should insist that a pluralistic democracy such as ours rely on bipartisanship in formulating a foreign policy based on moderation and the nuances of the human condition.

Bipartisanship in making foreign policy has been the tradition from the days of President Harry Truman and Sen. Arthur Vandenberg until recent times. And it has led us not only to a triumph in the Cold War but to our emergence as the only global superpower with special responsibilities.

We should cooperate not only with each other at home, but with our allies abroad. While America is paramount, it isn't omnipotent. We need Europe, which shares our values and interests, even if it disagrees with us on specific policies. But we cannot have a relationship if we only dictate to or threaten those who disagree. Sometimes we may be right. Sometimes they may be right. But there is something transcendental about shared values that shouldn't be subordinated to tactical requirements.

We should strive to expand the zone of peace and prosperity to build a stable international system in which our leadership can be fruitfully exercised. That means supporting a larger European Union. It means drawing Russia closer while remaining unambiguous about what disqualifies Russia — pursuing a policy of genocide against the Chechens, killing journalists and repressing the mass media — from genuine membership in the community of democratic, law-abiding states.

In Iraq we must succeed. Failure is not an option. But we have to ask ourselves what is the definition of success. More killing, more repression, more effective counterinsurgency? The introduction of new technologies to crush the resistance? Or is success an effort to promote, by using force, a political solution?

If there's going to be a political solution in Iraq, two prerequisites have to be fulfilled as rapidly as feasible: the internationalization of the foreign presence in Iraq and the transfer of power as soon as possible to a sovereign Iraqi authority. Regarding the first, too much time has been lost already. As for the second, there's nothing to be lost by prematurely declaring an Iraqi authority as sovereign if that lends it political legitimacy in a country which is searching to define itself, which has been humiliated, and which remains ambivalent toward us.

What is the future for the doctrine of preemption against nations or groups with the potential to acquire weapons of mass destruction? It is important not to plunge headlong into the tempting notion that we will preempt unilaterally on suspicion, which is what the doctrine now amounts to. We simply do not know enough to be able to preempt with confidence.

For four years, I was the principal channel of intelligence to the president of the United States. We had a good idea of the security challenge we faced. Today, the problem is more elusive. We're not dealing with nuclear silos and military structures geared for an assault on American security. We could decipher and seek to paralyze those in the event of war. We were well-informed to a degree that cannot be matched in dealing with the new threats to our security.

These new challenges can only be addressed if we have what we do not have — a really effective intelligence service. I find it appalling that when we went into Iraq we did not know if it had weapons of mass destruction. We thought it had such weapons based largely on extrapolation.

That means that our commanders in the field went into battle without knowledge of the Iraqi WMD order of battle. They did not know what units, brigades or divisions in the Iraqi armed forces were equipped with what kind of weapons of mass destruction. Were there chemical weapons on the battalion level, on the brigade level or with special units? Who had bacteriological weapons? At what stage of development was the allegedly reconstituted nuclear program?

All of this points to a fundamental shortcoming in our national-security policy. If we want to lead we have to have other countries trust us. When we speak they have to think it is the truth. This is why de Gaulle said what he did. This is why others believed us prior to the war in Iraq.

They no longer do, and to correct that we need an intelligence service that speaks with authority. If preemption becomes necessary, it should be able to truly tell us that, as a last resort, preemption is necessary. Right now there's no way of knowing.

Ultimately at issue is the relationship between the new requirements of security and the traditions of American idealism. For decades, we have played a unique role in the world because we were viewed as a society that was generally committed to certain ideals, prepared to practice them at home and to defend them abroad. Today, for the first time, our commitment to idealism worldwide is challenged by a sense of vulnerability. We have to be careful not to become self-centered and subordinate everything else in the world to an exaggerated sense of insecurity.

We are going to live in an insecure world. It cannot be avoided. We have to learn to live in it with dignity, with idealism, with steadfastness.

Zbigniew Brzezinski is author of the forthcoming book, "The Choice" (Basic Books). This article is adapted from an Oct. 28 speech.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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