Brent Scowcroft Examines Foreign Policy Challenges Facing the Obama Administration

September 14, 2010

Brent Scowcroft
, President, The Scowcroft Group; former National Security Advisor to presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush

David Heleniak
, Senior Advisor, Investment Banking Division, Morgan Stanley; Director, Japan Society

Brent Scowcroft of The Scowcroft Group, former National Security Advisor to presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, spoke at Japan Society on foreign policy and the Obama administration.

As President Obama took office, the foreign policy challenges he faced were threefold, the general said: one, the general mood, both within the U.S. and abroad; two, the profound changes in the world's political environment brought about by globalization; and three, an array of problems in specific areas of the world, from Iraq and Iran to the Middle East, Russia and North Korea.

Attitudes abroad towards the U.S. "were as negative as I've ever seen them in my lifetime," he said. The president's speeches in Prague, Istanbul and Cairo got off to a good start, evoking "almost a sense of euphoria--'Here's someone who understands us. Here's somebody who's going to do something.'" But "that spirit is now dissipating, faced with the grind of everyday problems and the intractability of many of them."

"For most of the time since the Treaty of Westphalia" in 1648, "the nation state has been the guardian of the welfare of its people, and it was expected to do everything that was necessary to promote that welfare," the general went on. As industrialization transformed the world, "you had to have a stronger state to deal with industrial enterprises, and labor, and all of the kinds of things which made our modern society." Today, however, globalization is "working in the opposite direction; it's eroding national frontiers." To deal with issues of financial systems, health care, climate change and information technology, we have to work cooperatively across national borders.

The Cold War "was a kind of a tidy war," in which "we knew what the problem was. We knew what the Soviet Union was like." Our wars today are no longer tidy; "whether it's our defense department, our intelligence community, NATO, the UN, they were all built for a world and conditions that are disappearing."

From a security standpoint, the situation in Iraq "is going fairly well" in spite of the suicide bombings and other attacks that persist, General Scowcroft said. Political divisions between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam remain unresolved, as do ethnic divisions between Arabs and Kurds. "If Iraq deals with its political differences while we're still there, psychologically they're more likely to make the kinds of compromises and tradeoffs that are necessary to make it work. If we have gone before this happens, then they're more likely to go to a zero-sum games thing--'I'm tougher than you are. I'm stronger. It's going to be my way.' And after so much blood and treasure shed, we need to think hard about leaving an Iraq in the best kind of condition that is possible."

As a candidate, President Obama "thought we ought to get out of the war in Iraq; he said 'our real war is in Afghanistan.' Whether he understood what the nature of the war was I don't know. But he now has made Afghanistan his war," he continued.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. has made the switch from a war of counterterrorism to one of counterinsurgency--the right choice, in the general's view, but no easy task. "Do we have enough forces to clear the territory from the bad guys and hold it until such time as the Afghan army is strong enough to replace us?" he asked. "And do we have the patience to do that? It won't be over by July 2011, which is when the president says we should begin to withdraw our forces."

There are two problems with Iran, he said: the country's relationships with other countries in the region, and its nuclear ambitions. The U.S. has troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and how Iran behaves "will have a lot to do with the future in both. So we ought to be talking with them"--not to try to achieve a perfect harmony of views, but to "reconcile each other over Iraq, which is sort of the halfway land between a Persian culture to the east, and a Shia form of Islam, and an Arab culture to the south and the west, and basically a Sunni religion."

If Iran continues the production of enriched uranium, it is the impact on neighboring countries that will be most significant, he said. "Almost certainly, in self-defense the Egyptians, the Saudis and the Turks at least will feel compelled to do the same thing. And soon we may have many countries a couple of months away from a nuclear weapon, so that is not a better world."

On a conflict with Iran; "we can destroy much of their nuclear capability, but that's only a temporary fix." What's important is that "Iran is concerned about world opinion.... If we can get the Europeans, the United States, the Japanese, the Russians and the Chinese in a solid front, saying 'Don't do this. We will help you, but we will help you in a way which does not provoke a reaction from other countries,' there's a chance we might make it."

