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The Lessons of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy

A new book examines the former Secretary of State’s maneuvering in the Middle East.

In 2013, Barack Obama appointed Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel in the Clinton Administration, and a well-known foreign-policy voice in Washington, to be the U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Indyk’s efforts to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, a process that included secret negotiations between Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Palestinian Authority, ended in disappointment. In his new book, Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy,” Indyk examines the history of U.S. engagement in the region—specifically through an in-depth analysis of the former Secretary of State’s attempts to forge peace between Israel and its neighbors after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Indyk portrays Kissinger as extremely clever and intelligent, a deft strategist whose maneuverings ultimately establish the United States as the preëminent peacemaker in the region.

Indyk, a friend of Kissinger’s, offers some criticism of what he terms his subject’s “manipulations,” as he alternated between threats and flattery in trying to cajole the Israelis, the Egyptians, and the Syrians into negotiating. But, in general, Indyk avoids the more controversial parts of Kissinger’s legacy, which include his support for prolonging the Vietnam War and the bombing of Cambodia during the war, his help in orchestrating a coup in Chile, his support for Pakistan’s genocide in what is now Bangladesh, and his encouragement of repressive regimes in Africa and Latin America.

I recently spoke by phone with Indyk, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what lessons Kissinger might offer today’s peacemakers, whether the U.S. has benefitted from its role as the major power in the region, and Indyk’s friendship with such a controversial figure.

Has Kissinger read the book?

Oh, yes. In great detail, as he would.

What did he say about it?

He didn’t dispute the things that I thought he would, where I questioned his judgment or actions that he took or didn’t take. He’s rather concerned at the way in which he was portrayed as manipulative. I think the reason that I titled the book “Master of the Game” was precisely that he was so good at those kinds of things, which are necessary for great diplomats. The art of diplomacy is to move leaders to places where they’d rather not go, and he was masterful at that. But I think he didn’t quite like the way he appeared.

I saw he’s been doing some book events with you, so he couldn’t have been too upset.

Exactly. I think he was grateful that somebody had devoted so much time and effort to detailing his negotiations, which hadn’t been done.

Why did you want to focus on Kissinger in the Middle East?

I had engaged myself in the effort to make peace in the Middle East, both in the Clinton Administration and in the Obama Administration. In both go-rounds, I had essentially been part of efforts that had failed. We haven’t had anything for seven years now, since that last effort broke down in 2014. I decided that, rather than write another book about a failed effort, I would go back and look at how it all began. And that was Henry Kissinger’s diplomacy coming off the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He then went for essentially three years trying to negotiate deals, and successfully negotiated two deals between Israel and Egypt, and one between Israel and Syria, which I said essentially laid the foundations for the American-led peace process. His was a successful effort, and that’s what I was interested in studying: to try to learn from that how to, and how not to, make peace going forward.

So Nixon has won reëlection, in 1972, and Kissinger becomes Secretary of State. Then there is this war following the 1967 war, from which Israel emerged victorious. Can you explain a little more about the circumstances?

The United States had just withdrawn from Vietnam. And Kissinger was basically confronted with a war that he had not expected—the 1973 Yom Kippur War—and saw that as an opportunity to remake the Middle East in a way that would make it a preserve of the United States and sideline the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War. That was the context in which his basic objective was to win one over the Soviet Union, which he did very successfully. But before the war broke out—and, in fact, before he became Secretary of State—he had gained control of the Middle East, even though Nixon had tried to keep him out of it because Nixon thought he was too pro-Israel. But, in the lead-up to the war, Kissinger had basically established what he thought was a stable order based on Israel’s deterrent power in the Middle East, and the Shah of Iran’s power in the Gulf. The problem with that was that six years earlier Israel had occupied the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, and the Arabs wanted their land back.

Kissinger didn’t pay attention to that. So Sadat [of Egypt] and Assad of Syria went to war, and Kissinger realized that the only way in which he could stabilize the order in the Middle East was by being serious about addressing Arab grievances through a peace process. But what I discovered in this study, which I thought was about Kissinger’s peacemaking, was that Kissinger was very suspicious about peace.

Yes, you write, “For him, peacemaking was a process designed to ameliorate conflicts between competing powers, not to end them. As we shall see, he would prove mightily resistant to more ambitious efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict because he feared that pursuing peace as an idealistic end state would jeopardize the stability that his order was designed to generate. Peace for Kissinger was a problem, not a solution. The desire for it needed to be manipulated to produce something more reliable, a stable order in a highly volatile part of the world. That Kissingerian Middle Eastern order would last for almost thirty years.”

