If you walk down the road of many of today’s worst crises, you will find, far up ahead of you, the foot prints of President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Some of the key cold war moves that Brzezinski made triggered events that still make the world worse today.
Brzezinski, according to Russian expert and Professor of Russian and European Politics at University of Kent Richard Sakwa, was the architect of the strategy to lure "the Soviet Union into the Afghan quagmire." If the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 was the catalyst for the mujahedeen who would then introduce to the world al-Qaeda and the Taliban, then Brzezinski was the catalyst for the Soviet invasion.
Afghanistan has always had close economic relations with Russia. Since 1973, a pro-Soviet government had been in power in Afghanistan. Facing a Muslim fundamentalist insurgency at the same time as a revolt from factions within the Afghan army, the Afghan government repeatedly requested direct Soviet intervention. Little recorded or remembered by history, though, according to John Prados in Safe for Democracy, the Soviets repeatedly rejected those requests. Russia did not want to invade Afghanistan: they knew what happens to empires that invade Afghanistan.
That prompted Brzezinski to task the CIA to come up with options. The operations began fairly benignly with the U.S. supplying food and clothing to Afghan resistance groups. But that did not satisfy Brzezinski. Brzezinski told Carter that a CIA paramilitary program would force Russia’s hand and compel them to invade Afghanistan.
When Brzezinski made that recommendation, the Soviets had sent equipment to the Afghan government but no troops. On December 17, 1979, the US committed the CIA to providing the mujahedeen weapons, enhancing their communications and logistics and disseminating propaganda. For Brzezinski, according to Max Blumenthal in The Management of Savagery, "the mujahedin and backers like Zia’s Pakistan and the Saudi royals represented a reactionary "arc of Islamism" that could be encouraged to provide a powerful counterweight to communist influence. The December 17 commitment to arm the mujahedeen was one week before the Soviet invasion. At this time, the Soviets were still consistently rejecting Afghan pleas for troops. It was only after Christmas that the Soviets invaded. Though the US feigned surprise, Brzezinski’s policy of carrying out a CIA paramilitary operation was undertaken precisely because he expected it to trigger a Soviet invasion.
Contrary to the conventional historical narrative, US action in Afghanistan was not a response to the Soviet invasion: the Soviet invasion was a response to US action in Afghanistan. In the untold, but true, historical narrative, the US began aiding the mujahedeen half a year before the Soviet invasion.
In a 1998 contritionless confession, Brzezinski admitted that "According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahiddin began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul."
Brzezinski goes on to report that "that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention." That was Brzezinski’s plan. He boasts that "That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap…." When the Soviets fell into the trap, Brzezinski told Carter that "We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.”
When confronted with the historical consequences of his plan, Brzezinski unapologetically asked his interviewer, "What is more important in world history? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?"
"Flushed with the ‘success’ of his Afghanistan strategy," Sakwa says, Brzezinski "now argued in favor of the West arming forces within Ukraine capable of resisting the Russian ‘occupation’."
If Brzezinski was the actual architect of the Afghan disaster, he is certainly one of the important intellectual architects of the Ukraine disaster.
In Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard and How the West Was Checkmated, Natylie Baldwin and Kermit Heartsong point out that Brzezinski continued to have enormous influence after Jimmy Carter was gone from the White House. He served as foreign policy advisor both to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign and to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. During the 1990’s, Brzezinski continued to manipulate negotiations to encourage independence movements to maintain wars to weaken Russia.
In 1989, Brzezinski joined the Ukraine Project, "which," Baldwin and Heartsong report, "worked on behalf of Ukrainian independence." In a 2014 op-ed, Brzezinski advocated for pulling Ukraine out of the Russian obit of influence and into the US sphere of influence. In his writing, Baldwin and Heartsong say, Brzezinski identifies Ukraine as a "pivot" state that, if it remains in Russia’s sphere of influence, will allow Russia to project power outwards to the rest of Eurasia, making a coup that would replace a Russian oriented Ukrainian government with a US leaning one desirable and important.