On the Middle East peace process, the General said, he is "cautiously optimistic" that the U.S. will be able to present a potential accord to the two parties, and to say in essence "we think this is a just and equitable solution, and we think you ought to negotiate on that basis." On North Korea, the specifics of the transition in power from Kim Jong Il to his son remain mysterious, but the fact that China is now fully engaged in the Six-Party Talks "is progress," since "the Six-Party Talks are still the best hope for all of us in dealing with this situation."

Finally, General Scowcroft observed, "Americans take the relationship with Japan for granted," but they ought not to. The U.S.-Japan Security treaty in fact "is more important now than it was during the Cold War," because it "not only expresses the solidarity between the two of us, but it also represents a statement about the U.S. military presence in Asia." For "as long as the U.S. is a presence there, then it gives freedom for the countries of Asia to make their own way not under outside pressure."

"I think we need to make the U.S.-Japan relationship more visible," he concluded. "Japan is a master of rapid transit," and "we could cooperate there" to shrink, for example, the three hours it now takes to travel by train from Washington to New York. On the broader question of energy conservation and energy production, "we two have some of the most innovative scientists in the world. Work together on this great enterprise would not only help us economically, but certainly psychologically."


Presider David Heleniak of Morgan Stanley led off with the first question:

The leaders of Brazil and Turkey visited Iran to talk about the nuclear issue. For all of my lifetime, we never would have thought to really be worried about these countries and their impact on foreign policy. Should we be now? How do we address something like that?

"That is part of this globalized world, because the whole nature of power is changing," General Scowcroft said. Years ago, textbooks described the elements of national power as armed forces and economic strength, but power today is more diffused. "We were almost beaten to a draw by a little country like Iraq"; to make use of power in these times, "you have to work with others and with non-state actors."

"I think this was a target of opportunity for both [Brazil and Turkey], for different reasons," he added. President Lula da Silva "wants people to recognize" that Brazil's great promise is now being fulfilled. Turkey, which is "the heartland of the old Ottoman Empire," hopes to broaden its foreign policy; Iran is "the heartland of the old Persian Empire," and as such is both a classic enemy of Turkey and a hope for a new era.

The audience joined in the Q&A:

What are your views on the reemergence of China as a dominant power? Does it pose a threat to American leadership, or a challenge to American leadership to be creative and to drive itself to further achievements?

"The rise of China is a phenomenon that many people look back on and say is similar to the rise of Germany in the late 19th century, or even Japan in the early 20th century, and that the international system can't accommodate these changes without war," the general responded. "I think that this one is different, because I think that the Chinese fundamentally don't resent the international system, or are trying to change it; they're trying to profit by it."

Generally, "China has not been inherently aggressive as its leaders seek to protect their security," he added. The country's economic progress "I think is running out in front of the political system"; "I'm not sure the Chinese exactly know how to cope with that" and with the wealth disparities and environmental problems that accompany China's rapid economic growth. "But I think that it is a manageable process as long as we try to deal with it thoughtfully on both sides."

Earlier you said that we ought to be talking with Iran. But given Iran's controversial election last summer, how should the administration go about engaging Iran's government without marginalizing its opposition?

The three major power blocks, namely the government and parliament, the religious hierarchy, and the revolutionary guard, "share power in some way we only dimly understand," General Scowcroft replied.

The U.S. must "encourage the elements in society that want to change from this repressive society without creating the image of the Great Satan trying to repress Iranian nationalism." The U.S. also must figure out how to "get the Europeans, Asians, Russians all to agree on a policy toward Iran which might make them say, 'We don't want to go against world opinion. Instead we will moderate our behavior.'"

"I'm not sure it will work, but the alternatives are very unattractive."

--Katherine Hyde
Topics:  Policy

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