Less than two and a half years after the publication of his first volume of memoirs, Henry Kissinger has given us an equally dense and hefty sequel. White House Years covered the first term of Richard Nixon and ended with the Paris peace agreement on Vietnam in January 1973; Years of Upheaval is his account of the stormy period that began in February 1973 with his first visit to Hanoi, and ended in August 1974 with Nixon’s resignation. The first book dealt with fifty months in 1,500 pages; the second volume tells about eighteen months in nearly 1,300 pages—almost three pages per day. If the third volume, which will describe the Ford years, is as long, Kissinger will have set something of a record. Since, in the two and a half years during which he wrote Years of Upheaval, he also did a lot of public speaking, traveling, advising, and political maneuvering, the reader can only be impressed, once more, by the powers of concentration, the mental energy, the argumentative skills, and the apparent fierce desire for total recall evident in this book.
The events covered are momentous indeed: the unraveling of the Paris agreement, the continuation of triangular diplomacy with Peking and Moscow (entailing two meetings with Mao, two visits to Brezhnev in the Soviet Union, and two Soviet-American summits), the black comedy of the “Year of Europe,” 1973, the overthrow of Salvador Allende, the surprise and the shock waves of the October 1973 war in the Middle East, the first oil crisis, Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy, the beginning of the anti-détente campaign in the United States, Richard Nixon’s “last hurrah”—his Middle East journey—and, of course, throughout, the Watergate melodrama, without which, as Kissinger explains, he would not have been appointed secretary of state in August 1973 (indeed, he repeatedly asserts that he would have resigned some time in 1973). And yet a careful reader of the first volume is likely to find himself less stimulated or aroused this time: not because the events are less stirring, but because, apart from the story Kissinger has to tell, so little else is new.
On the one hand, Kissinger’s overall philosophy of international affairs, the concepts of which he speaks so proudly, were already laid out in the first volume; there are, inevitably, neither surprises nor innovations here. On the other hand, there are enough repetitions to exasperate even admirers of Kissinger’s analytic gifts and epigrammatic style. Not only does he tell us, all over again, what his basic beliefs are—his strategy and his operational code (and, lest I fall into the very practice I deplore, let me refer the readers of this review to my discussion of White House Years)*—but within Volume Two we find several overlapping accounts of the same subject, for example, the Nixon administration’s “challenge…to educate the American people in the requirements of the balance of power” (p. 50).
Kissinger’s role in the wiretapping of aides comes up in several places. (Thesis: he did the minimum that was required, appropriate, and legal. Antithesis: he expresses his “regret at the anguish that may have been caused to any individual.” Synthesis: he is dismayed at having been harassed “in lawsuits and in print…by some who knew very well that I was torn between doing my duty…and sparing them personally,” pp. 121-122.) Of the Year of Europe he remarks twice that “it was right to try” (p. 194 and p. 734). Without saying anything new he reiterates his points about the convergence of conservatives and liberals against détente; his judgment of Senator Jackson; his evaluation of the new nuclear situation created by superpower parity, and of the bureaucracy’s position on SALT negotiations; his distinction between great men and ordinary leaders or mere experts.
On the rivalry between him and Secretary Rogers, on the proper relations between the National Security Council staff and the State Department, on the Shah of Iran, on Chile, on détente, whole passages seem to repeat Volume One almost verbatim. A statesman, says Kissinger, must be a visionary and a teacher. For lack of a good (or brave) editor, and because of Kissinger’s tendency to deal with each subject in several chapters, and to recapitulate in the later ones what he told us earlier, pedagogy tends to degenerate into pedantry.
What Kissinger tells us about the machinery of government in foreign policy can also be called “more of same.” The indiscretions which made Volume One so fascinating for outsiders (and often shocking to insiders concerned with the emperor’s clothes) are fewer here—partly because, as of September 1973, Kissinger was both secretary of state and national security adviser, and the punishment inflicted on the Department by the NSC had stopped.
Still, in the preceding six months, many of the bizarre practices described in the previous volume persisted. In Middle East policy, “three parallel diplomatic tracks were developing” (p.206): Kissinger’s “back channel” with Ambassador Dobrynin, his secret channel with Hafiz Ismail (Sadat’s national security adviser), and the State Department’s attempt at obtaining an interim disengagement of forces along the Suez Canal. Only Kissinger knew about all three, at first (but American diplomats in the Middle East soon found out, in embarrassing circumstances).
Moreover, Kissinger, partly in order to explain delays he deplored, or to dissociate himself from proposals he says he disliked, refers to bureaucratic deadlocks over both the plan to retaliate with force against North Vietnamese violations of the Paris agreement (“a great lost opportunity,” p. 326) and over the American negotiating position for SALT II (“for the first time since I had come to government I was bureaucratically isolated—and confronted with palpable absurdities,” p. 265). If his rather bitter account of the American side of SALT II in 1973-1974 is correct, even his double position as head of the State Department and head of the National Security staff did not ensure his predominance over the Pentagon in this case. As for the divergences—about which so much has been written—between the Pentagon and himself during the October war, he manages at the same time to acknowledge them, to minimize their effects, and to present himself as the American official most solicitous of Israel’s needs and most eager to fit the supply of arms to Israel into an overall diplomatic strategy.
