Henry Kissinger and the Puzzle of the Middle East

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By Jeremi Suri

Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy
By Martin Indyk

Diplomats are often the heroes of history. They are the men who walk along the edges of battlefields and persuade the belligerents to lay down their arms, turning swords into plowshares. At the dawn of the 19th century, Prince Metternich of Austria famously negotiated a century of peace among the European kingdoms that had fought one another nonstop for a hundred years. He was the model diplomat of his age, and the inspiration for many followers, including the American national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

Martin Indyk’s book places Kissinger in a class with Metternich and other “masters of the game.” He is not the first to do this. Kissinger has made the case for himself in an outpouring of thick, ponderous books, most especially his more than 3,000 pages of memoirs, published in three volumes. Among modern statesmen, only Winston Churchill wrote more to promote himself.

The strongest case for Kissinger’s heroism is found in his Middle East diplomacy, chronicled in fascinating day-by-day detail by Indyk in “Master of the Game.” Serving as President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy surrogate, Kissinger turned a series of disasters into opportunities for remaking the region. After a coalition of Arab states attacked and nearly destroyed Israel during the Yom Kippur observance of 1973, Kissinger managed the emergency resupply of Israeli military forces by the United States. When the Israeli Army turned the tide and entered Egyptian and Syrian territory, Kissinger dived into the maelstrom to negotiate an end to the conflict.

He spent the better part of three years in marathon meetings with Israeli, Egyptian and Syrian leaders that often turned into heated arguments and extended haggling sessions. Kissinger gained command over minute details about borders and settlements, as he simultaneously threatened his counterparts and earned their trust. He did all of this while shuttling between their capitals and managing a range of additional foreign policy crises in Vietnam, Chile, southern Africa and other Cold War hot spots. He reported to a volatile, self-destructive president who was spiraling into depression during the Watergate investigations. Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, had little knowledge of or experience in the region. Kissinger often made policy and explained it to the president later.

Despite all of the challenges, Kissinger constructed a new political order in the Middle East. The pillars for his edifice were the main belligerents in the 1973 war — Israel, Egypt and Syria — whom Kissinger cajoled into a set of agreements that disengaged their combat-hardened armies and established stable borders. Kissinger did not negotiate a comprehensive peace agreement, but instead a set of understandings that allowed the leaders of each state to feel secure from future attacks. Kissinger’s mediation removed the Soviet Union as a major influence from the region, and he made the United States a profligate source of military and economic aid to both Israel and Egypt, who continue to draw on American largess today.

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    Chronicling many of the twists and turns in Kissinger’s breathtaking diplomacy, Martin Indyk is in awe of the man. He comments frequently on Kissinger’s unending reservoirs of energy, his stubborn perseverance, his uncanny ability to charm powerful people. The American secretary of state combined intelligence with savvy, as few had before or have since.

    When Indyk analyzes the obstacles that Kissinger overcame, he knows of what he speaks. Decades after Kissinger left the State Department, the author dealt with similar issues as U.S. ambassador to Israel and special presidential envoy. His book draws on his experiences as well as extensive research in American and Israeli archives. Most of all, Indyk captures the unique intensity of diplomacy in this region, where every gesture is treated with suspicion, and every concession is a matter of life or death. Kissinger turned this unforgiving hothouse into a platform for his acquisition of power and fame.

    Indyk is clear that Kissinger had three goals: end the wars, remove the Soviets and protect Israel. He achieved the first two, but the third remains problematic. The author shows that although Kissinger often disagreed with Israeli leaders, he shared their desire to shield the Jewish state from hostile neighbors. In contrast, he did not have a similar attachment to Arab and Muslim societies. Kissinger’s Jewish background and his family’s suffering during the Holocaust mattered enormously, and he frequently referred to these topics. When Israel made limited territorial concessions to Egypt and Syria, he compensated the Jewish state with American weapons and technology that gave it predominance over the Arabs. That was not a mistake; it was part of his strategy.

    Kissinger also tried to silence Palestinian claims against Israel. He refused to negotiate with the Palestine Liberation Organization, even when Israeli leaders considered opening talks. And he refrained from negotiations with Jordan that might have protected Palestinian interests — an oversight that Indyk criticizes. The Arab leaders Kissinger empowered, Anwar Sadat in Egypt and Hafez al-Assad in Syria, showed little concern for the Palestinian population, and Kissinger knew that. His diplomacy boosted Israel as it alienated the thousands of non-Jews who lived inside the state and its occupied territories.

    The American Jewish lobby also grew in importance during Kissinger’s tenure. Indyk points to the pressures that Jewish organizations placed on Kissinger, often through Congress. Senators Jacob Javits of New York and Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington were two of many who threatened to block legislation and cut off funds if Kissinger did not deliver more for Israel. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had especially strong relations with many members of Congress, and he leaned on them to scuttle Kissinger’s calls for concessions. American Jewish organizations did not dictate U.S. policy, but they set firm boundaries. American Arab and Muslim organizations are never mentioned as sources of influence in Indyk’s book.

    How did Kissinger’s diplomacy benefit the United States? Indyk does not address this question directly. Kissinger made the United States the dominant foreign actor in the region, which was a Cold War victory against the rival Soviet Union. But did this help American interests in the long run? As Washington sent billions of dollars to Israel and Egypt, many groups in the region turned their anger against the United States. When the dictator in Cairo suppressed dissidents and the government in Tel Aviv sponsored new Jewish settlements, Washington became a target for the discontented. American aid did not give the United States much leverage because both Israel and Egypt now claimed it as a right, with strong supporters in Congress. Indyk describes how difficult it became for presidents to threaten any reductions in assistance to these allies. The United States bought itself burdensome dependents and many hostile adversaries.

    With historical hindsight, Kissinger’s diplomacy appears more successful in personal than policy terms. As he did throughout his extraordinary career, Kissinger nurtured a web of relationships among powerful leaders that brought order to a tumultuous landscape. He found a way to pull their strings. His manipulations, however, did not change the societies that remained in conflict, often because the very leaders who signed the agreements still used hostile rhetoric to keep themselves in power. The wars continued by other means.

    Heroic diplomacy, on the model of Prince Metternich, brings peoples together beyond just their leaders. Kissinger’s diplomacy focused so obsessively on the few men at the top that those who lived under them were neglected, and frequently provoked. Among other things, Indyk’s book is a brilliant account of how the mastery of personal diplomacy can depart from the diplomat’s true mission of peace.

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