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Henry Kissinger and the limits of realism

Reviled by some and overpraised by others, he was a brilliant man who carefully curated his image. Still, most of his policies in the 1970s were wrong.

Henry Kissinger, chairman of the President’s Bipartisan Commission on Central America, appears before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 1984. Credit: Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock.
Henry Kissinger, chairman of the President’s Bipartisan Commission on Central America, appears before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill, Feb. 8, 1984. Credit: Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Few men have lived lives as fascinating as that of Henry Kissinger, who died on Nov. 29 at the age of 100. In some ways, it’s an utterly improbable tale.

A Jewish boy who fled Nazi Germany with his family, he went on to become first a soldier in the U.S. Army fighting the Nazis and then a renowned scholar of diplomatic history, as well as the dilemmas of the nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. But after ascending to the heights of academia at Harvard University by virtue of his intellect, he then, as his biographer Niall Ferguson noted, used his equally extraordinary talents at networking to leapfrog over everyone in the foreign-policy establishment to become one of the most powerful men in the world from 1969 to 1977. As first national security adviser to President Richard Nixon and then, while still holding onto that job, also becoming U.S. Secretary of State, he attained the sort of influence over world affairs that few Americans other than presidents (and not even all of them) ever have.

After President Gerald Ford (who had retained him in his dual role after succeeding Nixon once the Watergate scandal forced his resignation) was defeated by Jimmy Carter in 1976, Kissinger didn’t return to academia or fade into relative obscurity after writing his memoirs, as most of his predecessors and successors at the State Department have done. In the 46 years since then, he recreated himself in the role of a foreign-policy wise man and informal adviser to presidents along with an immensely profitable consultant business.

It’s also true that he was, both while in power or out of it, something of a celebrity—a status that few academics or diplomats ever attain. And he enjoyed every bit of the acclaim and perks that went with such a perch.

A singular historical figure

As such, he must be considered as belonging to a category of historical personage in which there are no other examples of similar individuals either in America or anywhere else. As a result of that unique life story, he is viewed by various people in vastly different ways. For example, his left-wing critics consider him to be the quintessential Cold War villain, responsible for all the suffering caused by American efforts to aid those resisting the attempt to impose Communist tyrannies on countries around the world. By contrast, for many contemporary conservatives, he is the epitome of wise statesmanship whose realist foreign-policy stance—rooted as it is in his vast knowledge of history and diplomacy—stands in stark contrast to the incompetents currently charting the course of affairs for the United States.

To Jews, he is a complicated topic. His is the consummate Jewish immigrant success story. But he’s also someone who was never very comfortable dealing with Jewish issues, and who was long blamed both for Israel not forestalling the surprise attacks that began the 1973 Yom Kippur War and depriving it of victory at the end of that conflict.

To some extent, these very different narratives about Kissinger are a tribute to the way he carefully curated his image over the years, especially during the half-century after he left office. Whether positive or negative, the effort to see him as an all-powerful, almost mythic personality fits into his view of himself as a world-historic personality akin to that of Prince Klemens von Metternich. The Austrian statesman who dominated post-Napoleonic Europe was the subject of Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation at Harvard, which was then subsequently published as a widely admired book under the title of A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812–1822.

His accomplishments and ability to remain relevant, as well as lauded and reviled until the day he died, validated that image as a great man. And the enormous attention his death generated—by my count, 24 separate obituaries, retrospectives and opinion articles in The New York Times—stands as far more than most world leaders would hope to receive.

But the problem with this veritable blizzard of “Kissinger-mania” is that most of the conventional wisdom about him is wrong. He was not the evil-doer that left-wingers demonized for generations. And, though his brilliance was undoubted and his experience was unmatched by any modern-day American statesman, most of the policies he pursued as the mastermind of American security and diplomatic strategy under the Nixon and Ford administrations were actually profoundly mistaken.

It’s first important to put to rest the claim that he was the real-life “Dr. Strangelove” who partly inspired the title character of Stanley Kubrick’s satirical film. Nor was he the transgressor who deserved to be, as the late Christopher Hitchens thought, tried for war crimes for the deaths of those killed in Cambodia, Chile and Bangladesh, and many other places.

Cynical though he may have been, blaming him for all of the sins of the Cold War is to look at that period through the wrong end of the telescope. Faced with the Communist push for world domination with the future of Western civilization hanging in the balance, blaming Kissinger or any other American leader for the unsavory nature of some of their allies is as stupid as castigating Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill for their aid to the Soviet Union during World War II. Those allies did do a lot of very bad things, but if the struggle against the Soviets had been lost, then the death toll as well as the loss of freedom around the globe would have been far worse. In life-and-death struggles, nations, especially those responsible for defending the free world against totalitarian tyrants, cannot always pick and choose their friends.