Right. In fact, Kissinger’s basic purpose was to establish a stable order in the Middle East. That’s what mattered to him. Indeed, that’s what has mattered to him in his own life and in everything he’s done in terms of his government service—it was all about establishing order. But, in the Middle East, the war demonstrated to him that he could only achieve a stable order there if he had a peace process that would legitimize the order—by which he meant giving the Arabs a stake in maintaining the order rather than overthrowing it by going to war. And the only way that could be done was through getting Israel to give up territory. Territory for peace was not something he believed in, but territory for legitimizing the order was his real purpose. Therefore, he introduced a so-called step-by-step approach, which was designed to buy Israel time—time to strengthen itself with American support, and time for the Arabs to exhaust themselves until they would come to accept Israel. And Israel would be strong enough to make the ultimate territorial concessions that could eventually lead to peace.

I think one might look at the Lebanese Civil War, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the intifada, and decide that, in fact, the Middle East got worse after what you call this Kissingerian order was established. Why do you disagree?

Well, I think it could have been a lot worse if not for Kissinger. That is to say that Kissinger’s success was in taking Egypt out of the conflict with Israel. When he did that through the two agreements he negotiated between Israel and Egypt, he made it impossible for the other Arab states to consider going to war with Israel. From that point on, all of the things that you cite were not state-to-state wars. In Lebanon, it was Israel versus the P.L.O. or Israel versus Hezbollah, but you didn’t have another Arab-Israeli state-to-state conflict. And that reduced the level of conflict considerably. Kissinger didn’t believe that you could eliminate conflict. He thought that you could ameliorate it.


Do you think it was a good thing for the United States or for the Middle East that America became the preëminent power determining peace negotiations?

Yeah, I do. I do think that the United States was a force for good in terms of what it achieved in peacemaking in the region. The Israeli peace treaty, the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, the Oslo Accords—the parties could not have achieved their agreements without the involvement of the United States. And why was the United States so critical? Because of its ability to influence Israel. Israel controlled the territory that the Arabs wanted returned, and only the United States could persuade Israel to give up territory. Kissinger understood that reality, and basically, ever since, the Arabs have turned to Washington, even though they see that Washington is in Israel’s corner, because they want Washington to influence Israel.

About Kissinger’s strategy, you write, “To be sure, time buying did not end the conflict with the stateless Palestinians in Israel’s midst, but it has steadily lowered their expectations of what their state would look like.” Is that a good thing?

Well, looked at from the point of view of trying to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians, yes, because the Palestinians started out with the objective of destroying Israel. So it became necessary for them to adjust their objectives, which they did.

Part of the problem can be laid at Kissinger’s doorstep, because he had to convince the Israelis to give up territory. I can attest to that as being very difficult and a challenge. And he couldn’t do it by offering them peace in return for giving up territory, because he didn’t believe in it. So, instead, he persuaded them through knock-down, drag-out fights that they should exchange territory for time. Time to exhaust the Arabs. Time to reduce Israel’s isolation. Time to build Israel’s strength, so that eventually it could make the ultimate concession of the territories. The irony of that, and the problem today, is that, while it worked in terms of getting Israel to give up territory in the Sinai, in the Golan, on the West Bank, the Israeli government used time to consolidate its grip on territory rather than to give it up, with the exception of Rabin and Peres in the Oslo Accords.

What do you think Kissinger makes of that?

Well, he’s pretty clear that he still believes that Israel needs to give up the territory, and that, if it rests its existence on what he called naked force—by which I think he means military occupation—he said Israel will consume its moral substance. And we can see today what he means by that process of consuming its moral substance by maintaining a military occupation. So he believes that the Palestinians should have a state.

Is there a moral component to his thinking that Palestinians should have a state, and do you think peacemakers or statesmen need a moral sense?

I think that Kissinger is much more the realist than the moralist, that his concern about Israel’s survival is much more about the problems that Israel will face by maintaining a military occupation. I myself am very concerned about Israel’s moral situation as a Jewish state that has an obligation to uphold Jewish values, which it does in all sorts of ways. In this case, it needs to be ending the military occupation.

You write, of the current Middle East, “Saudi Arabia, however, is the problematic pillar in this redesigned American-supported order. Its ambitious, headstrong, and ruthless young leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, respects few of Kissinger’s rules of the game.” What rules were you talking about?

Well, Kissinger’s rules of the game were that status-quo powers like Saudi Arabia should act in a way that maintains order and stability, not disrupt it. And yet Mohammed bin Salman’s invasion of Yemen—the war in Yemen—for example, was headstrong, thoughtless, and caused immense human suffering.

