Interview April 2007

A Conversation With Henry Kissinger

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discusses Condoleezza Rice and American policy in the Middle East with author David Samuels
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Tell me what it was like being a young academic—or a younger academic, a youngish academic—and suddenly coming into the superheated political environment of the Nixon White House with all these powerful—

Well, Nixon wasn’t my first White House experience. My first White House experience was as a Kennedy consultant. So if I hadn't had that, I probably couldn’t have done the Nixon period, because they taught me what can go on in a White House. But you’re not doing an article about me.

The article is about Dr. Rice. But one of the things people tell me is you have to understand what it means for a younger person with some limited experience on the NSC to suddenly find themselves surrounded by these titans, these elephants, Powell, Rumsfeld, Cheney. What qualities of mind and temperament were necessary for you to keep your balance and do your job under similar circumstances, especially at the beginning?

Almost all of the departmental papers try to move an immediate decision. That’s a particular problem at the beginning of an administration because almost every department that was overruled in the previous administration tries to get it reversed in the new administration. And you have the paradoxical problem of having no files, because the previous administration has taken all the files. So you have to spend some time reconstituting the files.

But I was lucky. Nixon was a very conceptual President, and I surrounded myself with the most conceptual people I could find. So we made up our mind at the beginning that we would answer the big questions. First, what are we trying to do? What is the objective here? And actually, contrary to what almost everybody writes, we used the NSC mechanism. The NSC mechanism didn’t necessarily know what we would ultimately do with it, and they certainly had a shot at presenting what they thought should be done. And then I had my own staff. Anyway, that’s how it started.

Going through Secretary Rice’s interviews, roundtables with the press, her published work—there’s an analogy that she draws again and again to this present moment in history and the beginning of the Cold War. It’s something that she does with me, and something that she does repeatedly in interviews. She says we are making decisions now that will set the groundwork for policy for the next 50 years. She talks about Dean Acheson, she talks about George Marshall. What do you make of the analogy between this moment in history and the beginning of the Cold War?

The essence of the beginning of the Cold War was that the state system as we knew it was beginning to drag. A new danger appeared in the center of Europe. And Europe, which had been the leading continent and the leading actor in world affairs, was declining and was no longer capable of carrying out its responsibilities. George Marshall and Truman guided America into an international system. They defined the international system, and conducted debates in this country.

Now, a number of things are going on simultaneously today that are not necessarily concurrent. In the North Atlantic, in Europe, the nation-state is disintegrating, but the new political unit, the European Union, has emerged here as a political non-factor. So in effect, Europe has no mechanisms for conducting strategic policy the way it used to be conducted by nation-states. Maybe that’s not possible for a transnational unit. That’s what we have to find out.

In the relations between states, war is no longer possible. That’s a new factor. How do you conduct foreign policy when you can’t have war, and you have populations that are not willing to make any sacrifice for anything, including domestic changes? On the other hand, America is still a nation, and that greatly affects our relation with Europe.

And we have Asia, which is more like Europe was in the 19th century, with the notion of equilibrium and balance of power, and so forth. Then you have the Middle East, which is like Europe was in the 17th century, torn by religious and sectarian conflicts. And on top of that, you have a new set of problems that have never existed before and can only be solved on a global basis—climate, energy, terror, for which there is no national mechanism really to deal with it.

So if you sit where Condi is sitting, that’s the tableau in front of you.

Do you think that the language of democracy promotion and what some people call the freedom agenda, the invocation of these broad concepts, is a sufficiently large umbrella to enable policy makers to operate in all these radically different environments at once? Or does it cause more problems than it helps to solve?

I used to say to my colleagues, to the greatest minds of your generation, we’re a country, not a foundation. We have to conduct foreign policy for America. So is the word “democracy” enough?

America will always have a human rights component to its foreign policy. And a democratic component. America cannot conduct totally abstract power politics. Not even Bismarck conducted pure power politics. He said that the best a statesman can do is to listen to the footsteps of God, get a hold of the hem of his coat. You need values. But if you say to yourself that I’m going to get this accomplished in 3 years, or in a very finite time period, you’re denying any concept of evolution and of history, and you get in beyond your depth.

So I’m impatient when we lecture everybody on their domestic affairs. I think it’s often counterproductive.

I was in the West Bank and Gaza after Yasir Arafat died. And when I came back, there was no doubt in my mind that the people living there overwhelmingly preferred Hamas to Fatah. And this wasn’t because of my great skills as a political analyst or my great skills speaking Arabic. Anybody could see it. Fatah was hopelessly corrupt, they had been sitting there for a very long time. And Hamas, if they said they’d give money for suicide bombings, money went for suicide bombings. If they said the money would go to the mosque, it went to the mosque. You could see it if you were there for a day, which is why nobody wanted this election to happen on either the Palestinian or the Israeli side. The result of the election was that Hamas won, and the day after, the State Department and Dr. Rice were actually quite surprised.