The Yom Kippur War

The idea, still believed by many Jews, that Kissinger was the bad guy concerning the Yom Kippur War is mostly mistaken. Kissinger wasn’t raised as a Zionist or a religious Jew, and consequently, was detached from the same sentiments of love for the Jewish state most American Jews of his era felt. But he was, as Michael Doran wrote in a smart analysis of that conflict in Mosaic on its 50th anniversary, on balance a good friend to the Jewish state. His main interest in the Middle East was to detach Egypt from the Soviet Union. If he didn’t want Israel to strike first earlier in 1973, it was because he thought it would win any war easily and wouldn’t suffer from allowing its enemies the first blow. This was a mistake as he—and the Israelis—underestimated the extent to which both Egypt and Syria had learned from their past defeats and benefited from the technologies the Soviets had given them. Moreover, given the impact of the Soviet surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles, an Israeli first strike wouldn’t have won the war as it did in 1967.

It’s equally true that, like his boss Nixon, Kissinger deserves credit for the U.S. arms shipments that helped turn the tide of battle in Israel’s favor. Even more importantly, although Israelis and Jews in the United States were deeply frustrated by the way the Americans saved the Egyptians from total defeat, Kissinger’s belief that his diplomacy could lead to a better outcome for both the United States and Israel was proven correct. The disengagement agreements he helped forge ended the fighting with the Syrians until this day and set in motion the series of events that would lead to Anwar Sadat’s 1977 mission to Jerusalem, and eventually, peace with Egypt.

Yet for all of his pretensions to Metternich-like omniscience, Kissinger made a major blunder during this period that neither his friends nor his foes acknowledged at the time. As Uri Kaufman pointed out in his recent history of the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger could have used his saving of Egypt’s surrounded Third Army to force the Saudis and other Arab oil nations to drop their threat of an oil boycott that would wreak such havoc on the American economy and psyche.

That was far from the only failure in Kissinger’s career as a statesman. He had a profound understanding of America’s strategic dilemmas, but his obsession with realpolitik often caused him not to see them in the broad context of history. That is why the two main achievements of his time in power—détente with the Soviet Union and the opening of U.S. relations with Communist China—are not only not the unalloyed triumphs that both his admirers and detractors claim them to be but actually were deeply mistaken.

The moral disaster of détent

Détente was seen in its time as a brilliant course correction that allowed the United States to manage a conflict that most smart people thought it was losing because of the Vietnam quagmire into which Nixon’s predecessors had sunk the country.

Kissinger did extricate the United States from that misguided war, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize along with North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho. Both men didn’t deserve the honor, which was as much of a joke as the Nobels given to Israeli statesmen Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, and PLO head Yasser Arafat for the equally awful Oslo Accords. The Communists were negotiating in bad faith since they had no intention of abiding by the terms of the peace agreement as they proved when they overran South Vietnam in 1975 (a victory aided immeasurably by the Democratic-run Congress’s immoral decision to cut off aid and arms to America’s imperfect allies in Saigon). Nixon was equally cynical since all he wanted was a “decent interval” between the U.S. retreat and the North’s ultimate victory.

But the problem with détente was bigger than Nixon’s popular decision to exit that misbegotten war.

Détente was primarily a defeatist approach to the great ideological struggle of the second half of the 20th century. For all of his vast store of knowledge, Kissinger didn’t understand the Soviet regime as much as he thought he did. Rather than an inevitable victor in the great struggle, Moscow was doomed to collapse because of its internal contradictions. He also failed to see that appeasing communism would make it more rather than less dangerous, as the period of Soviet adventurism around the world that followed, including in the Middle East, demonstrated.

It was in this context that the revelation of a conversation between Nixon and Kissinger about the fate of Soviet Jewry must be seen.

In a White House tape that for some reason didn’t come to light until 2010, Kissinger can be heard dismissing the plight of Soviet Jewry as an issue the United States should care about. The demands for freedom for the 2 million Jews then living under Moscow’s tyranny, most of whom wanted to leave for Israel or the United States, were “not an objective of American foreign policy.” More than that, “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

It’s possible that Kissinger was merely catering to Nixon’s own hostility to Jews, and Kissinger apologized for it. But he also said that his views should be viewed in a historical context. The problem with the outrage it generated was that his pessimistic view of the permanence and power of America’s Communist foe mandated accommodation with the Soviets as the West’s best bet. And if that meant consigning 2 million Jews to their horrific fate—not to mention the captive peoples behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, the Baltic republics and other parts of the Soviet Empire—so be it. 

