Cyrus Vance
Cyrus Vance; drawing by David Levine


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.

His insistence on giving China policy a distinctively anti-Soviet slant not only disturbed Vance, it also led to a sort of coup, when—during a trip by Vance to the Middle East—Brzezinski got Carter to announce the agreement with China about normalizing relations on December 15, 1978, two weeks earlier than the date expected by the State Department, which had hoped that a forthcoming round of talks between Vance and Gromyko at Christmas would bring the SALT II negotiations to an end. The meeting with Gromyko went very badly, and Vance mentions Gromyko’s many critical references to America’s China policy; for Vance, “the sudden surge of Soviet inflexibility…was due primarily to developments relating to China”; the SALT process was delayed—fatally it turned out—by several months. Brzezinski denies this, unconvincingly.

Brzezinski and Vance approached the Horn of Africa very differently. The Soviets had shifted from supporting Somalia, which claimed part of Ethiopia (the Ogaden) as Somali, to supporting the revolutionary regime of Mengistu in Ethiopia. Just as Kissinger had wanted a showdown with the Soviets over Angola, Brzezinski wanted one in the Horn of Africa. He recommended deploying a carrier force, partly in order to reassure such allies as the Saudis and Sadat, partly because he thought that the Soviet presence in Ethiopia and South Yemen was a major strategic threat to the US. Vance, backed by Secretary of Defense Brown, did not want to get into a “bluffing game”; and he insisted on dealing with the Ethiopia-Somalia crisis as a local conflict, not a Soviet-American confrontation.

Thus Vance resisted aiding Somalia as long as its leader did not expressly renounce his designs on Ethiopian territory, and he limited his objective to ensuring that Ethiopia, after its reconquest of the Ogaden with Soviet and Cuban help, refrain from invading Somalia—in which he succeeded. He was also annoyed by Brzezinski’s public suggestion linking Soviet behavior there and SALT II negotiations.

Carter, until the end of 1979, followed strictly neither Brzezinski’s advice nor the advice he received in May 1978 from Vance, who wrote him a long and troubled letter about the “intense mood of hostility toward the Soviet Union.” Carter simply did not have any coherent policy of his own toward Moscow. He showed neither the taste for a renewed cold war, at least before the invasion of Afghanistan, nor particular enthusiasm for détente, yet he had no skill in developing a third strategy. He sided with Vance on Africa, but with Brzezinski on China. His speech on relations with Moscow, delivered at the Naval Academy on June 7, 1978, was, says Vance, “a stitched-together speech” (Brzezinski, pleased by its tough passages, is, for once, more charitable).

Before the Afghanistan invasion, the conflict could not be resolved—and consequently each man was left free to believe that things might have gone better if he had been allowed to prevail. Brzezinski writes that if he had been listened to about the Horn, the Soviets might have been deterred from invading Afghanistan; Vance writes that at the time of the invasion, Moscow had probably concluded that it had nothing left to lose in its relations with Washington.

Brzezinski’s fondness for “hard-nosed” activism was demonstrated even more in the long drama of Iran. When the Shah’s troubles began, Brzezinski concluded that the time for reform had passed, the era of repression was at hand. It became clear that the Shah wanted the US administration to tell him what to do. Brzezinski thought that Washington ought to provide him with such guidance; he wanted the Shah to set up a military government and crush the rebellion. When the Shah’s regime weakened further, Brzezinski maneuvered and argued for a military coup. Vance believed that the Shah had to make his own decisions and—on the basis of the advice received from Ambassador Sullivan in Tehran—that a show of military force would most likely lead only to the disintegration of the Iranian army, led by the Shah’s officers, but largely made up of conscripts.

The confusion in Washington became so great that the Shah, on November 3, 1978, asked Brzezinski on the phone whether Sullivan had been briefed. Brzezinski’s notes from a long policy meeting on January 3, 1979, reveal a bewildering amount of fog and division. Carter, on the whole, refused to support Brzezinski; yet he did not want to endorse fully the logic of Vance’s position—which was to let events in Tehran follow their course, to open channels of communication with Khomeini, and to encourage some accommodation between the Iranian army and the revolutionaries. Caught between Brzezinski and Vance, Carter accepted Treasury Secretary Blumenthal’s idea of calling on George Ball to review the situation. Then he rejected Ball’s recommendations (which had dismayed Brzezinski) along with the others. Washington’s dithering resulted in a worst-of-all-possible-worlds policy: the US was involved at every turn, but always far behind the events.

