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
Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger; drawing by David Levine


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…

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