Kissinger’s excuse also rings hollow when one considers his criticism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Ford’s U.N. ambassador) for his eloquent opposition to the world body’s adoption of the “Zionism is racism” outrage. As historian Gil Troy noted in his 2013 book on that episode, Moynihan’s Moment, Kissinger believed that the future U.S. senator’s stand was upsetting the Soviets, who were the main sponsors of that big lie, which remains the foundation of anti-Zionist propaganda to this day. Troy quoted Kissinger as saying at the time: “We are conducting foreign policy. … This is not a synagogue.”

The assumption that the only choice was between appeasement of the Russians and “blowing up the world” was, at least for a time, shared by realists as well as those Soviet apologists and left-wingers who were otherwise devout Nixon and Kissinger foes.

Yet far from an effective global strategy that produced stability and a lessening of tensions, détente had the opposite effect from what its mastermind intended.

As Ronald Reagan, Henry Jackson and other critics of détente asserted at the time, and later proved, there was a choice. America could stand up for its values and speak out for human rights without triggering nuclear war. It was by aggressively supporting dissidents struggling against Communist oppression as well as by sharply opposing Soviet expansionism that the West not only kept the peace but ultimately brought down the empire that Reagan—then viewed as a fool who should listen to Kissinger’s “wisdom”—so rightly characterized as “evil.”

China’s benefactor

Even many who don’t celebrate détente think Kissinger’s China policy was a bold and brilliant stroke. The consensus is that it separated the two great Communist powers and contributed to American victory in the Cold War, as well as to the later shift in Beijing’s internal policies, which made it more capitalist and, at least in terms of economics, a freer country.

This, too, is an exaggeration of the impact of Kissinger’s moves. America’s China policy did worry the Soviets, though Moscow and Beijing had already been at odds for years, as their fundamental interests had never been the same. Nor did Kissinger inspire Deng Xiaoping’s later economic reforms. The main beneficiary of the opening to America was the Chinese Communist Party. The economic wealth it gained as a result of ties with the United States and the decisive enmeshment of the two economies allowed it—unlike the efforts of failed Soviet “reformers” like Mikhail Gorbachev—to maintain its monopoly on political power.

It should also be noted that the ability to do business in China enabled many Americans to get rich, not the least of which was Kissinger himself, whose consulting business was largely built on the goodwill he had earned with the tyrants in Beijing and the accompanying betrayal of America’s ally in Taiwan. Even after most Americans—Democrats as well as Republicans—had awakened to the threat from China, Kissinger remained an advocate of appeasement of that regime in the last year of his life.

A half-century after Nixon went to China to meet Mao Zedong, the Communist regime used the benefits of Kissinger’s diplomacy to become the world’s second-largest economy. That is why it’s America’s main geopolitical rival in the 21st century, as well as one that may well be far more dangerous than the Soviets ever were because of its power to influence the American economy. Subsequent realists like President George H.W. Bush (who did nothing in response to the Tiananmen Square massacre) and Bill Clinton (who championed integrating China into the world economy) also bear responsibility for this disaster, though it started with Kissinger.

We don’t know what the world would have been like without Kissinger being in charge of American foreign policy for those crucial eight years. But the one thing we do know for certain is that the West’s subsequent triumph over the Soviets would not have happened had Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher not repudiated his policies.

Contrary to his critics and fans, Henry Kissinger was neither a complete villain nor a hero. Foreign policy—as his admirer Ferguson, himself one of our great contemporary historians, wrote—always involves a choice between greater and lesser evils. Even when disagreeing with Kissinger’s choices, it doesn’t make him wicked.

Yet his celebrity status was a sort of magic trick that was the product of both great intelligence and a profound understanding of how organizations and politics work. That should be acknowledged as a singular accomplishment. The fact that he was treated as something of a minor God by the Davos set of celebrities, corporate manipulators and leftist ideologues who flock to gatherings of the World Economic Forum—a group that is bent on remaking the world in the image of failed economic theories and crackpot environmentalist ideas—tells you all you need to know how worthless much of his “wisdom” actually was.

We should not judge Kissinger solely on his “gas chambers” remarks, any more than we should treat him as the reason for Israel’s woes in the Yom Kippur War. What historians not under the spell of his remarkable intellect and astonishing ability to maintain his status as the wise man of foreign policy for decades after leaving the State Department should do is evaluate him honestly. If they do, they’ll understand that while he is a memorable historical figure, his main accomplishments were policies that with some exceptions did more harm than good.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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