The Brzezinski-Vance split reopened, one more time, over the attempt to free the American hostages in Iran. The two men had clashed over the issue of letting the Shah take refuge in the US; this time Carter had been on Vance’s side. Only when the news of the Shah’s illness was communicated by David Rockefeller’s office did all of them agree to allow the Shah to come to the US for medical treatment. Brzezinski’s subsequent conversation in Algiers with the Iranian prime minister and foreign minister—at their request, he says—indicated that they had misgivings about the possible effects of the Shah’s presence in the US. Vance believes this conversation weakened the authority of both ministers in Tehran. When they proved incapable of preventing the assault on the American embassy, the administration again became split. Brzezinski writes that Mondale and Vance favored getting the Shah out of the United States, a position which Brzezinski considered proof of the declining sense of honor of the American elite. Vance says nothing about this. When Carter, having moved to Brzezinski’s side, agreed in April 1980 to launch the rescue operation at a meeting held while Vance was out of town, and stuck to this decision over Vance’s objections, Vance resigned.

Brzezinski tries hard to suggest that unlike Carter, and unlike Vance, with his “litigational,” case-by-case approach, he at least had a consistent strategic conception. But this was not really the case. In the first place, Brzezinski seems unaware of the difference between what he thought his policy was, and what it actually was. His early advice to Carter was to put emphasis on “open-ended trilateralism,” relations with the third world, and global problems, rather than on Soviet-American relations. Vance, he claims, wanted to put “primary emphasis on relations with the Soviet Union,” which seems really quite different from what Vance had in mind. Vance wanted a pragmatic management of the contest with the USSR that would allow time and space for other issues. Brzezinski says he wanted to put “primary emphasis on our allies, downgrading the relationship with the Soviets and restricting it essentially to SALT.” In reality, he made the Soviet-American contest the center of his activities and the decisive consideration in regions such as Africa and the Persian Gulf; his enthusiasm for SALT appears to have been limited, and his treatment of the allies was at times belligerent.

Brzezinski’s central obsession was always Moscow (he compares the Soviet Union with imperial Germany), and one of his highest concerns has always been the fate of his native Poland; he suggests he helped to prevent a Soviet invasion in December 1980, by letting its imminence be widely known and by preparing sweeping sanctions—he “briefed” the Pope by phone “late in the evening, Vatican time.” The real Brzezinski was “trilateralist” only insofar as the partnership between the US, Western Europe, and Japan was indispensable for prevailing in the struggle with Moscow.

Brzezinski’s political education, like Kissinger’s, occurred in the heady days of the cold war; several times, he tells us, he warned his president that he had to be a Truman before becoming a Woodrow Wilson; for Brzezinski, the Carter doctrine about the Persian Gulf was a 1980s version of the Truman Doctrine of 1947. Brzezinski’s activism, his ebullience (he saw the revival of optimism in America as the main purpose of Carter’s human rights policy) were throwbacks to the Truman era. These same features, along with his jaunty show of toughness, remind one also of the “Camelot” crowd which he says he disliked. His policy recommendations are strikingly close to the measures taken by the Reagan administration—demanding, in arms negotiations, “deep cuts” that affect primarily Soviet heavy land-based missiles, using human rights as an anti-Soviet weapon and local crises (such as the silly one about the Soviet brigade in Cuba) as a lever for raising the global issue of Soviet and Cuban expansion. He stressed the need for a war-fighting strategy, for deploying the MX, and for working toward an American military presence in the Persian Gulf. The one big difference is, obviously, over China policy.

Often Brzezinski seems to think he had a strategy when he only had a slogan. It was impossible to give high priority to relations with the allies and the third world, as he wanted, unless relations with the Soviets remained reasonably amicable. A strategy of confrontation was inevitably going to disturb the allies and drain energy and resources away from third world issues; and the Soviets were unlikely to accept being “demoted” and faced with a Chinese-American entente. They would find ways of reminding Washington of the primacy of the Soviet-American contest and did so.

