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Lack of strategy

Interview: Gero Schliess, Washington
January 11, 2014

Brent Scowcroft is one of Washington’s most renowned security experts. In an interview with DW, the former security adviser under Presidents Ford and Bush senior analyzes the current challenges.

Brent Scowcroft (photo: Gero Schliess/ DW)
Image: DW/Gero Schließ

DW: General Scowcroft, foreign and security policy featured prominently on President Barack Obama's agenda in 2013, but many experts missed a basic strategy. Were you able to identify one?

Brent Scowcroft: I think it's very difficult now. During the Cold War, the strategy was a given: it was to contain the Soviet bloc until things changed. We differed a lot on tactics, but the strategy was common. And when we had arguments we would resort to the strategy to resolve them. Since the Cold War, there has been no unifying strategy. The world is also changing rapidly. And so, all tactics and what works for one country may not work for another country. So we're searching for a common strategy.

When you look at Germany, at Europe, at Israel or the Gulf States, there is distrust amongst the closest allies of the US. How do you see Obama's foreign policy management?

I believe that Europe is in a state of what I would call strategic exhaustion. The 20th century was not kind to Europe. The threats of the 20th century have now passed, and Europe is in my sense heaving a sigh of relief. There are no dire threats, and Europe is fatigued enough and preoccupied with building a European community that it is not a close and eager ally of the United States in dealing with more distant problems.

But when you look at the NSA surveillance affair and the management of this affair by the Obama administration, there is distrust. Would you say it was successful management?

I believe this was the management of a disaster which was Mr Snowden. That goes back to the terrorist attack on New York and 9/11. My sense is that the Bush administration at that time assumed that this was the first of a number of attacks that would come and we in fact were in war and we had to do everything possible to deal with it. And that led to what we now see as a result of the Snowden affair that there were all these assets available that had never been tapped before. We had to protect our very existence.

Germany and the US are negotiating a no-spy agreement. How should this be shaped? Is it even a solution?

It won't be a solution if we talk about it in public. One of the reasons why I have pushed so very hard in this country to revive our Atlantic council was for these very reasons. During the Cold War, every NATO country had an Atlantic Council and we worked together closely.

The Atlantic Council of the US was a group of foreign policy-oriented individuals in support of NATO and the Atlantic community, if you will. With the end of the Cold War, people said we don't need that anymore. In the US, it fell into disuse. I've worked hard to revive it because I think the Atlantic community is an important... force is too strong a word... an important influence in a world community which has lost its values.

Let's come back to US foreign policy and strategy. Obama delivered a speech where he said that the shift from military action to diplomacy is important. Do you think diplomacy is the new centerpiece of US foreign policy?

I think that we did go through a period where diplomacy seemed so complicated and difficult that it was more attractive to just cut through all of it with a little force and solve the problems. For example, if we could just get rid of this nasty little dictator Saddam Hussein we could create a democracy in Iraq, everything would be just fine. That was exaggerated thinking about the situation and our ability to control it. I think that President Obama is recoiling from that kind of attitude, but it is difficult to replace it with something coherent. I think that's what the struggles are at the current time.

When we look at the Iranian issue, the nuclear deal with Iran, and at the issue of Syria with regard to chemical weapons - do you think that some of Obama's diplomatic initiatives were successful and that shifting to diplomacy could be a successful strategy?

I wouldn't call it shifting to diplomacy. I think it has to be much more nuanced because different situations require different approaches. I think I'm cautiously optimistic about the possibility of something with Iran. Iran after all has been a serious problem, not just for the United States, but for Europe and the Middle East since 1979. I think we now have an opportunity to move forward. It won't be easy, but I think it's definitely worth trying.

Syria is a very different problem. Syria is an example of a Middle East where the national boundaries don't correspond to any kind of cohesive groups. Syria and Lebanon are great examples of that. Our policy in Syria has been OK in the sense that if we intervene in Syria, we end up owning Syria like we did Iraq and like we did Afghanistan. And that's a problem we can't solve by ourselves. I think the best opportunity in Syria at the present time is that the US and Russia try to work together to get a ceasefire and at least change the venue from the battle field to the conference table.

Changing the venue from the battlefield to the conference table might be a general future strategy. All these diplomatic activities, do they signal the end of a post-9/11 world?

I don't know whether it signals the end. We have to approach the problems in their nature and not because of a policy that we have developed. More and more of these things require cooperation. On top of that is communications. The intellectual community is broader and more sweeping than anybody could have imagined, and that has an effect on the policy of every country.

Which role could Germany and Europe play in this big picture that you're painting here?

A rough illustration is the operation in Libya. We got a UN resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians. We engaged NATO to be the instrument for accomplishing that and we reached out to the regional organization, the Arab League, to support it. That to me is a kind of example for the fractious kind of world that we're in today, where the needs for small amounts of stabilizing force are there, but doing it nationally is sometimes difficult. To me that's the kind of thing that the Atlantic community can look at and perhaps be helpful in a way that's never happened before.

Brent Scowcroft, a former US Air Force Lieutenant General, is a renowned security expert. He was the National Security Advisor under US Presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush senior between 1975 and 1977, and between 1989 and 1993.

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