To say that there is little that is new, conceptually or in the analysis of foreign policy making, does not mean that what is familiar to readers of the first volume is necessarily without interest. Indeed, the strengths of this book are the same as those of its predecessor.
First, there is much merit to Kissinger’s decision to go into almost exhausting detail in his account of important diplomatic negotiations. True, this allows him to display his own skills as a mediator or as a manipulator of people and events; but writers of memoirs do not go through their past in order to minimize their achievements. Also, as he explains in his foreword, what he gives us is his side of the story; other participants may have a very different view and (as we shall see) he is often far from convincing. But the very length of his account is likely to provoke other players to offer their rebuttals and amendments, as happened with Volume One.
And even though readers who are not professional diplomats or students of foreign policy may find that Kissinger’s description of, say, the Syrian “shuttle”—thirty-four days in April-May 1974—is almost as draining as the events were for the actors, there is much to be learned about an art that will have to become much better analyzed and understood if one wants to be able, gradually, to replace violent change with peaceful settlements: the art of mediation, the uses (and the perils) of ambiguity, the skillful resort either to delay or to deadlines, to deadlock or to showdown, in order to prevent failure or to make progress, the little tricks that can make the difference between fiasco and success (such as having a proposal that originates from an adversary presented to the other by the mediator as his own, or refusing to present a proposal one knows to be unacceptable, etc.). Just as his account of the China “breakthrough” and of the negotiations with Hanoi, in Volume One, provided many glimpses into—respectively—the diplomacy of convergence and the diplomacy of inexpiable conflict, the more than 500 pages devoted here to the diplomacy of the Middle East war are a most important contribution to the record.
Secondly, once again, Kissinger is at his best as a portraitist. He adds new touches to his accounts of Mao, of Brezhnev, and of Edward Heath—Mao’s ambivalence about modernization, Brezhnev’s “split personality—alternatively boastful and insecure, belligerent and mellow” (p.233), Heath trying to make “a citadel of personal excellence” (p. 140) in order to rise to leadership in an upper-class party despite his lower-class background. His portrait of Dayan captures the charm, egotism, moodiness, and intuition of a man unique, among his colleagues, in “the sweep of his imagination, the nimbleness of his intellect, the ability to place Israel in a world context” (p. 563).
There are shrewd evaluations of such opponents of Kissinger as Michel Jobert, Henry Jackson, and James Schlesinger. For the first time, there is a portrait of Brandt, and along with testimony to his historical importance, Kissinger makes devastating remarks about him: not only had he “made himself irrelevant (and in some respects dangerous)” in changing the course of history, but “he possessed neither the stamina nor the intellectual apparatus to manage the forces he had unleashed. He in fact became their prisoner, wallowing in their applause…” (pp. 144-145). The most moving portrait is that of Sadat, of his growing passion for peace, of his mix of generosity and shrewdness, of his “almost carnal relationship with authority” (p. 648), his need for solitary reflection, his “pervasive humanity.” (What makes the portrait convincing is Kissinger’s awareness of his friend’s flaws—“the defects of his virtues.”)
Since so much of the book deals with the effects of Watergate, the reader may expect descriptions of the main actors in that drama. The sketches of Ehrlichman and Haldeman are a bit perfunctory. But the portrait of Haig—Kissinger’s aide who became Nixon’s final chief of staff—is a characteristic blend of compliments and barbs, showing admiration for his “will-power, dedication, and self-discipline” (p. 1197) as well as for the way in which he learned some of Kissinger’s own tricks, first in order to eliminate possible rivals on Kissinger’s staff, later in order to ensure his own preeminence even over Kissinger. Haig’s “rough methods” and “insistence on formal status” (p. 1197) are not recent.
The portrait of Nixon, begun in Volume One, is considerably deepened here, especially in the final chapter. I had thought that some of the comments about Nixon in White House Years were rather mean. Here, a kind of lucid, unsentimental compassion prevails in the description of a man “awake during his own nightmare” (p. 1181), “the first victim of his own unharmonious nature” (p. 1183), never at peace with himself because he had no central core, because “the various personalities within him” were always at war, because of inner doubts resulting in deviousness, because of his overwhelming fear of being rejected and his insecurity—the belief that his whole career had been accidental (p. 1186). “Few men so needed to be loved and were so shy about the grammar of love” (p. 1184). He “sought to move the world but he lacked a firm foothold,” and therefore “always turned out to be slightly out of focus” (p. 1186). He “accomplished much but he never was certain that he had earned it.”
Before this final judgment, Kissinger gives dozens of examples of Nixon’s increasingly more desperate attempts to claim credit for the foreign-policy achievements of his aide, and of the growing gap of silence and estrangement between them (especially after Kissinger’s deliberate and spectacular threat to resign, at the famous Salzburg press conference in June 1974).
As good as the portraits are the short essays on what could be called national styles. Kissinger describes the Chinese communists as consummate Machiavellians, “scientists of equilibrium, artists of relativity” (p. 50), and he points out the contrast between Mao, “attempting to inflict upon his country the tour de force of a permanent revolution,” and his people, who “have survived not by exaltation but by perseverance” (p. 64).
