The Kissinger Experience: American Policy in the Middle East
This book is enough to give criticizing Kissinger a bad name. It repeats and inflates every charge made against him, describing his admitted egotism as “bordering on pathology.” It blames the very inception of the Yom Kippur war on him. It claims that he tried to engineer an Israeli defeat, and that he cheated the Israelis of the victory they achieved despite his efforts against them. It concludes that “the Kissingerian offensive may set back what chances there were for peace in the Middle East by perhaps as much as a generation.” For, as the war died down, Kissinger “raced into the embrace of Sadat.”
A member of the right-wing Likud party told a group of us who went to Israel last February that Kissinger’s rescue of the Egyptian Third Army should rank, among US blunders, with Dulles’s interference in the Suez raid of 1956. That is not strong enough for AlRoy, who finds the 1973 acts far worse than those of 1956: “For while it is true that the Eisenhower-Dulles team saved Nasser from the consequences of military defeat in 1956, it did not go beyond restoration of the status quo ante bellum. Kissinger’s exertions in this case quickly restored to the Arabs all their territorial losses in a war they themselves had started, as well as areas they had not held before the war.”
It is hard to take such total attack very seriously. But the book obviously reflects a strong current in Israeli thinking. There was always some distrust of Kissinger in Jerusalem. Now it is souring toward a fearful obsession with him. Premier Rabin, who once boasted his close ties with “Henry,” recently told his notoriously leaky cabinet that publication of the minutes from Kissinger’s meetings in Israel during his last Middle Eastern shuttle would lead to the American secretary of state’s forced resignation. Rabin’s popularity surged forward when he defied Kissinger during that series of negotiations. A few weeks ago William Buckley, trying to identify himself as a journalist leaving Israel, pulled out a copy of his new book, whose jacket photo shows him standing in Mr. Kissinger’s company—that should do it, he thought. All it did was cause him extra trouble with the security man in charge of Lod airport. The Kissinger photos that stick in Israeli minds are those of him embracing Sadat. It did not help, either, that the book portrayed Buckley as a UN functionary. When he is not joking with Henry Kissinger, he must be meeting with Arafat!
It is understandable that Israelis should feel betrayed. But the praise given this new book by Americans is more startling. John Roche devoted a whole column to the book, saying anyone who wants to understand America’s foreign policy must read it. Tad Szulc, Edward Luttwak, and Eugene Rostow weigh in with equal praise on the book’s jacket. Rostow even calls the book “a fine work of scholarship”—though its footnoted “sources” include things like a Lyle Stuart potboiler depicting Kissinger as “Super-Kraut.” So, though it is hard to take the book seriously in any other way, it does reflect the common meeting ground for American cold warriors and Israeli militarists.
This nexus of the American and Israeli right wing explains AlRoy’s uncharacteristic restraint when he mentions Kissinger’s world-wide nuclear alert of October 25. Though that seems Kissinger’s most dubious act, and the one he has done least to clarify, it does not trigger any of AlRoy’s multiple angers at the man. He skips over it with a brief mention—“Kissinger overreacted in typical fashion”—and says that, once decided on, the alert was used “to further intimidate the Israelis.” He cannot dwell on this aspect of Kissinger, since it reflects what is left of the “good Kissinger” in the eyes of AlRoy’s people. After all, even Senator Jackson praised the act. Besides, it was a show of toughness toward Russia—which is, by definition, a good thing in AlRoy’s world.
It is very important to the pride of Israelis (which has fueled a hundred miracles) that America should need their country in its fight against Russia. This view is expressed in a formula often encountered there. (For a country with scholar-rulers, Israel’s debates live to an extraordinary degree on slogans: one side’s “step-by-step” is the other’s “salami tactics,” just as a friend’s “piece of peace” is a foe’s “intangible for tangibles.”) Our traveling group first heard the formula on Russia from Rabin’s own lips: he told us America is not supporting Israel “for our pretty blue eyes.” Over and over people gave us the same message in those same words: Israel is the only strong ally America has in the Middle East for its continuing and inevitable confrontations with Russia. If one pointed out that Israel can, for that very reason, be considered an obstacle to détente, and therefore a disadvantage, the answer was that Israel’s job is to open American eyes to the flimsiness of détente. Thus Israel becomes America’s savior, its realism rescuing us from our own naïveté.
Our group, as I say, went to Israel last February—the “step-by-step” talks between Egypt and Israel were just in the offing. Rabin and Allon were still betting on Kissinger, because his approach promised a) to keep settlement away from the Geneva Conference, and thus b) prevent Russia from being a party to any solution. Israel’s leaders bought this approach because they perceived—quite accurately, as far as it went—that, despite détente, Kissinger was determined to exclude Russia from joining in any settlement if he could. There is still a cold warrior in Kissinger—one normally kept in cold storage, but producible upon the right occasions. Israel, in other words, faced the Good Henry/Bad Henry problem that Americans have been living with for some time. Each side’s Good Henry is the other’s Bad One, and vice versa—and the balancing act succeeds so long as both sides roughly balance.
