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In Search of a Foreign Policy

Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981

by Zbigniew Brzezinski
Farrar Straus and Giroux, 587 pp., $22.50

Hard Choices: Critical Years in America’s Foreign Policy

by Cyrus Vance
Simon and Schuster, 541 pp., $19.95

Thinking About National Security: Defense and Foreign Policy in a Dangerous World

by Harold Brown
Westview Press, 288 pp., $17.95


Zbigniew Brzezinski’s fate, ever since his student days at Harvard, has been to be compared to Kissinger. His own “memoirs of the national security adviser” are very different from those of his formidable predecessor. Henry Kissinger’s memoirs are a monument carefully erected as an appeal to history. Reading them is like following a proud architect who points out the grandeur of his conception, the vistas outside, the spacious rooms inside, a sumptuous gallery of portraits, and an odd philosophical library. Brzezinski’s recollections are straight and swift. Indeed, they remind one of a fighter plane that flies much of the way on automatic pilot, strafing enemy targets, and also, here and there, in passing, hitting friendly positions.

Cyrus Vance’s book, which he refuses to call a memoir, reads, in its reasonable and dry way, like a thoughtful and reliable report to the somewhat stuffy board of directors of a major corporation. It is almost relentlessly impersonal. There are no portraits of other officials—not even of Carter. Vance mentions his differences over policy with Brzezinski and some anonymous bureaucrats, expresses his anger with Brzezinski’s behavior at a few points, but makes no attempt to describe or analyze him. A few statesmen receive passing praise; many of them happen to be men for whom Brzezinski expresses distaste, Helmut Schmidt and Moshe Dayan in particular. But Hard Choices is a book of little color and of subdued emotions.

On many issues it provides a more detailed account than Brzezinski’s—for instance, concerning the complex and slow negotiation of SALT II, the Carter administration’s ambitious policy for the Middle East in 1977, the Panama Canal treaties, and southern Africa. However, Vance is much more discreet or oblique than Brzezinski in two interesting cases. He does not tell us, as Brzezinski does, that Deng Xiaoping, whom Brzezinski calls “the diminutive but dangerous leader of China,” informed Carter during his celebrated visit to Washington in January 1979 that China would soon “teach a lesson” to Vietnam—thus putting Carter and his advisers on the spot because they had to choose between cooling off the new love affair with China and damaging relations with the Soviet Union. Whereas Vance lists a variety of reasons why the Middle East peace process ran out of steam after the conclusion of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in March 1979, Brzezinski squarely points his finger at Carter, who “made it clear to us that he no longer wished to play a highly visible role in Middle East affairs,” and appointed Robert Strauss as his Middle East negotiator in order to have a “political shield at home.”

Brzezinski and Vance both wanted the jobs Carter gave them. But whereas Vance’s book records, in its reserved way, a growing estrangement between him and the president, leading to his resignation in April 1980, Brzezinski displays throughout his book much pride in the importance of his position, his concern for predominance (he suggested Vance for secretary of state, rather than more assertive people such as George Ball or Paul Warnke), and his pleasure at achieving supremacy in the last year of the administration.

While Brzezinski’s descriptions of foreign leaders tend to be sketchy, some drip with acid: Helmut Schmidt is referred to as “a bully and a hypocrite.” Brzezinski is condescending toward Mondale, whom he portrays as insecure, vain, and increasingly inclined to reduce foreign policy questions (especially the Middle East) to their domestic effects. And he can be extraordinarily snide toward Vance, who “had a way of very pleasantly blinking his eyelashes to indicate agreement and deference” to Carter. Vance was no more than “a gentleman lawyer,” “a good sport” who did not know how to “bring issues to a head,” and represented values and rules of “declining relevance,” those of “both the legal profession and the once-dominant Wasp elite.” (Both Kissinger and Brzezinski, the refugee from Nazi Germany and the émigré from Poland, show much contempt for the establishment that adopted them so unreservedly.) Vance, says Brzezinski, was “at his best when negotiating with decent parties in the world,” at his worst “in dealing with the thugs of this world,” because of his “deep aversion to the use of force.” The same gentlemanly habits inhibited Vance in his dealings with Brzezinski and they still pervade his own account.

Brzezinski proclaims his admiration for Rosalynn Carter. But it is Jimmy Carter’s portrait that emerges as the most complex and carefully drawn in Brzezinski’s short collection of sketches. The bonds between them were, he thinks, the same likes and dislikes, humor (of a rather pathetic sort), mutual loyalty, and a mysterious affinity between Poland and the South (Brzezinski quotes from Sophie’s Choice). Nevertheless, when one has finished the book, the information it provides obliges one to conclude that Carter, for all his virtues—honesty, hard work, the determination to master all details, the autodidact’s appetite for ever more learning, the kind of personal courage and willingness to take risks that he displayed in the Arab-Israeli conflict both at Camp David and in breaking the deadlock between Egypt and Israel in the winter of 1979—was the single biggest liability of his administration.