He is at his best in his account of the Saudi style, “oblique and persistent, reticent and assertive,” marked by “a caution that has elevated indirectness into a special art form” so as to avoid being subjected to “entreaties, threats, and blandishments” (p. 659), and in his short treatise on Japan, where “consensus became a method to explore the most effective way of dealing with the future rather than…a system of ratifying the status quo” (p. 736). “What could be more effective,” he revealingly asks, “than a society voracious in its collection of information, impervious to pressure, and implacable in execution?” (p. 738). He is also very perceptive about the remarkably similar, and harrowing, negotiating styles of Israel and Syria, both convinced that all their “troubles come from abroad” (p. 779), both bogged down in short-term calculations, partly because of domestic difficulties.
Finally, Kissinger is superb at analyzing foreign-policy predicaments—the contradictions a state experiences over a given issue: the Europeans’ ambivalences toward America, the Soviet Union in the Middle East oscillating “between the malign and the confused” (p. 200). (Kissinger describes Soviet diplomacy as a clumsy, heavy-handed, unimaginative opportunism: “they were willing enough to fish in troubled waters but…loath to run major risks,” p. 1051; “their strength was not a master plan but the exploitation of the confusion of their adversary.”) “The Israelis could not grasp the Syrians’ primeval sense of honor; the Syrians did not understand that Israeli assertiveness was an amalgam of fear and insecurity” (p. 1083). His account of the differences between the US and China over the management of Soviet power, his analysis of the position of each participant at the Geneva conference that followed the October war, and his description of the role of a mediator (“to find why an agreed goal can be in the common interest for different purposes,” p. 1056) are remarkably acute.
Such are the rewards, and they are many. But, as in the first volume, there is here an enormous amount of pleading, sometimes concealed behind the smooth, entertaining, or long-winded narrative, sometimes eloquently presented as if by a lawyer in a trial court. What must be stressed are, first of all, some of the fundamental biases or defects that have marred Kissinger’s performance; and secondly, how these flaws have affected policy toward the main questions covered by the book.
One flaw has more to do with character than with concepts, with personality and pride (or vanity) than with vision. Whenever something goes wrong, it is someone else’s fault. Yet the book shows that a number of mistakes were made by Kissinger himself. For instance, he launched the Year of Europe without having ascertained in advance what the response to his initiative would be (the very thing he blames the State Department for having done in the Middle East, p. 207). He failed to understand Sadat’s policy before the October war and remained convinced that Egypt would not initiate a war that it had no chance of winning. He deplores the “personal feud” (p. 17) between Prince Sihanouk and Lon Nol, who had overthrown him, which is about as wise as it would be to lament about the failure of Pétain and De Gaulle to join and subordinate “their egos to the necessities of their nation.” He misinterpreted Senator Jackson, believing he would accept a compromise on Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union as long as Kissinger was willing to give him full credit for it and to improve his standing with the American Jews!
The colossal failure to grasp Sadat’s design of making war on Israel and then offering peace, and Sadat’s success in “paralyz[ing] his opponents with their own preconceptions” (p. 460) are blamed abstractly on “our definition of rationality.” The proposal for a $2.2 billion package of aid to Israel, on October 19, 1973, which triggered the Arab oil embargo, Kissinger calls Nixon’s request (p. 873). It is the establishment’s collapse that explains the domestic stalemate over Vietnam (p. 84). Haldeman’s “lack of direction…aggravated by an even more rudderless group of associates” (p. 97) accounts for Watergate. The deadlock over SALT is explained by the Pentagon’s and the State Department’s absurd and opposite views.
Above all, Watergate becomes the cause of everything that went wrong: the continuation of the war in Cambodia, the undermining of the fragile peace in Vietnam, the Mideast war (p. 125), the fiasco of the Year of Europe, the failure of détente (p. 300 ff.), the sluggishness of the SALT II negotiations (p. 1160), the Cyprus debacle (pp. 1190-1192). No doubt Watergate weakened the authority of the president. But Kissinger himself shows how much—in the Middle East—he was able to compensate for that decline. In almost every instance, as we shall see, the reasons for deadlock or disarray went much deeper. Had Watergate never occurred, and many of the failures proven unavoidable, Kissinger would have been deprived of a most convenient, Procrustean, excuse.
The resort to Watergate brings out a second flaw—a conceptual one this time. It concerns the place of domestic politics in Kissinger’s view of and strategy for international affairs. There is a strange contradiction here—or rather a web of contradictions. On the one hand, insofar as the United States and its allies are concerned, Kissinger almost consistently underestimates the extent to which a state’s external performance and strength depend on domestic cohesion and consensus. Internal weaknesses are seen as nuisances that have to be deplored but should not be allowed to affect foreign policy, as if one were dealing with separate compartments. Kissinger mentions Zhou Enlai’s request to the US to take special care of Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran; at no point does he examine adequately the internal factors that made of Iran and Pakistan rather weak links in America’s chain of allies.
In the US, domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam and to the bombing in Cambodia is treated not as an element that had to figure in foreign-policy calculations, but only as an impediment to that policy. And Watergate is treated as a disastrous impediment, but never discussed as something far more serious than a series of silly moves and bad judgments by presidential aides, compounded by Nixon’s wrong tactics and failure to “lance the boil” (as Kissinger did in Salzburg). If one does not understand that “Watergate” meant the destruction, by the president, of the bond of trust that links the presidency to the people, and of the position of defender and enforcer of legality entrusted to him by the Constitution, one ends up seeing in it only, or almost only, a kind of destructive rebellion against authority by willful leaders, partisans, and the press.