In America, for instance, William Buckley—resenting what he sees as the Bad Henry of détente—feels compelled to support the antinomic Henry of the Christmas bombing and the last-minute calls for military aid to Thieu. At the time when “Dr. Kissinger” was calling doves down from Cambridge, to assure them that only he stood between them and the Pentagon madmen, he was arguing with Buckley that our military superiority was being undermined and only he could fight off the surrender-crowd. Liberals were persuaded that, no matter how wild Bad Henry became in Indochina, he was their very own Good Henry in Peking and Moscow, the personal embodiment of détente. It has been a wonderful neutralizing act, which made both sides support him, for directly opposite reasons.
Despite the fact that Kissinger likes to dazzle patsies like James Reston with “conceptual” talk of “linkage,” he has always pursued a policy of multiple disjunctions. That is true of his global strategy, which was always “step-by-step,” personal, improvisatory. More important, it is true of his personal style, displayed most obviously in the accumulation of personae. The basic strategy, in each area, is to separate off a Good Henry from a Bad Henry, and use one or the other according to his audience. The possibilities were endless. Thus: the Bad Henry of American liberals (the lurking cold warrior) was the Good Henry of Israeli rulers. That posed a personal quandary, since liberals had by and large supported Israel. So a leverage was added to their grudging approval of Good Henry’s détente—they were inhibited from adverting very closely to Bad Henry’s threat. Meanwhile, an anti-Russian stance in Israel further boosted Bad Henry’s stock with American cold warriors. The result can be measured by the jump in Nixon votes from 1968 to 1972. Not only did the Jewish vote in 1972 top 40 percent (as opposed to 15 percent in 1968). College faculties voted in roughly the same proportion for Nixon (43 percent), a record for Republican returns among the professors. Kissinger deserves much of the credit.
Seen against this background, the AlRoy book can look like a very serious challenge. It tries to break through the confusions of the Good Henry/Bad Henry problem by asserting that there is only one Henry—all Bad. Its very totalism promises to deliver it from the subtleties of the Kissinger game. (The Secretary likes to argue, when he fails, that his opponents did not understand the nuances of his position—they, of course, claim they have just seen through his duplicity.) So AlRoy’s book at least raises the question: Has Israel seen through Henry, and written him off?
And that question leads to several others. If Israel comes to see only Bad Henry, can America be far behind? There are signs of a parallel recognition taking place. Jackson’s attack on the secret agreements with Thieu indicated something more than an attempt to “woo doves,” as his critics alleged. Jackson has been opposed to the Henry of détente all along. In turning his fire upon the Indochina strategist, formerly his own Good Henry, Jackson was totalizing his position. Meanwhile some American doves are doing the equivalent on their side—finding that their own preferred Henry plays a losing as well as a double game, Anthony Lewis called for Kissinger’s resignation in the same week that John Roche did. So there are structural reasons—aside from Kissinger’s own constant use of resignation as a threat—for the fresh circulation of rumors about the Secretary’s exit.
But don’t believe it. There are more important structural reasons for betting on his longevity:
1) There is, to begin with, his dialectical instinct for playing against his setting. The man who pits one side of himself against the other also likes to look like the “odd man out” in most company. With Nixon, that meant an opening to the left, the voice of a displaced Ivy Leaguer, the pose of a secret peacenik. With Ford, on the other hand, who is perceived as too soft and agreeable, the dialectic calls for a tough and knowledgeable pragmatist. If Ford profited by the Koh Tang huff-and-puffery, Kissinger doubly profited, as the crisis-manager at hand when Ford at last gets tough.
2) Besides, the post-Vietnam mood of compensatory bellicosity means there must be a shift of locale for our self-testing. The focus that moved from Berlin to Cuba to Vietnam is now shifting toward the Middle East. Talk of “reassessment” is just a way of directing attention there, of re-softening the clay to the master’s hand.
3) The reviving strength of cold warriors is bound to make Kissinger stress détente’s demands upon the Russians. Wallace and Jackson among the Democrats, Reagan and Third-Party hopefuls on the Republican side, are making headway with the “Don’t Trust Russia” theme. Kissinger’s response will be to move into their position, so that criticism of him will force them even farther out to the right. We have already seen him become an eleventh-hour populist, telling the American Society of Newspaper Editors that “the heart of America” has preserved itself from the corrosive doubt of our urban centers. And he followed that up by a quickie tour of the Midwest, to which he is a greater stranger than to the Middle East. He knows more about Egypt’s Cairo—e.g., how to pronounce it—than about Cairo, Illinois. Just to complete the metamorphosis, he made a pilgrimage to Independence and chatted with Bess Truman. He is running for his own unelected office, right now, at least as hard as Ford is running for his—and both men have more long-term advantages working for them than their critics recognize.