Brzezinski notes his pedantry and his stinginess (the top advisers who had regular breakfasts with him were charged $1.75 each). He calls him “a sculptor who did not know when to throw away his chisel”—a (for once) gentle way of saying that nothing was ever settled, and everything could always be reopened. He talks of Carter’s lack of an instinct for using force. Brzezinski tried to substitute his own. According to him, Carter also lacked historical perspective and showed “occasionally surprising naïveté”; this affected not only his public speeches but his policy as well, as when, in March 1977, he announced an entirely new proposal for drastic arms cuts before it was delivered to Moscow, provoking a fierce Soviet rejection, which Moscow later regretted.

It is clear from both Brzezinski’s and Vance’s books that in the one matter on which his two main foreign policy advisers were pretty much in agreement—the Arab-Israeli conflict—Carter repeatedly failed to push his own policy hard enough to obtain the necessary concessions from Israel. Before Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, which obliged Washington to abandon its attempt at a comprehensive settlement, Carter had pulled back twice: when he allowed Begin, who was making his first visit as prime minister, to avoid all the difficult issues, and when he retreated from the Soviet-American joint statement of October 1, 1977, to which Israel had violently objected, even though it entailed major Soviet concessions—no mention of the PLO or of a Palestinian state.

Indeed, both Brzezinski and Vance confirm some of the worst charges made against Carter by his critics: pusillanimity, continual oscillation, meaningless verbal compromises. Thus the central issue of Israeli settlements on the West Bank literally got lost in the heady confusion that marked the end of the Camp David summit meeting. Although Carter was from the very beginning rightly convinced of the immense importance of the settlements issue, he never succeeded in extracting any concession on it from Begin.

Carter, in the case of the neutron bomb, decided to back out just after months of efforts succeeded in bringing the NATO allies together in support of it—because they thought the president himself wanted them to go ahead. On the delicate issue of the Soviet Backfire bomber (which Moscow did not want included in SALT II), in the course of a single discussion Carter first endorsed Paul Warnke’s idea of making a statement on the bomber that Moscow would simply not contradict, and then, having listened to Brzezinski, explained that Gromyko was a liar and that we would need a Soviet statement in writing.

During the Iranian revolution, and later over the issue of letting the Shah come to the US, the president vacillated and reversed himself again and again. Quoting from his diary, Brzezinski mentions a discussion with Hamilton Jordan in May 1978 in which Jordan said: “Who the hell knows whether the President will not veer in some direction tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.” As a result, we are left with the sad contrast between the high hopes of the 1976 campaign, the determination to set a new course and to regain the initiative after the setbacks and sense of drift at the end of the Kissinger era, and the picture of an administration that became just as much a hostage to the Ayatollah as the unfortunate American diplomats in Iran. The administration’s final, tough course in the renewed cold war was set at least as much by decisions in Moscow as by its own earlier mismanagement of the Soviet-American relationship.


However, the absence of a coherent strategy was not caused only by the president’s failure to develop one of his own and by his tendency to get bogged down in details. There were two additional reasons. The first of these was the famous rivalry between Brzezinski and Vance, the clash of the two radically different approaches to world affairs. The second was Brzezinski’s own way of mistaking a stance for a strategy.

The division between Brzezinski and Vance was practically institutionalized in the process of decision making that was designed by Brzezinski, revised by Carter, and reluctantly accepted by Vance. Foreign policy, defense, and international economic issues were to be handled by a policy review committee, with the secretary of state usually acting as chairman. Intelligence issues, arms control, and crises were assigned to a special coordination committee with the national security adviser as chairman.

Almost inevitably, two camps formed on most questions (except the Arab-Israeli conflict), whether serious or trivial. Things got messiest when each camp recruited allies among the president’s domestic advisers (during the controversy over the Soviet brigade in Cuba, Lloyd Cutler supported Brzezinski, Hedley Donovan and Rosalynn Carter backed Vance) and when, during the Iranian revolution, Brzezinski opened his own “back channel,” to Ambassador Zahedi, without informing the State Department (and without admitting it when challenged by Vance).

Brzezinski clearly believed that the Soviets were pursuing a global grand strategy, facing the US with a world-wide challenge. He wanted, on the one hand, a détente more “reciprocal and comprehensive” than the one he thought Kissinger had pursued, and, on the other hand, a return to certain Kissingerian methods, such as the threat of force and “linkage”—subordinating agreements with the Soviets on some issues to Soviet “good behavior” on other issues.

The two regions over which Brzezinski and Vance fought most, in connection with Soviet-American relations, were China and Africa. Kissinger had been careful not to push the reconciliation with China into a de facto alliance, and the Taiwan issue had prevented full “normalization” of relations with Peking. Brzezinski was determined to establish a “security relationship” with China even before normalization, if necessary. His fight with the more prudent State Department on this question was both deadly serious, given the stakes, and, at times, farcical: Brzezinski, unhappy about the lack of results of Vance’s first visit to Peking, asked the Chinese to invite him too. When he accepted, Vance phoned him “in considerable agitation,” and Brzezinski confided to his diary his irritation with Vance; after all, “the Chinese had invited me in a casual fashion.” There followed a period of intense infighting, coalition building, and the usual presidential oscillation over the question of “who goes to China”: would it be “Zbig,” or perhaps Mondale? Zbig went.

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