Kissinger has learned—the hard way—to understand the neoconservatives, whom he treats with some awe. Liberals he tends to reduce to caricature (p. 239), and protest movements that are not of the right he rarely tries to understand at all. The only exception to this flawed consideration of internal affairs, interestingly enough, occurs in Kissinger’s treatment of Israel: he shows far more tolerance for domestic factors of paralysis there than he does in the case of the United States.
On the other hand, when Kissinger deals with “progressive” or “radical” regimes, he is fierce. He may, on occasion, deplore some excesses of rightwing regimes (Pinochet, the Shah), but when it comes to the left, he lumps together “left tyrannies of the Third World” and communist totalitarian regimes, and, with the significant exception of China, he shows implacable hostility to them for two reasons. One is their domestic crimes, deemed necessarily more extensive than the exactions of mere authoritarian regimes because the latter are “a vestige of traditional personal rule,” which has “inherent limits” (p. 313), whereas totalitarianism is “a caricature…of democracy.”
This very debatable political theory leads, of course, to grimly conservative conclusions. One is that the liberalization of authoritarian regimes is likely to lead to disaster: accelerating reform and sharing power are mistakes. There must be no concessions; either the causes of civil war should be preempted long in advance, or else conciliation can be shown after victory (p. 313). As the chapter on Allende shows, Kissinger views left-wing revolutions as demonic.
The second reason for Kissinger’s hostility is that such revolutions and regimes tend to spread their malfeasance beyond their borders. This is why the fall of Allende, in which Kissinger denies any American participation beyond some financing of pro-Western parties, was so welcome (pp. 1244-1245 and p. 410), although he never shows that Allende threatened other countries. And this also explains Kissinger’s opposition to the PLO, which he sees as overtly anti-American and necessarily expansionist (p. 625). He has nothing but contempt for the “romantic view” of “Third World radicalism [as] really frustrated Western liberalism” (p. 859).
Three strange consequences follow. One, we must take seriously the internal politics of “radical” regimes, but insofar as friendly “authoritarian” ones are concerned, we should either overlook their exactions or give them full support: a precept that can be faulted on moral grounds as well as on those of national interest. Two, a conception of international affairs that is centered on the balance of power, and on flexible alignments against countries that actually make trouble abroad, entered into by all states that feel threatened whatever their regimes—i.e., the traditional British conception of world affairs—finds itself coexisting with a Metternichian conception of universal action against “radicals” because of their inherently dangerous potential effects on world stability. There, the distinction between radicals and moderates becomes the dividing line in analyzing the world—even though Kissinger himself shows how, in practice, he dealt happily with the Chinese communists, and found such radicals as Algeria’s Boumedienne and Syria’s Asad not only to be anything but satellites of Moscow, but also nationalists quite willing to cooperate with the US (indeed, he pleads for a reopening of lines of communication with Syria, p.1136).
A third problem is also conceptual. It concerns how the US should behave internationally. Kissinger never addresses this question directly. But it is clear that he wanted the role of the US to be akin to the one he prescribes for a presidential assistant: “that of a trainer in a wild-animal act”(p.98). (The only difference for Kissinger is that the mastery of the trainer and of the assistant depends on their never being challenged, whereas America’s depends on beating down every challenge.) It was—as we saw in Volume One—up to the US, not to West Germany, to set the directions and contours of détente. It was, we find out here, up to the US, not the Europeans, to initiate the search for new goals for the Atlantic alliance, so as to prevent efforts toward West European unity either from diverging too much from Washington or from diverting the allies from common tasks. Organizing a front of consumers against OPEC was America’s initiative and responsibility: separate European moves could only “sabotage our carefully elaborated strategy” in the Middle East (p.900); “if they will not work multilaterally, we will force them by going bilateral ourselves. If we go bilateral, we can preempt them…in most areas”(p.902).
Triangular diplomacy was aimed at putting Washington closer to Moscow and to Peking than China and the Soviet Union could ever be to each other. Détente (as we shall see below) was a way of caging the bear. This was a grandiose conception. But was it really workable? Kissinger himself notes that the US, “still the strongest nation,” was “no longer preeminent”; “we would have to substitute concept for resources”(p.238).
But the concept was too ambitious. Its success required that potential rivals and obvious adversaries have no other choice than to let themselves be maneuvered. The concept also required that, in a world in which domestic affairs have, in a myriad of ways, become inseparable from foreign policy, the US have both the wisdom to monitor and manipulate the internal affairs of others and the full support of the American public for such exertions. The verdict is in on whether such designs were practical (but was it ever in doubt?). Wrong moment, wrong country.
These flaws are combined, once again, in Kissinger’s treatment of Vietnam, and Cambodia. Concerning Vietnam, Kissinger, after January 1973, wanted to push Hanoi away from what he described as its first choice—using the Paris agreement “as an offensive weapon”—and toward the second option, “to basically honor the agreement and seek their objectives through gradual evolution” (p.43). This demanded, on the one hand, an American determination to resist violations by using force, i.e., by renewed air strikes, and, on the other, the carrot of economic aid to the North Vietnamese. But what sounded plausible on paper was not feasible in practice. Economic aid depended on Congress, and North Vietnam’s own behavior made the granting of assistance unlikely. Using force meant a willingness, so to speak, to replay the 1972 bombing each time the North Vietnamese committed a serious violation. And whatever Nixon’s legal authority to promise such support to Thieu, this is precisely what—despite Nixon’s landslide victory over McGovern—the mood of the country and the opposition in Congress made impossible.