Richard Sakwa says that to prevent a challenge to American hegemony, Brzezinski argued that it was crucial that Russia be prevented from dominating Eurasia. Essential to Brzezinski’s strategy for preventing this Eurasian dominance was preventing Russia "from exerting any influence on Ukraine."
As in Afghanistan, the structure of the Ukraine crisis can be traced back to the intellectual architect, Zbigniew Brzezinski.
"I have concluded," Carter said soon after occupying the White House, "that we should attempt to achieve normalization of our relations with Cuba."
Castro wondered, "What will prevail, the idealism of President Carter or the reality of the United States?" Brzezinski represented the reality. And the reality won.
While Carter and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance sincerely tried to normalize relations with Cuba and end the cold war relic, Brzezinski kept pushing Cuba back into the context of the cold war.
For Carter, normalization with Cuba was contingent upon Cuba reducing its military aid in Africa. Brzezinski used this issue to frustrate Carter’s idealistic hopes. At a very public press conference in 1977, Brzezinski made the very undiplomatic move of claiming that intelligence studies had found a buildup of Cuban troops in Angola and advisors in Ethiopia as well as military missions in ten other countries. Since Carter was conditioning normalization of relations on Cuba reducing its military role in Africa, Brzezinski publicly declared that the report made normalizing relations impossible. According to William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh in Back Channel to Cuba, neither the State Department nor anyone else knew that Brzezinski was either going to single-handedly change policy or to change it so publicly. The Cubans didn’t see it coming either: they were stunned. LeoGrande and Kornbluh report the Cubans saying, "We understand this is a matter of concern to you….But if you thought we were building up in Angola, why did you not raise the question with us through the diplomatic channels we now have?…We thought it was for situations like this that you wanted to have them." But it was not diplomacy that Brzezinski wanted.
Brzezinski’s press conference and the crisis it led to put an end to attempts at normalizing relations.
A year later, exiles invaded Zaire from across the border with Angola. Cuba had provided military aid to Angola. Zaire accused Cuba of embedding Cuban troops in the invading force. Castro vehemently denied the charge. Cuba was not aiding the exile force in any way, he said, and there was not one Cuban among the invading force. At a meeting chaired by Brzezinski’s deputy, the CIA claimed to have evidence that the Cubans were lying: that they had recently trained the exile forces.
Cuba denied Brzezinski’s move. But, LeoGrande and Kornbluh say, the invasion "gave Brzezinski an opportunity to vent his frustration over Cuba’s African policy." The African policy that was a red line for Carter. Carter took a tough stand against Cuba, his red line having been crossed. Castro was outraged. He called the claim an "important lie…manufactured in Brzezinski’s office." Castro charged that Brzezinski had "confused and deceived" Carter. He called Carter "an honest man" who had been "caught up by these deceits and lies."
Castro was telling the truth; Brzezinski was not: he was sabotaging normalization. The intelligence community called Brzezinski’s evidence "too flimsy" to stand up to scrutiny, according to sources cited by LeoGrande and Kornbluh. Carter would later say, "I think now that I overreacted, maybe based on incorrect intelligence. I think that Castro’s assurances to me about his limited role were probably more truthful than I thought at the time."
Brzezinski’s work was done. Normalization died.
Carter and Vance would continue to hope for talks with Cuba. Brzezinski would not. When Cuba again offered talks, Brzezinski balked.
In 1979, the NSA reported that there was a Soviet ground force in Cuba that they arbitrarily called a "combat brigade" when they didn’t know that that’s what it was. It wasn’t. It was a token symbolic presence to reassure the Cubans after Khrushchev negotiated his way out of the Cuban missile crisis without informing Castro. It was nothing and certainly not a threat. But Brzezinski demanded toughness. And, convinced by Brzezinski, following the combat brigade crisis, Carter approved a new policy to contain Cuba. "It was," LeoGrande and Kornbluh say, "the policy Brzezinski had been pushing for more than a year."
As we walk the path of many of today’s most inflammatory crises, it seems that we are struggling on paths forged by Zbigniew Brzezinski many years before.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.