The ten goals Brzezinski recommended to Carter on April 30, 1977, amounted not to the “broad architectural process” he wanted but to a list of separate, highly ambitious, and mutually conflicting objectives. The main problem was deciding which were the most important and seeing how they affected one another. A shopping list is not a strategy, and it is not surprising that it provided little guidance. Brzezinski’s policy for southern Africa, he tells us, was to convince the blacks that we stood for majority rule, and the whites “that there was a future for them, particularly by opposing the Soviets and Cubans and insisting that the Africans join us in that opposition.” He also advocated accepting the so-called internal solution engineered by Ian Smith in Rhodesia in 1977 and maintaining “a positive relationship with the Front Line African states”: the two were mutually exclusive. Vance and Andrew Young prevailed, fortunately.

Carter’s was obviously not the only “stitched-together” policy. Nor was Carter the only person who had trouble recognizing contradictions: Brzezinski ends his book by recommending both a strong, tough policy toward Moscow and, above all, bipartisanship (he repeated this in a recent speech at Harvard, where he deplored America’s “loss of nerve” in the 1960s and called for both national will and bipartisanship). It does not seem to have occurred to him that the late 1940s and 1950s are gone, that a fiercely anti-Soviet policy is unlikely to have firm bipartisan support, and that, when the members of the American elite are divided or uncertain, or when there is—as today—a divorce between their internationalism and the public’s increasing turn inward, bipartisanship is unlikely to produce a very strong or clear “national will.”

More impulsive than Kissinger, more outspoken than Vance, Brzezinski involuntarily is often more revealing than either about himself. He regrets the “charade” to which the appointment of Strauss led in the Middle East; it complicated the process of decision but was no substitute for the president’s involvement. Yet he quotes from his weekly report to Carter of March 23, 1979, after the Egyptian-Israeli peace settlement: “I think it is advisable for you to reduce your involvement in continuing negotiations.” He tells us that, at Camp David, he had recommended bugging the cottages of the other participants; Carter refused. And he also tells us that his own plan for the rescue operation in Iran entailed a “generalized retaliatory strike” against Iran, which would—in effect—have made people in the US feel happier even if the rescue attempt failed and hostages got killed in the operation. Carter had the good sense to reject this piece of advice also. Caught between Vance’s sense of honor, which argued against using force in a very risky operation so shortly after having assured the allies we would not, and Brzezinski’s confusion of honor and revenge, Carter once more chose a middle ground, and got a fiasco.


What lessons can one draw from these books? The first is that the art of writing history has not benefited from statesmen’s tendency to produce their memoirs immediately, any more than the art of photography has gained from the invention of instant cameras. If the writer can sometimes recapture the feel of events, immediacy also risks the temptation to settle accounts. Brzezinski is characteristically unkind to those who crossed him, and grades people, such as Mondale and Harold Brown, according to the degree of support they gave him.

It also means a lack of perspective: indeed, such books reflect only too well the one thing policy makers complain about most, the lack of time for thoughtful analysis while in office. Neither book provides a comprehensive analysis of Soviet policy and of the long-term considerations that ought to guide American strategy toward Moscow. Brzezinski simply states his convictions, and Vance goes through the cases. Vance is certainly more analytic and detached than Brzezinski in his account of the Iranian revolution, whose sweep and logic Brzezinski gives not the slightest indication of having understood (something which makes his “hard-nosed” advice even more extravagant), but even Vance does not go very deeply into the implications of this disastrous story.

Another lesson concerns the American foreign policy process itself. For all its scope and complexity, it did not work well. It was not capable of handling several crises at the same time. Vance notes that the crisis over Afghanistan mounted while the administration was preoccupied with Iran, Kampuchea, and southern Africa. Similarly, the revolution in Iran broke out while the administration was absorbed by the Middle East at Camp David. The Shah’s troubles in Iran were not foreseen, any more than were West European reactions to the return of the cold war.