Kissinger regrets (p.88) that America was “offered simple categories of black and white.” Never considering in detail the weaknesses of Thieu’s government, he rejects the argument “that if the South Vietnamese could not take care of themselves after a decade of assistance, they would never be able to do so” (p.307): we are, he says, still in South Korea and Western Europe. He states that “by our abdication we have already caused more suffering than we ever did by our commitment”(p.369).
But he keeps missing the essential points. There is no war in Western Europe, the armistice has held in Korea, it never did in Vietnam. Many of the critics of the war never questioned their opponents’ motives (p.88), but they did point to the effects of their actions. And if, as Kissinger himself explains, the strategic stakes in Vietnam were dubious (p.82), how could one justify either the huge commitment a victory would have required or the permanent commitment that the preservation of the agreement would have entailed? Sacrifice “in the name of an abstract, unprovable goal of maintaining America’s global credibility” (p.84) was most unlikely to be accepted forever. And this is what made the war immoral: not the commitment, or the abandonment, but the inflicting of all the injuries of a war that could not be won at a tolerable cost and therefore did not save the people of Indo-china from the added cost and pain of Hanoi’s ultimate domination.
On Cambodia, where no cease-fire had taken place, Kissinger tells us that “we were prepared to settle for a genuine coalition government…with Sihanouk as the balance wheel” (p.36), and that he proposed to Zhou Enlai, in the spring of 1973, the establishment of a coalition government that would have included the Khmer Rouge, the Lon Nol group without Lon Nol, and Sihanouk as leader. Success in persuading the Khmer Rouge to give up their push for total military victory depended on the continuation of American bombing. This, he claims, was necessary because an end of the bombing would have been the reward for compromise.
Kissinger reports that the Chinese were willing to present the plan to Sihanouk, who was traveling in Africa and Europe, because they had concluded that it was not in China’s interest to let Cambodia become “completely red” (meaning, according to Kissinger, that this would “assure Hanoi’s hegemony over Indochina,” p. 343). But in June Congress voted to halt the bombing (as of August 15), and Kissinger claims this caused the scheme to collapse, much to Zhou Enlai’s dismay. Kissinger even hints that Zhou’s loss of face contributed to his being eliminated from power a few months later; having staked his policy on a strong America, he was replaced by the Gang of Four, radicals, who counted more on “militancy in defense of revolutionary rectitude” (p. 368).
It is hard to be persuaded by this fantastic story. (The only other major witness, Zhou, is dead. It is not mentioned in Nixon’s memoirs.) Zhou knew that the Khmer Rouge were not under Hanoi’s control—far from it. (This was precisely why Hanoi had been unable to make them accept a cease-fire.) Sihanouk had, after his ouster in 1970, proclaimed his solidarity with the Khmer Rouge; he knew that he had no base of power of his own, and he said so, and so does Kissinger (p. 341). The moves by Congress to cut off bombing began in May, before Kissinger had gotten far with his plan, by his own account; and he admits that he himself offered to a number of congressmen to end the bombing September 1, “come what may” (p. 357). A scheme built entirely around so fragile a stick was shaky, to say the least. The Khmer Rouge either had little incentive ever to accept, or no reason not to do to the compromise, had they accepted it, what Hanoi was doing to the Paris agreement (Kissinger concedes this, p. 368). His own plan entailed “a transition period of several months” before Sihanouk could return to Cambodia (p. 354), making the whole charade even less workable. And China’s “offer” to help was, on the evidence, very low-key. Zhou, for example, did not try to bring the Prince back from abroad.
Indeed, if Zhou wanted to keep Cambodia only “partly red,” he would have had to criticize American bombing, for as long as it lasted neither Sihanouk could nor Lon Nol would negotiate; and this is exactly what Zhou did. After the bombing halt, the Chinese suggested that it was up to the US to initiate a settlement; but Kissinger concluded that the bombing cutoff had fundamentally changed the situation and destroyed Sihanouk’s utility (p. 366). When Zhou began to decline, Mao lectured Kissinger most straightforwardly about the continuity of China’s foreign policy: he was “the quintessential Cold Warrior” (p. 693). On balance, it is as difficult to believe that the failure to keep bombing Cambodia and to prevent the Khmer Rouge from getting stronger brought the Gang of Four to power as it is to recognize William Shawcross’s arguments in Sideshow in the cartoon-like summary presented by Kissinger (p. 336). (Nor do the appendixes that aim at refuting various points made in Sideshow about the bombing do much damage to Shawcross’s analysis. In some respects they confirm it.)
The problem with the Year of Europe—the attempt beginning in early 1973 to “give new political impetus to the Western Alliance” (p. 700)—was of a different order. Kissinger shows how his efforts to obtain a “new Atlantic Charter” ran afoul of the French foreign minister, Michel Jobert, who “induced us to bypass the European Community” (so that the US would not be seen mobilizing its members against France), “leaving it to France to shape the European consensus, and then switched course to insist that discussions…should be conducted exclusively by the Community, which he had meanwhile organized against our proposal”(p. 701).
