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A Manifesto For the Next President

By David Ignatius

Zbigniew Brzezinski has written a new book that might be a foreign policy manifesto for Barack Obama. Its message is that America can recover from what Brzezinski calls the "catastrophic" mistakes of the Bush administration, but only if the next president makes a clean break from those policies and aligns the country with a world in transformation.

The former national security adviser says he hasn't yet picked the candidate who could deliver on his book's title of a " Second Chance" for America to reverse its decline as a superpower. But by stressing the need for a foreign policy makeover, his prescriptions seem tailor-made for a certain junior senator from Illinois. In his every word and gesture, the young, transracial Obama would say to an angry world: Take a new look. I represent a country that is different from the one you think you know.

Obama would have severe limitations as a foreign policy president, not least his almost complete lack of experience. That's the flip side of being a fresh face, unencumbered by the past. It's hard to know what Obama's views would be on big issues, other than Iraq. So let's focus on Brzezinski, the foreign policy guru, and not his prospective pupil.

First, an encomium to Brzezinski: If there's any foreign policy analyst who has earned the right to be taken seriously today, it's this 78-year-old veteran of the Carter administration. Brzezinski was right about Iraq, warning early and emphatically of the dangers of an American invasion at a time when most foreign policy pundits (including this one) were, with whatever quibbles, supporting President Bush's decision to go to war.

Brzezinski paid a price for being outspoken -- he was excluded from some of the inner circles frequented by former national security advisers who don't rock the boat. In this respect, Brzezinski's cranky outsider status served him well (and the uber-insider status of his life rival, Henry Kissinger, proved something of a hindrance for the former secretary of state). So on matters of foreign policy, we should listen especially carefully to what Brzezinski has to say.

"Second Chance" is structured as an analysis of how the past three presidents missed the chance to create a true American superpower after the Cold War ended. He has some interesting, tart things to say about George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Bush Senior was "a superb crisis manager but not a strategic visionary," a president who succeeded brilliantly in coaxing the dissolution of the Soviet empire but who failed to take advantage of the opportunities his policies created. Clinton was "the perfect symbol of a benign but all-powerful America," but he was mesmerized by his vision of a deterministic "globalization."

But these are just warm-ups. Brzezinski's real focus is the "catastrophic leadership" of the current president. Regular talk-show watchers know Brzezinski's views, but he lays them out here in blistering language: The war in Iraq "has caused calamitous damage to America's global standing," "has been a geopolitical disaster" and "has increased the terrorist threat to the United States." By Brzezinski's account, what drove Bush's presidency so far off course was a combination of sunny "End of History" optimism about America's ability to impose its values with a "Clash of Civilizations" gloom about the threat posed by Muslim enemies.

The most intriguing part of Brzezinski's book is what I would describe as the Obama manifesto. (He doesn't call it that, but I don't think he would quarrel with that characterization, either.) Brzezinski argues that the world is undergoing a "global political awakening," which is apparent in radically different forms from Iraq to Indonesia, from Bolivia to Tibet. Though America has focused on its notion of what people want (democracy and the wealth created by free trade and open markets), Brzezinski points in a different direction: It's about dignity.

"The worldwide yearning for human dignity is the central challenge inherent in the phenomenon of global political awakening," he argues. His worry is that America -- enfeebled by "material self-indulgence, persistent social shortcomings, and public ignorance about the world" -- may not get it.

The next president, Brzezinski writes, will need "an instinctive grasp of the spirit of the times in a world that is stirring, interactive, and motivated by a vague but pervasive sense of prevailing injustice in the human condition." Is that person Barack Obama? It's impossible to know. The man is still largely a blank slate. But Brzezinski has described the challenge of future American leadership with unusual clarity. If we don't pick a leader with these qualities, Brzezinski warns, we will miss our second and perhaps last chance.

How would Obama and other candidates in both parties respond to the test the old Columbia professor poses here? That's a debate I hope we will see.

(c) 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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