Acute problems emerge. First, there simply seems to be no satisfactory way of resolving the issue of the primacy of the State Department as against that of the national security adviser and his staff. Brzezinski proposes that the superior position of the president’s adviser be acknowledged and institutionalized. The White House is the best place to coordinate foreign, defense, and domestic policy, he argues, because the State Department confuses diplomacy and foreign policy. Thus the national security adviser, like the director of the Office of Management and Budget, should be confirmed by and allowed to testify before Congress.

This formula was tested in the past—under Kissinger between 1969 and 1975—and found wanting, because the consequences of demoting State and Defense were frequently demeaning to them, and because major issues inevitably were neglected by the overburdened national security staff. Vance and Harold Brown prefer that a national security adviser help make coherent decisions yet refrain from being an independent figure. He should appear in public only at the president’s explicit request. But that formula works well only when the secretary of state is in actual command, with the confidence of the president (e.g., Kissinger under Ford in 1975 and 1976), or when the president is the real maker of foreign policy, assisted by a secretary of state he fully trusts (Eisenhower and Dulles).

In all other cases, either the national security adviser will expand his power, with the concurrence of his president and at the expense of the secretary of state (Bundy versus Rusk under Kennedy), or else there will be a constant, messy battle to control the president, as happened in the Carter administration when the president insisted both on centralization and on receiving multiple advice. The same battle is taking place now, Reagan being as unprepared in this field as Carter, and torn between Judge Clark’s simple ideological orthodoxy and Shultz’s pragmatism. There is no substitute for a president sufficiently knowledgeable and sure of himself to set policy and also willing to give his cabinet officials the leeway they need, instead of treating them as rivals or ciphers.

Secondly, concentrating on the seesaw battle between the national security adviser and the secretary of state risks neglecting the growing importance of military issues in America’s global political strategy. The increase in Soviet nuclear and conventional forces and in Moscow’s ability to project power abroad, the evolution of nuclear weapons toward ever-increasing accuracy and vulnerability, the decreasing credibility of extended nuclear deterrence in an age of parity have made the secretary of defense and his key aides as important as the diplomatic policy makers.

Kissinger complains in the second volume of his memoirs about the monkey wrench thrown by Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger into his arms control negotiations. Secretaries of state less expert in military affairs risk discovering that their policies can be derailed by the unexpected political effects of military decisions. The NATO decision in December 1979 to deploy American intermediate missiles in Western Europe—partly a reaction to the neutron bomb fiasco—did not take into account the likely strength of the opposition either from Moscow or from many Western Europeans. This important and arguable decision is barely mentioned by Vance, and discussed by Brzezinski only as a prelude to one more confrontation between Carter and Schmidt—over Schmidt’s suggestion of a moratorium on new theater nuclear weapons in the spring of 1980.

Today arms control proposals are clearly the preserve of the Pentagon, particularly of the ever-vigilant Mr. Richard Perle. In the Carter administration, while Vance concentrated on SALT II, a gradual alliance developed between Brzezinski and Harold Brown. They carried the day on two important issues. One was nuclear weapons and strategy: they agreed on the need for a new policy, called the “countervailing” strategy, based on the ability to destroy (although, says Brown in his book under review, not necessarily to “wipe out”) every class of Soviet targets, and to respond to every conceivable Soviet move, at all military levels, in order to deny Moscow victory at any stage.

This not only requires, as Brown puts it, “more target destruction capability” than the previous policy of mutual assured destruction, but also more accurate weapons able to destroy “hard targets,” i.e., silos. This was the rationale for the MX, and it became the essence of Carter’s Presidential Directive 59, adopted in the summer of 1980, which expanded and ratified the gradual shift to deterrence through the threat of actually fighting a nuclear war. The Reagan administration has done little more than persist in following the policy. It is very dangerous indeed, because it fuels the race toward mutual vulnerability. As Brown unwittingly makes clear, it rests on highly improbable military “scenarios” conjuring up an absurd “worst case.” What happens if, on the forty-third rung of the ladder of nuclear escalation, the Soviets have more or better weapons than we do? It also rests on the notion that a perception by other nations of American “nuclear inferiority”—which is militarily quite meaningless—would somehow undermine America’s position in the world or open the way for Soviet political coercion. But whom can one coerce with unusable weapons, except those who have no nuclear shield or protector at all?