The institutional tangle and the farcical maneuvering that followed are well described, but the reasons for the fiasco are not. It is always dangerous to ask allies to reaffirm their commitments in a declaration; this is likely either to produce platitudes (which is what finally happened, in this instance, in the spring of 1974), or else to bring to the fore all the conflicts, suspicions, and reservations that are normally kept below the surface—which is what happened in the summer and fall of 1973. Commitments are best defined in crises that reveal common needs. Kissinger’s pressure produced a crisis that exacerbated differences.
The Europeans were, at that moment, busy trying to give new life to their Community, which had just been joined by England, Ireland, and Denmark. While Kissinger wanted them to give priority to “Atlantic” concerns, they were bound to resent this attempt to shape their agenda from the outside; and he does not stress that he suggested, in effect, that the nine members of the Community make no important decision without prior consultation with the US. This, and the clumsy reference to America’s global responsibilities (compared to Europe’s regional interests), made it easy for Jobert to use, in good Gaullist fashion, America’s pressure as a goad for European solidarity, and to give to the latter an anti-American direction. This time, Britain and West Germany followed him. Indeed, Kissinger’s analysis (p. 729) of the four areas of disagreement between the US and its allies—the Middle East, East-West relations (or competitive détentes), European unity, and Watergate (of course)—shows how unwise it was to try to resolve such issues by a draft charter.
When, in February 1974 in Washington, Kissinger succeeded in isolating Jobert and in getting the other Western Europeans to agree on a new institution, the International Energy Agency, it was not only because Jobert had overplayed his hand, but also because on this issue—the oil crisis—there was a real convergence of interests, and America held the trump card. In the Year of Europe, Kissinger had overplayed his hand.
When we come to Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy, criticism may seem unwise, since he achieved some spectacular successes after the outbreak of Sadat’s war in October 1973. He obtained what, he tells us, he had wanted all along: Egypt and even Syria switched from reliance on Moscow (which could provide only weapons, but not Arab victories) to reliance on Washington (which, thanks to Israel, and by helping Israel, could prevent Arab victories but could also extract Israeli concessions). He also can claim to have obtained the gradual exclusion of Moscow from Middle East diplomacy, and the first agreements between Israel and its two enemies, a step-by-step process he deemed the only sensible alternative to either recurrent wars or an unobtainable, comprehensive settlement (p. 615). Clearly, his diplomacy helped to clear the way for Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, and for the Camp David agreements—the major advance in the Middle East so far.
However, two lines of criticism seem justified. One is related to his actions (or rather inaction) before the October war. The belief that Egypt could not start a war—despite Sadat’s own warnings, and those of Brezhnev at the San Clemente summit in June 1973 (pp. 297-298)—and the decision not to push for negotiations before the Israeli elections, scheduled for October 30, meant that the region, and the world, were exposed to the shocks and losses of one more war, to the showdown between Washington and Moscow over Israeli violations of the cease-fire (the nuclear alert), and above all to the oil embargo, with its enormous psychological effects, as well as to the huge increase in the price of oil, made possible by earlier Arab production cuts resulting from the war (p. 889). The OPEC price rise was an event which Kissinger calls “pivotal,” and whose disastrous consequences for every group of countries he evaluates very well. Unfortunately, before it took place neither Kissinger nor his staff had been able to make a sufficiently close connection between the economics of oil and the politics of the Middle East (cf. pp. 872, 885). As for the embargo, few believed it could matter (p. 871).
He certainly cannot be faulted for his insistence after the war began on helping Israel turn the tide in its favor, or for his decision to help save Egypt’s encircled Third Army, or for his sharp refusal to allow Moscow to introduce its forces in the region. But his belief that an Arab victory had to be blocked mainly because the Arabs were armed by Moscow, that the war had to be read as a clash of Moscow-armed states against an ally of Washington, and that the West Europeans’ dissociation from the US was therefore tantamount to a betrayal of the Atlantic alliance, is contradicted by the evidence: Sadat was in any case determined to move away from a highly reluctant Soviet partner and Syria itself was deeply ambivalent about Moscow.
Kissinger’s great fear, his main argument against any attempt at a comprehensive settlement, was that this would give “radical elements” a veto and allow the Soviet Union “to inject itself as the lawyer of the Arab side,” supported by the Europeans and by Japan (p. 615). This appears a bit exaggerated, in view of the Soviets’ own demonstration of some reluctance to encourage Arab wars and of their inability to obtain Israeli concessions. The risks of the Arab nations outbidding one another against Israel and of Israeli intransigence in a search for a comprehensive peace were real. But after the earthquake of the October war, with an Egyptian leader willing to “trust Henry,” and an Israel utterly shaken and dependent on the US, would it have been as impossible as Kissinger argues to practice a step-by-step diplomacy less narrow and prudent than the one he chose?