But Kissinger’s not generally opposed to wars that cause immense human suffering or cause instability, correct?

[Laughs.] Well, he’s opposed to wars that disrupt the stability of the order that he was trying to create. So he’s not opposed to wars launched and he’s not opposed to going to war to maintain the order. He’s opposed to wars that disrupt the order. And that’s what Saudi Arabia did.

Do you think that Vietnam and Cambodia fit somehow in that paradigm which you just offered for Kissinger and war?

You know, I didn’t deal with the wars in Vietnam. I was focussed on what Kissinger was doing in the Middle East. But I think that the difference was that there he was using American force to try to pressure the Vietnamese. It was a disastrous policy, and, of course, morally questionable as well.

You write, “This book would not have been possible without the extensive cooperation of its subject, Henry Kissinger. He granted me access to his papers, but far more important, through many hours of conversation, he gave me access to his thinking. In his nineties, he remains a formidable intellect. I expect he will feel that the generosity and friendship he has shown me have not been reciprocated by some of my criticisms in these pages. I hope he will understand that, taken in full, this book reflects my deep respect for him and my appreciation of his statesmanship.” I was just reading an old piece in The New Yorker about the torture and murder—the “Dirty War”—going on after the 1976 coup in Argentina, where Kissinger was warned by a colleague to expect “a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood . . . not only on terrorists but on the dissidents of trade unions and their parties.” Kissinger replied, “Whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement . . . because I do want to encourage them.” This is referring to a regime that was throwing people in wheelchairs out of airplanes. I’m just curious what you feel about being friends with someone who says things like that.

Oh, you could quote closer to home—what he says about Jews to Nixon. And that was pretty egregious, too.

Saying that if the Jews were put in ovens in the Soviet Union it wouldn’t be an American concern?

That it wouldn’t be in the national interest of the United States. In the humanitarian interest, not our national interest. [The Kissinger quote, on the Nixon tapes, is “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”] So yeah. He was in a whole range of activities in government that I find—found—quite abhorrent. But that wasn’t the case in the Middle East.

I was referring to your saying that you were friends.

That’s not to absolve him of any of that. The relationship that I have with him is based on talking to him about what he was trying to do in the Middle East. And I’m not trying to compartmentalize it.

Your wife used to work for him, right? She was his personal secretary?

That’s right. Long before I knew her.

Yes, you write, “We began this journey with Henry Kissinger separately, forty-seven years ago. I am so grateful that we are ending it together.” I wasn’t saying that there wasn’t a value in writing a book about Kissinger in the Middle East. I was simply responding to the fact that the American establishment seems to be fine with treating him as a respected former statesman, and, as you say, you guys are friends. And I was remembering him wanting to communicate to the Argentinian junta to speed up torture and just was curious whether you had any thoughts on that.

I just told you, I think, that I found those things quite abhorrent.

Have you ever talked to him about those things?

No. The man’s ninety-eight years old, so it’s enough that I can keep him focussed on what I need to talk to him about for the purpose of writing a book. But, no, I haven’t talked to him about those things. Look, you are kind of implying that I’m somehow best friends with Henry Kissinger, and that is hardly the case.

No, to be clear, you said friends, not best friends. I don’t want people getting the wrong impression.

I do respect him for what he was able to do in the Middle East, because, unlike all the things that you’re talking about, in the Middle East Henry Kissinger did a creditable job of helping to move the region from war to peace. And, compared to what was done by his successors in the region, I think he actually comes out much better than most of them.

America—the State Department, the diplomatic corps, which you’ve been a part of—seeks to say that it supports democracy and upholds democracy, and wants other countries to uphold democracy and democratic norms and practices. I just wondered whether there’s any cost to us, in terms of hypocrisy or anything else, in broadly celebrating someone who was behind all of these things.

[Laughs.] Is that what you were asking? O.K. So, first of all, I do think that pursuing peace in the Middle East, which has been my life’s calling—and I’m not a professional diplomat—is an important pursuit, even a noble enterprise in itself. But democracy promotion in the Middle East is not something that I’ve ever thought should be—

You know that there are certain American values that we pride ourselves on supposedly upholding and we tell people—

I do know that, but I also know that the effort to remake the Middle East in our own image has been highly destructive to the Middle East. So I think that Kissinger does have something to teach us about the need to be cautious and not to overreach, because the consequences of overreaching, which I myself was responsible for, have been devastating. I think that a bit of Kissingerian caution and circumspection would have been actually quite helpful.

Sure, I’m very interested in the book. I just thought that, because you said that you were friends with him and were doing events with him, it was fair to ask you about him.

An event. An event. An event.




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