Vance seems to have paid little attention to this question; he endorsed the MX not primarily to destroy Soviet silos but as a sort of domestic bargaining chip—in order to obtain the support of the Joint Chiefs for the SALT II treaty. In the conclusion of his book, he now calls—a bit late—for reconsideration of the MX, and he criticizes planning for limited nuclear war.

The other question on which Brzezinski and Brown joined forces and won was the Persian Gulf: they laid the groundwork for what was to become the Rapid Deployment Force even before the invasion of Afghanistan, in reaction to the fall of Iran as America’s surrogate. This too, according to Brzezinski, was a subject of disagreement with the State Department, which, he says, objected to the idea that an American military presence should “balance” Soviet forces near the Persian Gulf and to Brzezinski’s insistence that the US should even be militarily predominant. (In his book Brown, however, shows acute awareness of the political disadvantages of having an American military presence near the Gulf, and recommends the creation of a force whose deployment on the ground would, despite “prepositioning” and exercises in the Middle East, not really be so rapid.) The momentum thus provided by Brzezinski and Brown, plus the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, resulted in the Carter doctrine for the Persian Gulf of January 1980. Will we ever know to what extent this momentum, and that of the Brzezinski-Brown drive for a security link with China, contributed to the Soviet decision to invade? At any rate, a State Department that underestimates or neglects the strategic dimension is an emasculated agency.

Brzezinski and Vance also underscore the president’s dilemma in managing the domestic aspects of his foreign policy. If he pays too much attention to domestic pressure groups—for instance to the pro-Israeli lobby—he mortgages America’s interests abroad; this is what happened during Carter’s last year and a half, when the negotiations over the West Bank and Gaza dragged on and dried out, for lack of a sufficient impetus. But when the president does not pay attention to potential domestic reactions he may lose his freedom of maneuver. This happened in the case of the decisions to cancel the B-1 bomber and the planned deployment of the neutron bomb, and (according to Vance) when Carter, listening to Brzezinski, chose not to consult Congress in the last phase of the negotiations on normalizing relations with China.

What is clear is that the Carter administration often mismanaged domestic politics; for instance when it casually informed senators about the Soviet brigade in Cuba, thus allowing Senator Church to build up the issue for his reelection campaign, or when it reversed the vote of the American representative at the UN on Jerusalem in February 1980, and above all when it played up the hostage crisis instead of playing it down. Brzezinski writes about Carter’s disdain for domestic politics; ineptitude would be a better word. He was both uncertain about his course abroad, and (except for the Panama Canal treaties) clumsy in marshaling congressional support when he needed it. In both respects, alas, Reagan, helped by a spineless opposition, has recently been far more successful.

In the Middle East, Carter had both his greatest success, Camp David, and his greatest frustration, the failure to reach the comprehensive settlement that Carter and his advisers wanted, and that Sadat strove for. Vance’s account shows that the idea of a gradual solution for the West Bank and Gaza was his own; Begin first rejected it; then adopted it and thoroughly reworked it. But Vance’s and Brzezinski’s books also bring out a fundamental American predicament. Whenever the US tried to suggest an overall solution—the Rogers plan, or the project for the Geneva Conference in 1977—both the divisions among the Arabs, and above all the relentless hostility of the Israeli government supported by its allies in the US, obliged Washington to retreat to more modest designs. But whenever the US, in order to obtain some progress, preferred merely to mediate between Arab and Israeli positions, the intransigence of the Israeli government obliged the US government—and, in the years covered by these volumes, the Egyptians—to choose between failure and compromises far closer to Israel’s position than to its own preferences. Thus between Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, a series of accommodations were made to Begin’s sine quanon demands.

The two books show the virtuosity with which—in exchange for giving up the Sinai—Begin succeeded in forcing Sadat to abandon the link between the Israeli-Egyptian peace settlement and the future agreement about Palestinian autonomy. He preserved his freedom of maneuver about the settlements in the occupied territories, kept the PLO out of the picture (and beyond America’s reach), interpreted the Camp David accords on the West Bank and Gaza in the most restrictive way, and excluded Jerusalem from all discussions.

