An interview with President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski:
Q: How do we get from here to there on our new economic sanctions against Libya, from tightening sanctions to ending terror? What is the progression, the logic?
A: I must describe myself as a sympathetic skeptic regarding the U.S. policy. I share the goal of getting rid of international terrorism. But frankly, I fail to see much relationship between the means being pursued and the desired goal. We do not have an effective strategy.
Q: Well, what is the object of tightening sanctions? Is it to intimidate Qaddafi? Somehow put economic pressure on him? Dry up his resources?
A: Presumably, it is to intimidate Qaddafi, and to some extent, I think, a measure of success has been achieved. He has changed at least his ostensible public position on terrorism, although we do not know if he has terminated his support. The problem, however, is that international terrorism feeds upon itself. It has an independent existence, irrespective of support from a particular state. And more than one state, in addition to Libya, has been engaged in supporting it.
Q: More than one state is trading with Libya. How do we get the other countries to join us in sanctions?
A: There are grounds for concern that our strategy is going to have the effect of isolating the United States rather than isolating Libya. The Europeans have extensive trade relations with Libya and need, to some extent, Libyan oil and hence are not likely to be supportive. And certainly the Arab states, including the moderate ones, are going to hesitate to support the U.S. position.
Q: The Europeans can also see a growing impatience in the United States, at least in some quarters, to move on from economic sanctions to more forceful military measures. Is that part of our strategy also?
A: Perhaps. But if it is, we'd better think it through very carefully. Let me draw an analogy here between the experience of the Carter administration regarding the hostage crisis in Iran and the present situation. We tried to impose economic sanctions on Iran and got relatively little support from the Europeans until we began to convince them that their failure to support us would precipitate military action by the United States against Iran, through a naval blockade. Only then did we get European support on sanctions.
Q: So in a sense we have to intimidate our friends in order to intimidate our enemy, Qaddafi in this case?
A: That is the paradox. But one also has to ask under what specific circumstances would one be justified in undertaking military action. In the case of Iran, there was a legitimate cause of war that even the more timid nations, our Europeans allies, knew was justified. In the case of Libya, the situation is more complex.
I could envisage three sets of circumstances under which military action could be justified. The first is that we could locate in Libya and specifically target the terrorist group responsible for killing Americans. I don't believe that currently is the case.
Second, if it could be conclusively established that Libya itself sponsored terrorist activity directed at Americans. So far, this administration has not provided sufficient evidence to reach that conclusion.
Third, if Libya were to be the location of threatening Soviet military deployments that could jeopardize American access to all of the Mediterranean. That in fact could be the case, given indications that Soviet SA-5 missiles are being deployed in Libya. In that case, action against them on grounds of national security could be contemplated. Such action would be more likely to gain European support, though obviously very grudging support, and even perhaps the silent endorsement of the more moderate Arab states, who appreciate their dependence on American military protection.
Q: Has that condition already been reached of Soviet prevention of American freedom of movement in the Mediterranean?
A: I do not know that is the case. But there are some indications that developments point that way. I would not recommend that we embark on this course at this stage. But if force were to be used, it seems to me that the foregoing offers more legitimation than rather vague and generalized charges of Libyan support of international terrorism. Many Arabs and quite a few Europeans would construe that simply as America taking sides against the Arabs.
Q: You are suggesting that sanctions against Libya don't take us anywhere in particular? They don't point to either the use of force, particularly, or to the satisfaction of any American strategic goal?
A: That is why I describe myself as a sympathetic skeptic. My gravest concern is that we are stumbling into an increasingly difficult and complex situation without a clearly formulated strategy, without a geopolitical link between our goals and our needs.
Q: So you doubt that it will work, even on the economic level?
A: It will have some effect if we do it alone but not enough. It would have more effect if we did it with the Europeans. But we have also to be conscious that unilateral American actions that freeze Libyan assets here are likely to send a chill through all Middle Eastern depositors in the United States. If the crisis deepens and becomes more emotional, it could even generate an outflow of Middle Eastern deposits that would damage our economy.
Q: Does that mean we should not be proceeding down the sanctions path, because it's taking us to some very difficult place that we really haven't thought out?
A: It emphasizes, I think, that it is dangerous to embark on any course that is essentially tactical, not strategic, in nature.
Q: What should be our strategic concern?
A: Our strategic goal should be a Middle East peace settlement, which would undercut the essential basis for Palestinian terrorism. Wider international terrorism involves also Soviet sponsorship, and that gets us into the larger issue of U.S.-Soviet relations.