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Consistent Kissinger

The Arabs, Israelis, and Kissinger: A Secret History of American Diplomacy in the Middle East

by Edward R.F. Sheehan
Reader’s Digest Press, distributed by Thomas Y. Crowell, 287 pp., $8.95

Henry Kissinger: The Anguish of Power

by John G. Stoessinger
Norton, 234 pp., $8.95

On Watch

by Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.
Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 568 pp., $12.50


He shall in strangeness stand no farther off
Than in a politic distance.
Othello, III, iii

Henry Kissinger has been something of an enchanter, difficult to describe, impossible to interpret. Instinctively one resorts to superlatives only to discover that they are euphemisms for avoiding something. Kissinger may be, as Vice President Rockefeller recently described him, “the most brilliant secretary of state in our history,” but the reality is that he has been the most powerful secretary of state in American history, the first to have consistently overshadowed the president without provoking even the semblance of a constitutional controversy. Yet so strong is the impulse to avert our gaze from the realities of American politics that, having acknowledged the unusual power he has acquired, we prefer to discount its long-run significance by pointing to the unusual circumstances that made it possible. There was, we are likely to say, a “power vacuum” at the top: Kissinger’s first president became immobilized by Watergate, his second by native dullness and inexperience.

While it is possible that presidential disabilities, natural and unnatural, furnished the necessary condition for Kissinger’s ascendance, they are not a sufficient explanation. Fortuna may help a man to power, as Machiavelli noted, but he must have the virtù to seize it and to work tirelessly to extend it merely to be able to keep it.

What, then, has been the nature of Henry Kissinger’s virtù, of the skills which have gained him power and eminence? Is it “strangeness” that he, a Jew who still carries with him his foreign origins, should come to be called “President of Foreign Policy” despite having had no prior claims based on private wealth, previous political power, extensive experience, or even scholarly distinction? Is it “strangeness” that our most intellectual Secretary should have been appointed and retained by such men as Nixon and Ford?

There has not been any attempt to raise, much less to explore, these questions in the several books which have been written about Henry Kissinger. Yet most of them presuppose certain answers to the questions. As the title The Arabs, Israelis, and Kissinger suggests, Edward Sheehan believes that Kissinger’s power is so much greater than that of ordinary people that “Kissinger” must be treated as a collective noun. Yet Sheehan also believes that Kissinger’s mode of exercising power is so intensely personal that if we can get hold of confidential documents or conduct exclusive interviews we can reveal something genuinely important about what Kissinger has been doing to a part of the world. Instead of explaining the nature of Kissinger’s power, Sheehan assumes it. As a result a certain incoherence settles between Sheehan’s sensible, even fair-minded conclusions and his assumptions. He awards Kissinger an indecisive grade, granting him positive points for having secured the two Sinai disengagement agreements, the separation of Syrians and Israelis in the Golan Heights, and the beginning of a coherent American policy toward the Arabs; and negative points for failing to head off the fourth Arab-Israeli war and for missing the opportunity for a more lasting settlement.

In suggesting as he does throughout his book that Kissinger’s highly publicized personal diplomacy tends to produce only stop-gap solutions, Sheehan joins a long list of commentators who find this to be Kissinger’s trademark. But this only forces the question that is left unanswered: Is Kissinger’s vaunted power merely a piece of grand flummery, or is it more dangerous, a pretense to a virtuosity no mortal possesses, no constitutional democracy can tolerate, and no foreign power, enemy or friend, should trust?

We get no help from The Anguish of Power, written by a long-time friend of the Secretary; we get, instead, more mystifications. The problem is not with Stoessinger’s judgments, which are unstartling: approval for the initiatives toward China, Russia, and the Middle East; disapproval for neglecting Europe, misjudging Portugal and Cyprus, for “tilting” toward Pakistan, and insulting the Japanese. Rather the problem is in the flimsy conception which Stoessinger adopts to explain what unites these several policies and makes them distinctively Kissinger’s. Because Kissinger has been strewing about terms like “tragedy,” “heroism,” “anguish,” and the “burdens” of statesmen ever since he was an undergraduate, Stoessinger accepts this rhetorical sludge uncritically and then tries half-heartedly and unsuccessfully to interpret Secretary Kissinger’s “practice” in the light of Professor Kissinger’s “theory.” If only Stoessinger had managed a degree of skepticism about his friend’s Wertherlike self-dramatization, he might then have considered whether “tragedy” and “anguish” are appropriate interpretative categories for a politician who has displayed a more than ordinary urge for power.