“Each step,” he writes, “had to show that we could achieve results. Thereby each advance would build confidence and make further steps easier” (p. 616). However, this is precisely what did not happen. Critics several years later asked whether the enormous amount of energy and capital consumed by the negotiation of limited disengagement agreements had been worth it, whether Kissinger’s tactics did not make it possible for Israel to haggle and to stall over a hill here, a half-kilometer there, rather than over really fundamental issues. May not the opportunities lost have been as considerable as the breakthroughs?” Reading Kissinger’s account leaves one with the same questions. He himself recognizes that there was no time for a Jordanian disengagement negotiation, and that this failure (blamed mainly on Israel) led to King Hussein’s losing, and to the PLO’s receiving, the Arab mandate to speak on behalf of the Palestinians at the Rabat conference in the fall of 1974.
Two things emerge from his narrative. One is the broad gap between Kissinger and Nixon, who was periodically tempted to threaten Israel with a suspension of American aid, rather willing to link a lifting of the oil embargo to a more pro-Arab policy in Washington, and less implacably opposed to joint Soviet-American action in the Arab-Israeli conflict. What also stands out is Kissinger’s extraordinary sensitivity to Israel’s predicament, manifest not only in his behavior toward Israel during the war (cf. pp. 518, 620) but also in the fact that he never pressed the Israelis to clarify their position on such key issues as borders and the fate of the West Bank; he always avoided tying disengagement deals to any Israeli commitment on these issues. On the one hand, he hoped that America’s aid during the war would incite Israel to “heed our views in the postwar diplomacy” (p. 478). On the other, “our influence in the Middle East depended on Israel’s being perceived as a close ally difficult to move” (p. 624). Thus Kissinger’s views never strayed too far from Israel’s. The surprise of the October war had taught him that a diplomatic deadlock was too dangerous. But, basically, he deemed the key issues insoluble. The most that could be done, therefore, was to keep talking and start moving. But motion without a clear direction could not, in the long run, prevent either further crises in the region (as in Lebanon) or the Soviets from regaining influence among the dissatisfied.
Kissinger’s insistence on being a solo player in the Middle East and his intolerance toward the Western Europeans (whose misgivings about America’s policy in the Middle East—a policy that was one of the causes of an oil crisis which hit them more than us—he interpreted as “objectively in conflict with us,” p. 716) contributed to the later clash between the US and its allies, at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His exclusion of the Soviets contributed to the decline of détente, which he deplores.
Years of Upheaval offers a spirited defense of détente, mainly against its right-wing critics—although Kissinger presents himself as a centrist, fighting against “the liberal approach [which] treated foreign policy as a subdivision of pyschiatry” and “the conservative approach [which] considered it an aspect of theology” (p. 239). He justifies détente in tactical terms—the need to avoid a Western European drift toward Moscow (pp. 136, 241), a “policy of seeking to dominate the peace issue” (p. 1031), a method for mitigating unavoidable crises, as in the Middle East (p. 600). He also justifies it in strategic terms: it has become a necessity in the nuclear age, and a way of “playing for time to see what modifications the Soviet system might undergo if it were firmly blocked and as it dealt with its inherent stresses” (p. 51), a reminder of the lessons of the origins of World War I, not only World War II (pp. 237-238). He defends SALT I (pp. 259-260) as a mere ratification of the force levels on both sides (the American ones having been “unilaterally established by the United States for over ten years,” p. 1007), and he rejects the argument “that SALT is responsible for the strategic dilemmas we face today” (p. 1159).
What, then, went wrong? Kissinger blames Senator Jackson, who “wanted an issue, not a solution” (p. 996) and who misused “linkage by tying policy instruments—credits and the most-favored-nation provision for the USSR—to domestic Soviet policy, on Jewish emigration, instead of external behavior. He blames the Pentagon and James Schlesinger for their demand, in SALT II, for “equal aggregates” in US and Soviet launchers and throw-weight. This, he argues, either meant impossible Soviet reductions (to American levels) or American increases for which there were no plans. Instead the Pentagon should have tried to obtain a limitation of the number of Soviet MIRVed land-based missiles (below the number of American ones) in exchange for unequal aggregates, the tactic preferred by Kissinger. (He rightly stresses that the key issue had become the vulnerability of America’s land-based missiles to the Soviets’ MIRVed heavy ones, but does not seem to think that the problem stemmed from the failure the curb MIRVs in SALT I.) Obviously, that is not enough of an explanation.
Part of the trouble was, once again, at home. Kissinger’s détente entailed constant vigilance: a determination to resist even marginal challenges of the balance of power as soon as they arise. He believes this is necessary in order to discourage further probes by ambitious powers and to stop trouble before it grows too dangerous (cf. p. 446). Would it be possible, first to explain to the public that détente would mitigate and perhaps help avoid endless confrontations, and then, later on, to obtain support for recurrent and often marginal tests of strength? Would a public as addicted to simplicities, as indifferent to balance-of-power calculations as Kissinger describes it, be willing to support such a complex strategy of confrontation and cooperation? Would this strategy not get crushed between those who would stress cooperation, in order to avoid confrontations, and those who, like Senator Jackson, believed that “if the Soviets were restrained they had to have been given some pay-off” but that “if they were uncooperative, they must be punished by the withholding of already agreed-to commitments” (p. 991)? This kind of strategy requires total control by the Executive: when idealists or suspicious cold warriors insist on having their say, the delicate mix of policy instruments risks being destroyed.