Begin, Vance says, was “granitelike”; Sadat repeatedly overruled his advisers in order to keep moving, but what he achieved for Egypt conceded to Israel not only regional military supremacy but continuing control of the West Bank and Gaza. One can only conclude that Nahum Goldmann was right: little will happen with respect to the Palestinian question unless the US decides to “bite the bullet,” demanding as a first step an end to the settlements and insisting, not merely on some diluted role for the Palestinians in deciding their own fate, but on self-determination, to be carried out along with adequate guarantees for Israel’s security. The fiasco of the recent Reagan plan confirms this judgment—and shows how formidable the obstacles to adopting such a course remain in this country.

The drama of Iran raises another enormous issue: America’s involvement in the fate of fragile client states. Washington’s position during the revolution could hardly have been more awkward and unrewarding. The Shah had become so grandiose in his ambitions and so dependent on the US that Carter and Vance’s decision to review and restrict his carte blanche for arms sales deeply worried him—far more, Vance says, than Carter’s human rights statements. The Shah had always insisted on giving lessons to the West, and on being his own master. Yet when the earthquake came, he turned to Washington not merely for support but for guidance. And Washington was in no condition to provide it. This would have exploded the fiction of Iranian sovereignty in Washington. Moreover—partly because of the policy of no contacts with the opposition—American intelligence was poor (as it proved to be, again, about the Soviets in Cuba), and it is in any case extremely difficult for an outside power to assume responsibility without control.

The US ended by being blamed by all the parties—by the Shah, who thought Washington was letting him down insofar as it did not give him instructions; and by the opposition, which had witnessed the Shah’s dependence on the US and the central role played by the US embassy. To encourage a military takeover was to play with a fire one did not have any means of controlling or putting out. Merely to let things happen meant looking impotent. The only neat solutions—Brzezinski’s successful coup, Sullivan’s deal between the ex-Shah’s army and the revolutionaries—were not in the cards.

Today the US is burdened, throughout the world, with clients or allies whose fate could be similar. In some cases, gaining control of the situation would be as unlikely as it was in Iran, the countries being just too unwieldy for even Americans to believe they could manage them successfully. In other instances, as in Central America, the illusion of victory through control, i.e., through Americanization, might prevail—and lead to a repetition of the Vietnam experience, rather than of the Iranian mess. In all such cases, however, the dilemma is the same: responsibility without actual control, or control at a prohibitive cost and with inconclusive or horrifying results. Elsewhere, I have suggested that we face a choice between timely guidance toward reform, or else disengagement (in which case our diplomacy should aim mainly at protecting American military security against dangerous or unacceptable effects of local events, such as the establishment of a Soviet base in a strategically vital area).* The three books reviewed here are remarkable, both in their failure even to consider the general problem (Brown mentions it very briefly, but never resolves the conflicting factors he lists) and in their failure to discuss the Central American involvement which began in the Carter years. The Sandinista revolution is only alluded to, El Salvador not mentioned at all.

A final lesson concerns our relations with the Soviet Union. Neither Brzezinski’s policy of public confrontation nor Vance’s pursuit of patient accommodation provides a satisfactory or sufficient prescription. There was something reckless about Brzezinski’s thinking. From Kissinger’s policies he kept only the tendency to look at the world as a Soviet-American contest and the determination to respond to everything that could be interpreted as a challenge. The network of rewards for Soviet restraint that Kissinger had wanted to construct was reduced to SALT II. This overburdened the diplomacy of arms control, too complex and fragile a subject to carry so much weight, and one likely to become hostage to domestic vigilantes and to trivial events, as happened during the fuss over the Soviet brigade in Cuba in the summer of 1979.

Brzezinski did not share Kissinger’s concern for avoiding moves that could feed Soviet paranoia and appear provocative on the periphery of the Soviet Union. He pushed for a “quicker rearmament of Japan,” a prospect that Brown considers more skeptically and subtly. Trying to play the China card, Brzezinski allowed the Chinese leaders to play the American card, first by setting the early date for normalization which hurt SALT, later by attacking Vietnam so soon after Deng Xiaoping’s trip to Washington. Deng’s visit thus succeeded in damaging further what was left of détente, by convincing Moscow that the US must have at least decided to tolerate the attack—a correct conclusion, which may also have helped deter Soviet retaliation.