Thus the AlRoy challenge is not so very serious after all. By asserting that there is only one Kissinger, it exposes itself to the obvious refutation: another revelation of what cold warriors think of as Good Henry. Presumably an AlRoy will be happy to be proved wrong, if it means that he will get his way. But the continuation of the Kissinger game has longer-term consequences that threaten Israel as well as America. For the AlRoy book unwittingly enforces a disquieting truth: that Israel’s defenders are more and more relying on the darker side of America’s politics. We saw this in Israel’s glad support of Nixon—much of the country gave him a hero’s welcome in the very midst of his Watergate disgrace. We saw it in the encouragement of Vietnam hawkishness—in the false and self-destructive parallel drawn between American “toughness” there and in the Middle East. We saw it in the backing for rightist regimes that might prove useful in the Middle East—AlRoy says the only regimes America could count on in the area were those of Ethiopia and of Iran, but that we wasted our assets with Ethiopia. Now, since the softening of Iran’s relations with Iraq, AlRoy would probably say the same thing about Iran. Some important defenders of Israel were quick to praise the Robert Tucker scheme for invading the Arab oil countries.
The basic problem is one that Kissinger, with his Good Guy/Bad Guy strategy, is very well positioned to exploit: Israel has made its own safety depend on the rivalry of the super-powers. By refusing to admit any dependency on America except as America needs Israel against Russia, it has made any improvement of relations between America and Russia look like a threat to Israel’s existence. AlRoy spends the last part of his book in a theological explanation of the unredeemable character of Arab nations—it is just like our own right-wing tracts on the uselessness of dealing with Russia so long as it “remains” Marxist. In AlRoy’s final chapter, significantly called “The Fate of the West” (Israel will save America), he equates the two cold wars—ours against Russian communism, and Israel’s against Arab genocide—and makes both nations depend, apocalyptically, on the parallel waging of this twofold cold war.
Once the situation is structured that way, it is very easy for Kissinger to regain lost ground, by a remobilizing of the cold warriors’ old Good-Henry. But the important thing is not Kissinger, or “the Kissinger experience”—he wins the game to the extent that he personalizes it, makes it all revolve around him. The important thing is that this way of posing our relationship with Israel is bound to make Israel’s good depend, in effect, on whatever trouble it can stir up for the superpowers. That is what I mean by Israel’s selenotropic tendency to live off our country’s dark side. Egging America on in Vietnam became, for some, an act of Israeli patriotism. Hoping for an oil war of aggression became a serious temptation. Linking Israel’s fate with right-wing dictatorships looked like a source of strength.
The question is always being asked: has support for Israel declined in America? I think that is the wrong question. The problem that must be faced is this: will Israel allow itself to be helped in any other way than by bringing out America’s own worst side? If this process continues, then relations will deteriorate with all those Americans who refuse to think it is our destiny to fight Russia unremittingly till one or the other of us is defeated.
If we are to break out of “the Kissinger experience,” it will not be by playing one Kissinger’s game—as AlRoy does—even when it is played against the other Kissinger. Support for Israel, natural and easy in America, has a moral base—the very base that Rabin and others find subtly degrading: we do love them “for their pretty blue eyes”—i.e., for their own internal merits and their positive claims on us—and not as a byproduct of our hatred for the Russians. The sooner both sides can recognize that fact, the healthier things will become. The weird thing is that Israel’s leaders have been busily at work undercutting the moral basis for our support, subscribing to all the spurious “linkages” with Vietnam toughness and right-wing regimes and oil bellicosity. Our strongest motives for supporting Israel are not what some Israelis would make them—momentary promises of advantage against Russia. If these were our strongest motives, they would disappear the minute Israel became a burden rather than an asset in any jockeying with Russia. Strong voices among Israel’s own “doves” have recognized this, and look to Russian participation in a mutual settlement. AlRoy’s book does not so much argue with these spokesmen as ignore them.
Israel is part of that network of Western democracies that make up our natural allies. We helped in its creation and preservation. The money and good will of our citizens (non-Jews as well as Jews) have helped to keep the country alive. We have exerted the rights of a protector (e.g., in the Suez intervention) and must assume the duties of one. If it galls Israeli pride to have this relationship spelled out, that is unfortunate—but not so unfortunate as the cultivation of Israel by continual exacerbation of the cold war. AlRoy echoes the Israeli line that “foreign guarantees never work”—as if Israel has not lived with and by our de facto guarantee for some time. Has our guarantee to West Berlin been worthless? Other Israelis refuse to raise the issue of American commitment, for fear that it will not be forthcoming. But it was our experience of being trapped into an undefined commitment that turned Vietnam into such a bitter experience. Were we not committed to Israel when we went on world-wide alert in 1973? There is something perverse in the belief that the only way to keep our commitment is to avoid any examination or enunciation of it. At the pinch, all this can do is make it look as if Israel were tricking us into a commitment by using Russia as a bogy.
AlRoy not only oversimplifies the problem by personalizing it around one Henry and denying the other’s very existence. He labors for a world view susceptible to just those skillful manipulations—the play on fears, the shifting “links” and disjunctions, the illusions and ad-hoc deals—that both Henrys thrive on. For Good Henry is inseparable from Bad Henry, and both are bad in the long run—not only for our relations with Israel, but for those with the rest of the world as well.
Kissingerizing September 18, 1975