More serious even were the external question marks. Clearly, the strategy of détente had been chosen by the two superpowers as one that was in the common interest not merely for different but for opposite purposes. Moscow hoped that détente would incite America’s European allies to establish links with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, would slacken defense efforts in Western Europe and in the US, would make the Soviet Union more powerful with the help of American technology, and would make it more difficult for the US to intervene abroad against “progressive” forces. Washington hoped that détente would be, as Kissinger puts it, “partly a tranquilizer for Moscow as we sought to draw the Middle East into closer relations with us at the Soviets’ expense” (p. 594), and that economic benefits would complement containment as a restraining force on Soviet adventurism (p. 247). In the long run, it was impossible for both sides to win their contradictory bets. At any given moment, each one had to wonder whether its current gains outweighed its losses. The stability that balance-of-power strategies can provide in a world where several great powers compete cannot be recaptured in a bipolar world.
Kissinger’s interpretation and practice of détente were bound to force the Soviets to ask themselves whether there was enough in it to make it worth their while. On the one hand, Kissinger skillfully rejected any form of Soviet-American condominium, despite repeated Soviet entreaties aimed at the Middle East and at China. (Brezhnev offered first a treaty in which the two superpowers would have renounced the use of nuclear weapons only against each other and, later, a Soviet-American non-aggression pact.) On the other hand, he tried to dry out such ponds for Soviet fishing as existed in the Middle East and in turbulent parts of the third world. He describes with great self-satisfaction the gradual shrinking away of the Geneva conference that was supposed to be held under the superpowers’ auspices, and Gromyko’s humiliating knocks at half-closed Arab doors. He told Pompidou that some changes in the international balance had to be resisted “however they come about,” i.e., even if they do not result from external aggression (p. 168).
Kissinger thought Moscow would take all this as long as the US maintained “enough of a Soviet stake in other areas of our relationship” (p. 943). But the economic stake was limited—not only by Senator Jackson, but also by the existence of trade links between America’s allies and Moscow and by the very nature of the Soviet economic and political system. And as for SALT, even Kissinger wanted to use the process in order to gain Soviet limitations while constraining the US as little as possible. He feared that arms control would increase domestic resistance to new weapons systems and to the conventional rearmament he deemed required by the new strategic nuclear balance (p. 261).
It is therefore not surprising that the Soviets, finding themselves squeezed out of the Middle East despite their grumbling and warnings, tried a few years later to turn the tables on their rivals, in Africa and on the periphery of the Middle East. The US failed to appreciate the effect of its “success” in the Middle East on the loser, Moscow. Later, Moscow failed to evaluate correctly the effect of its gains on Washington. As a method of competition, as a process for the superpowers’ struggle, détente was inherently unsteady. As a definition of outcomes, it was never clear, because it concealed an incompatibility of designs: one side aimed (at a minimum) at a condominium, the other at a kind of Bismarckian primacy.
Kissinger calls SALT “an orphan and a victim, ground down between a liberal idealism unrelated to a concept of power and a conservative dogmatism unleavened by a sense of proportion or strategy” (p. 1029). He had a concept of power, but it was often too crude to be accepted at home or effective abroad. He had a strategy, but its central objective—a more skillful containment of the Soviet Union—he ultimately failed to achieve.
Reflecting on both volumes of memoirs and their author, one cannot help being struck by certain features. One is the tension between the practitioner of power politics, the statesman concerned with temporal status and success, and the observer and writer who so often uses words such as “transcendence” and “acts of grace.” Another is the contradiction between rather rigid and sweeping generalizations and the very subtle “particularizations” in his portraits of leaders and national styles. The dogmatist—a rather bookish one—is at war with the penetrating psychologist; a kind of cosmic pomposity struggles against an often delicate artistry.
Splendid in his dissection of situations and tactics, he can be thoroughly unconvincing when he describes in apocalyptic terms what happened when he was not followed, what would have happened had he failed. Maybe he sees himself not just as a man who “made key decisions on a myriad of issues” (p. 1092), but above all as a strategist and as a “conceptual thinker.” I see his brilliance particularly in his tactics and in his pyschological gifts, which made him so effective as a negotiator—at the moment, on the spot.
Certain of his remarks will remain in my memory long after the tedious details of the shuttles, the specious pleading on Cambodia or Vietnam, the dubious self-vindication on détente or US-allied relations, the display of far greater compassion for the petty mischief-makers of Watergate than for the victims of Pinochet, have been forgotten. On Pompidou, for example, close to death, “suspended between the momentary, which he knew only too well, and the eternal, which he was afraid to get to know” (p. 176). On Nixon in the Oval Office during the evening of August 7, 1974, “alone with his back to the room, gazing at the Rose Garden through the bay windows. I knew the feeling from the time when as a boy I had left the places where I had been brought up to emigrate to a foreign land: attempting to say goodbye to something familiar and beloved, to absorb it, so to speak, so that one can never be separated from it. In the process, sadly, one loses it imperceptibly because the self-consciousness of the effort destroys what can only be possessed spontaneously”(p. 1206).
This mixture of the shrewd and the melancholy is one characteristic of the man. After he is through with his memoirs—his attempt at “absorbing” his past—and if it turns out that his exit from politics in January 1977 was final, what a fine writer of biographies, he would make, and how well he could indulge his taste for great men. It would be a service to posterity—one that would not have to be paid by anyone’s blood or tears, as the services of statesmen, however eminent, usually are.
April 29, 1982