20. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • NSC Weekly Report #94

1. Opinion: Foreign Policy and Domestic Politics

It is important that in 1980 you be recognized as the President both of Peace and of Resolve. Both dimensions are important to the American people, and the public wants reassurance on both scores. This is why it will not be possible for you to disengage entirely from foreign policy issues, but it also underlines the importance of being highly selective in the use of your own limited time and very conscious of the symbolic significance of Presidential involvement in world affairs. The basic fact is that the country wants its President to be a successful world leader and it will be influenced by that when it makes its choice in 1980.

This brings up immediately the question of leadership. Unfairly, the mass media have stimulated the widespread perception of this Administration as being indecisive in regard to foreign policy issues. Moreover, the same impression exists to a degree outside of the United States and it feeds back into elite perceptions here. For example, I recently met with some top Americans who have just come back from Western Europe; they all reported European impressions to that effect.

As I think of the last two years, the only two issues on which perhaps we might have taken a different course involved the ERW question and the nature of our response to the Soviet/Cuban military intrusion into Africa. In both cases, I would have favored a different policy, but I recognize that there were reasons for not doing so. On all other matters, this Administration has been both responsible and, when necessary, decisive (e.g., South Yemen).

I believe the root cause for the impression of indecisiveness is the unwillingness of our own public, and of those abroad, to understand that the complexity of the world we live in simply does not lend itself to simple prescriptions and clearcut solutions.

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Nonetheless, precisely because of that fact, it is very important for you to deliberately counter the impression that American leadership is not firm. The answer is not some artificial Mayaguez affair2 but rather more deliberate emphasis on U.S. strength and resolve in your public statements, and particularly in your public speeches.

You as the President should say from time to time that the U.S. is willing to use its force to protect its interests and those of our allies. Conversely, you should emphasize less often the notion that we no longer have the capacity to interfere in the affairs of other countries (factually correct but inferentially an admission of weakness), and you should also not hesitate to stress the need to counter forcefully Soviet ambitions or aggressiveness. It is not necessary always to couple the word “competition” with “peaceful” when you speak of the realities of the American-Soviet competition.

In addition, it might be helpful to stress more often your role as Commander in Chief. You will have an opportunity to do that in Korea, but you should also take advantage of some opportunities at home. For example, a commencement address at a service academy on the continued importance of national defense, on the value of patriotism, on the significance of loyalty and devotion in the military career might offer a useful opportunity to project the image of a leader who responsibly recognizes not only the limits but also the uses of military power in a complex age.

I believe the foregoing will be necessary to obtain SALT ratification. Those Senators who waver will want clear assurances that this Administration is tough, resolute and determined not to let the Soviet Union gain a politically exploitable advantage over us, particularly in the early 1980s. Some decisions on additional strategic systems—together with a forceful tone—will be helpful in seeking SALT ratification. Anne Wexler has made the same point to me, and her credentials as a liberal are doubtless better than mine.

Finally, given the inevitable domestic time pressures, you will need to discriminate very carefully in the future between the things you must do in order to maintain momentum in your foreign policy and to shore up your important tangible accomplishments; the things that you should do because of their potentially positive impact on both foreign policy and domestic politics; and things that you should not do because they either detract from your foreign policy accom[Page 76]plishments or because they would complicate your domestic political situation.

In the must category I would put the following items:

—Concluding MTN (though it will probably be politically costly);

—Ratifying SALT (the fight will be bruising but we have no choice);

—Maintaining a 3% defense budget increase (doing either more or less will entail political costs);

—Maintaining momentum on the follow-up to the Panama Canal Treaties, China normalization, the Common Fund, and to the minimum necessary on the Middle East peace efforts (in all cases, Presidential involvement only when necessary to avoid loss of momentum).

In the should be involved in category I would list:

—The scheduling of an Economic Summit for the summer of 1980 in Europe and not in Canada (with Italy perhaps the best location, permitting a meeting with the Pope);

—A trip to Moscow, following the Economic Summit, coupled perhaps with a CTB (which would not need to be ratified until 1981); perhaps also a China/ASEAN visit;

—Successful resolution of the U.S.-Mexico negotiations (which would have both a positive national as well as a southwestern regional impact);

—The acquisition of additional strategic systems (as a sweetener for SALT and as an indication of your resolve);

—An Arabian Gulf security policy (as a damage limitation initiative for the likely 1980 debate on the consequences of the loss of Iran);

—Initiatives pertaining to export financing in order to strengthen the U.S. international economic position;

—Some foreign visits here, with high potential for domestic impact.

In the should not be involved category, I would place:

—TNF, because it is likely to be divisive and politically not rewarding;

—Ongoing Middle East negotiations, because of their impact on the Jewish community;

—Any discussion of the Jackson-Vanik legislation;

—Troop withdrawals from Korea;

—Normalization without evidently tangible benefits to the U.S. with Cuba, Vietnam or Angola.

—African issues (our current policy does not deliver enough to satisfy the Africans, while it excessively frightens the Whites—in both cases because of the uncontested Soviet/Cuban military option).

Obviously the above priorities will have to be adjusted in the light of events, but, subject to your direction, we should try to be guided [Page 77] by a more discriminating set of priorities than in the first two years. Moreover, during the next two years, it will be particularly important that the tone of our statements on foreign policy be responsive to both foreign as well as domestic needs, and this will require more discipline. At some point, you might wish to use this memorandum as the basis for discussion at one of our breakfasts, so that we all understand clearly the tone you wish us to maintain and the priorities you want us to pursue.

2. National Security Affairs Calendar (attached)3

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Box 42, Weekly Reports [to the President], 82–90: [12/78–3/79]. Confidential. A handwritten “C” indicates that Carter saw the memorandum.
  2. A reference to the seizure of the U.S. ship Mayaguez by the Khmer Rouge and its rescue by the U.S. Navy in May 1975. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. X, Vietnam, January 1973–July 1975.
  3. Not found attached.