In its own way, the prevailing academic understanding of Kissinger has reinforced the Gulliver-figure created by the press and television and, at the same time, tickled the academy’s collective vanity. Kissinger provides positive proof that a man is not disabled by devotion to ideas, that homo academicus can best homo politicus on the latter’s own turf because, unlike the uninspired technicians who surrounded first Nixon, then Ford, academic man has acquired the deeper grasp of politics that ideas make possible. Accordingly, some academics respond to Kissinger like ecstatics in the presence of the logos, and deliver themselves of a Fourth Gospel that includes fatuous solemnities like the following:

Occasionally—very occasionally—someone arrives on the scene who has actually recorded what he thought, and deposited the record in a public place where all may have access to it. To know what a public man has thought—and to know it at the time he holds office—is to be privileged; this situation is so uncommon that it would be churlish to ignore the opportunity it offers.1

The fatal weakness of this approach is not its fulsomeness but its naïve understanding of ideas, especially the ideas of those whose education, from the start, was shaped by the possibility of being “called to Washington.” Even writers who have been sympathetic toward Kissinger have acknowledged that, intellectually, he was not driven by a passion for theoretical truth and that, temperamentally, he found academic preoccupations unfulfilling. Accordingly, it is a mistake to believe that, for Kissinger, “theory” is the constitutive or determining element of his actions. The mistake leads to overinterpreting his ideas qua ideas and underinterpreting them as expressions of a political ambition that was evident early on in his career. Behind all of Kissinger’s so-called “academic writings” was a political intention. The nature of it is revealed by his friendly intellectual biographer, Stephen Graubard, who remarked, apropos of Kissinger’s appointment by Nixon, that Kissinger was prepared to offer “his principal resource, his intelligence.”2

The notion that, potentially, one’s intelligence is for someone else a commodity to be offered in exchange for power, suggests that from the beginning Kissinger looked upon ideas in a political way, as counters in a game whose name was not contributing to scholarship but attracting the attention of those who determined the direction of foreign policy. His academic writings were a bid for political recognition. This is not to depreciate his abilities or his intellect, only to identify the governing intention in his intellectual work.

Once his intentions are exposed, the widely publicized contrast, between the Harvard professor and Nixon’s unintellectual, tough technicians of power, disappears. The fact that Kissinger survived them all and bested them at their game is evidence of his consummate political skill. What are its ingredients?

Kissinger’s genius is to have united three forms of activity—of the politician, the bureaucrat, and the scholar—whose integrity was thought to depend upon each being separated from the others. For some time now, the boundaries have been dissolving as politics became more bureaucratized, bureaucracies more politicized, and scholars began to feel more at home in government bureaus than in the stacks of libraries. The crucial center of politics is now located in the vast bureaucracies, not simply because more of life is being affected or processed by administrative officials, but because, increasingly, the primary decisions are being fought out there. Bureaucratic politics centers around the competitive, mostly hidden struggle for appropriations, influence, control over information, and access to higher echelons of policy and decision-making. From this politics flows the bureaucratic power to penalize, distribute, and favor that has attracted swarms of supplicants and clients. At the same time, ever since the New Deal, the bureaucracy has become the main federal consumer of academic knowledge and talent; indeed, an academic tone is now an integral part of the bureaucratic style, and vice versa.

This is the setting that has made possible the phenomenon of Henry Kissinger. His appointment as secretary of state in September, 1973, confirmed his mastery of the arts of bureaucratic politics. He did not suddenly acquire power by virtue of that appointment; rather the power which he had previously amassed within the bureaucracy meant that the authority of secretary could no longer be denied him.

Like Sejanus, Kissinger’s rise is instructive rather than edifying, and not least because it shows how a certain kind of virtù thrives amid a condition which, in a political way, was pathological. It will be recalled that from the outset the Nixon administration was deeply suspicious of the traditional government bureaucracy, believing that it was mainly staffed by officials who remained loyal to liberal notions of government regulation and social welfare. The basic strategy of the new administration was twofold: to establish small units “above” the traditional departments and closely controlled by the White House; and to infiltrate the older departments with appointees loyal to the White House rather than to their bureau or departmental chiefs.

From the moment that he took up his post as Nixon’s adviser on national security affairs, Kissinger worked tirelessly to establish the National Security Council as the agency in control of the coordination of foreign policy, defense strategy, and intelligence. Necessarily this brought him into direct conflict with some of the most powerful departments of the government and some of the most accomplished in-fighters in the recent annals of bureaucracy. In the end he won while the heads of State, Defense, and CIA have all rolled; one vice president has been disgraced, while the other, who was not only Kissinger’s patron but also the very symbol of power in America, was humiliated; plumbers and tappers have been exposed, even sentenced. And yet Kissinger has done more than survive and escape with only the slightest stains.

At the moment that others were losing power, office, and reputation, he was increasing his influence and authority. When Haldeman and Ehrlichman resigned, it was Kissinger’s former deputy, Haig, who stood closest to the president and master-minded the sordid business of denying presidential responsibility for the erasures on the tapes. When Ford became president and tried to get Kissinger to surrender his post as national security adviser and remain content with the State Department, Kissinger fought the president to a draw: he gave up the position in order to have it signed over to his former deputy.

  1. 1

    Stephen R. Graubard, Kissinger: Portrait of a Mind (Norton, 1974), p. xv.

  2. 2

    Graubard, p. xix.

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