Economic relations with the Soviet Union were seen by Brzezinski as rather dangerous for the West: he was more interested in restrictions and in sanctions than in trade relations that might lead to some restraint on the Soviet side. And when, after the invasion of Afghanistan, a battery of sanctions was unveiled, relations with reluctant allies were strained without serious effect on the Soviet Union, especially in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, the low-key approach of Vance, with its emphasis on reducing the threat of war, its search for a dialogue with Moscow, and its concern for the local roots of conflicts, had several drawbacks. One was that not every local conflict could be resolved. While Vance’s detailed account of the settlement in Zimbabwe shows how much was accomplished by Lord Carrington’s sense of timing and skill, there was no comparable breakthrough on Namibia. Nor could some conflicts be contained in a fully satisfactory way—the Soviets and their allies have remained in Ethiopia and in South Yemen. Apparent Soviet “victories” and continuing Soviet exploitation of local opportunities allow cold-warriors to denounce “regionalist” diplomats like Vance as quasi-appeasers, and to stress the geopolitical peril allegedly resulting from a string of Soviet gains, even in regions of limited significance. Between those who thanklessly try to defuse mines and those who scream about the danger created by the entire minefield, the public always risks siding with the alarmists. In the long run, Vance’s approach is more perceptive, and the alarmists can be seen to have promoted self-fulfilling prophecies. But in the short run, the alarmists are adept at depriving people like Vance of domestic support, and at playing on the genuine fears of foreign leaders (such as the Saudis, or Mobutu, or General Zia) who are worried about being “destabilized” by local upheavals.

The desire to maintain as uncontentious as possible a dialogue with Moscow, moreover, can lead to understatement. Thinking back about Afghanistan, Vance concludes that “we should have expressed our concerns more sharply at the time of the April [1978] coup that brought Taraki to power.” He failed to do so, he says, because there was no clear evidence of Soviet involvement and because “our vital interests were not involved there.” But our vital interests always become involved once a deliberate invasion has occurred: remember South Korea, which Acheson had not included in the American defense perimeter in the Pacific. And a case must be made for advance warnings, rather than for an immediate, often disproportionate response in the Kissinger style to what may be only an ambiguous or purely local crisis. “One of the lessons to be learned from Afghanistan,” Vance writes, “is the importance of giving a clear forewarning of what we viewed as unacceptable behavior, both as a deterrent to Soviet aggression and to prepare our allies and the American public for swift and firm counteractions.”

What are the conditions for a strategy toward Moscow that combines firmness and caution; resistance both to aggression and to the fatal tendency to look only at the Soviet (or Cuban) involvement in conflicts and coups; an adequate defense and fair proposals aimed at reducing the risk of nuclear war? One condition is support at home for a foreign policy that is complex and unlikely to yield prompt and spectacular results. It is ironic that even Brzezinski, who can hardly be accused of championing complexity, quotes from a speech of his arguing that “a concentrated foreign policy must give way to a complex foreign policy, no longer focused on a single, dramatic task—such as the defense of the West”—one more proof of the contrast between his intellect and his instincts, his rationalizations and his acts. Until now, domestic impatience has always wrecked attempts at a balanced strategy, even though the perils of a mindless rush to Armageddon, once they become evident, usually provoke a temporary recoil.

The other condition is continuity. Unless American policy stops being junked every four years, neither warnings nor promises, rewards nor sanctions are likely to lead the Soviets to the moderated contest and partial cooperation that are desirable. Brzezinski seeks a remedy in bipartisanship, Vance in a six-year presidential term. But the first seems unlikely to mean more than the hiring or “cooptation” of suitable, “like-minded” Democrats by a Republican administration (or vice versa), and the second has little chance of being adopted. The roots of America’s troubles abroad are at home: in the American bundle of ignorance, illusions, habits, and fears, and in our intractable political system.

This Issue

September 29, 1983