Zbigniew Brzezinski remains at 79 the same feisty, acerbic intellectual he has always been, giving little quarter to his opponents. Admired rather than loved, he was, as President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, the antithesis of the careful, more rounded, secretary of state, Cyrus Vance. Indeed, during that period, he was seen as the voice that gradually dissuaded Carter of his own more pacific inner convictions. He was responsible for the confrontational tone of accusations against the Soviet Union's failings on the human rights front, while at the same time playing down the human rights abuses in friendly countries such as Iran and Pakistan. He was the prime White House voice for secretly arming the mujahidin to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, even before the Red Army invaded. It was he who persuaded Carter to block Vance's instinct to complete what the Soviets wanted—a further freeze on nuclear arms and instead go for the more demanding course of arms reductions, which badly upset Moscow.

At the same time he was the only one in the foreign policy apparatus with a vision of where America should lead the world. He was the philosopher king of the White House. Thus, it was he who persuaded Carter that it was possible to bring peace to the Middle East and to expend an immense amount of energy in successfully reconciling Israel and Egypt. He saw more clearly than most the importance of the United Nations and encouraged Andrew Young in his remarkably creative and highly unusual ambassadorship to that body.

Today, he has a powerful advisory role in Barack Obama's presidential bid and has emerged as President George W Bush's most searing foreign policy critic.

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