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Kissinger, Israel and the morality of realism

Israel may be something the late, great statesman thought impossible.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, in New York City on Sept. 21, 2023. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, in New York City on Sept. 21, 2023. Credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO.
Benjamin Kerstein
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his work on Substack at No Delusions, No Despair. Purchase his books here.

When I heard the news that Henry Kissinger had died, the only thing I could think was “There goes the smartest man in the world.”

This is hyperbolic, of course, but one cannot read any of Kissinger’s books without feeling that one has encountered an extraordinary intelligence. In a world that despises anything resembling intelligence, this is not easily dismissed.

Many, however, do dismiss it. Even the more positive eulogists have hedged their bets, attempting to head off the inevitable fusillade of invective from the progressive left, which universally derides Kissinger as an amoral monster or worse.

To a certain extent, this hatred is simply debased. Kissinger was a Jew who fought communism, and the progressive left has always demonized Jews who fight communism. The role played by antisemitism in the portrayal of Kissinger as History’s Greatest Monster cannot be understated.

Nonetheless, much of the criticism was and is inevitable. It is rooted in the dichotomy between two approaches to foreign policy: The realist and the moralist. Kissinger was unquestionably a partisan of the former and thus loathed by adherents of the latter.

Kissinger described realism, embodied in the term raison d’État (reason of state), as “The flexible pursuit of the national interest based entirely on a realistic judgment of circumstances.” That is, one should act according to a dispassionate analysis of what one’s country wants and needs—and nothing else.

The moralist argument is more amorphous, but essentially it holds that nations should be held and hold themselves to the same moral standards as individual human beings. A country should base its foreign policy on these standards; for example, by protecting and promoting human rights and democracy.

Many—perhaps most—people instinctively feel that the moralist approach is preferable. This is understandable. People generally want to think well of themselves, and naturally extend that desire to the collective level of the nation.

Since Kissinger’s death, this dichotomy has been raised many times regarding Israel. The Jewish community has always been divided over Kissinger’s conduct during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Some credit him with brokering a massive airlift of U.S. arms to Israel, while many more accuse him of using the aid as leverage to prevent a decisive Israeli victory.

Morally, of course, Kissinger should have immediately given Israel everything it needed. As a realist, however, Kissinger was looking out for U.S. interests, which he believed would be better served by an ambiguous outcome to the war. Indeed, Kissinger would succeed in using the war’s repercussions to push the Russians out of the Middle East, where they stayed until Barack Obama’s ultra-moralist foreign policy allowed them back in.

Kissinger’s success and Obama’s catastrophic failure prove Kissinger’s point, because he did not see moralism as merely naïve or silly. He believed it had the potential to bring on disaster. He felt that by neglecting reality in favor of abstract ideals, one is left helpless when the real world comes crashing in, as it always does. Thus, by doing wrong, one is sometimes doing right, and vice-versa.

In the case of Israel, this paradox is particularly striking. From its origins in the Zionist movement, the case for a Jewish state was a fundamentally moral one. It held that the Jews have a moral right to a state of their own, even if it is not in the transient interests of one country or another.

This moral foundation is equally important today. For example, it cannot be denied that U.S. support for Israel is driven, at least in part, by a sense of moral commitment. A cold, realist assessment of the situation might well yield detrimental results for the Jewish state.

Thus, anyone who supports Israel and Zionism must admit that, as Abraham Lincoln put it, “right makes might”—at least in certain cases.

Ironically, this is proven by the conduct of Israel’s enemies. The Anti-Israel Axis that has emerged in full since the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre makes no appeal to realist sentiment. Instead, it seeks to destroy Israel’s moral foundations. Its goal is to convince the world that Israel’s very existence is immoral, and therefore Israel deserves to be destroyed. This is a monstrous perversion of morality, of course, but it has its own insidious power.

Though morality may be essential to Israel’s existence, however, Israel also exists in the real world, and quite often acts according to a cold assessment of its interests. Even the Zionist movement itself was, in many ways, based on a realist analysis of the Jews’ place in the world and how best to improve it.

Moreover, Israel’s current war against Hamas, while it has a moral dimension, could be seen as essentially realist. After all, it is very much not in Israel’s interests to have a genocidal terrorist entity on its southwestern border.

This forces us to ask: Is it possible that sometimes a realist policy is the moral policy? Is there a higher morality embodied in realism?

Today, as in the past, Israel has been forced into war. Since it inherently involves killing large numbers of people, war is, in many ways, an immoral endeavor in and of itself. But as the example of Israel proves, the realist acceptance that war is a fact of human life can save nations from destruction and protect millions of innocent people from genocide. This is, without question, the morally preferable outcome.

In some ways, then, Israel is an example of something Kissinger likely thought impossible. It is a country that practices a kind of moralist realism or realist moralism. It uses realism to achieve moral ends and moral principles to protect its interests. This may be why, in the end, Israel is the one country on earth that succeeds in driving both the realists and the moralists mad.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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