Well you saw the same thing in Iraq. Whom could they vote for after 40 years of Saddam? The people they were closest to, which were their ethnic or religious group. That then confirmed the divisions. It did not create a consensus. That’s where we have problems.

But as far as your understanding of how this process works, is it that we are getting trapped by our own rhetoric into taking actual decisions on a day-by-day basis that are at odds with our interests in this region?

Yes. But on the other hand, we also can’t go around just preaching our political interest of the moment. We need to have some larger concept of what we’re trying to do. That can lead to an eventual democracy without necessarily trying to force elections into every framework.

Is it impossible for the United States to get up and say, here are some examples of countries that evolved toward democracy through a functioning market economy: Chile, South Korea, Singapore, take your pick. Is that something that’s outside the language that we’re capable of using?

It’s true those examples should be taken seriously.

You would agree that Dr. Rice has many qualities that are admirable. She’s kind. She’s bright. She’s diligent. She keeps her balance day by day and moment by moment.

Nobody would say that about me.

-- and in some ways, I think she has the potential to be a more effective secretary of state than her predecessor, or than his predecessor, or her predecessor. At the same time, it’s clear that there’s been a terrible lack of connection between this very high-flown rhetoric and this series of thousands of decisions that have been made.

She may well be right—and I think she’s probably right—about the desirability of an evolution in the direction of democracy. The problem is that we’re applying the experiences of parliamentary-type democracy, 19th-century bourgeois democracy, to areas that have a much more complicated history, or a much different history. In the West, democracy developed within a religion that, even when it when it was the dominant religion, elaborated a distinction between what was God’s and what was Ceasar’s. That doesn’t exist in any other religion. Then we had the Reformation. Then we had the Enlightenment. Then we had the age of discovery. None of these precedents exist anywhere else. So to assume that you can exactly apply the formula, it’s probably excessive.

As you know well, this is hardly a cast of mind that is confined to any particular group of people in any particular administration. What is it about Americans that makes us so resistant to looking at our own historical particularity?

People always see the shining city on the hill. Our country has always been comprised of people who turned their back on their previous histories. We’ve never had to deal with contingent issues in the sense that our problems have had absolute answers, or at least answers we considered absolute. So with very little preparation, most of our problems have proved soluble – have always yielded to the application of resources and ingenuity and to finite time scales. Much of this is not true in the rest of the world.

You have a country like China with 4,000 years of history. It has its own present. Of course, it has some aspects like human rights that are less than perfect. But today’s institutional forms are more complex and will probably have to be adapted in the traditional democracies also.

When you say “traditional democracies,” you’re saying—

Western Europe, the United States. When the parliamentary systems and our system were developed, there was minimal government. The problem of how you filter huge masses of information through a democratic process and make it relevant to the people has not been solved even by us. Who understands the national budget?

I sometimes think that this sort of American genius for forgetting is part of our strength as a nation. People say “Oh, poor Americans, they’re so ignorant of history. They don’t know anything. They can’t remember what happened yesterday. Thank God for them they live on a continent without any enemies.” Maybe this is both a tragic weakness of America and also a source of our strength.

Absolutely. It’s a source of our strength. It creates tremendous energy and optimism. And if you know too much—the Europeans were better off when they were a little more naïve. And when they thought they could really solve everything. When you are aware of the complexity of everything, then you wind up paralyzed.

What effect, looking back on it, did 9/11 have on the national psyche? You’ve lived for a long time; you’ve seen this country from a very particular perspective for a long time. Did something change at that point? Did the country go into shock a bit?

The experience of a direct attack on the United States was of course a shocking experience. Of course it started the usual debate; Did we antagonize these people, or were they doing it out of their own their own inner necessities? And that’s one of the basic debates that’s still going on.

But I’m of the view that the President, vilified as he is, ridiculed as he is by many people, is basically right about the nature of the danger. Not necessarily about all the steps that he has taken. But there is a global danger. It is implacable. It needs to be defeated. He’s right about that.

When you look at the increasing strategic rapprochement, I guess you could call it, between the United States and Saudi Arabia, there seems to be an attempt to reshape Middle East policy in some creative way outside the simple framework of democracy or the so-called Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.” What do you see as the administration’s goals, and what do you see as the potential points of conflict with the Saudis?

First of all, it’s very easy to criticize Saudi Arabia, until you begin to think of the alternatives. And I have not heard anyone come up with what they would like to see in Riyadh that would be better for us than what’s there. So whenever you start to think seriously about this problem, you probably come to the conclusion, as every administration has, that you’re better off working with the people who are there right now. Because the consequences of turmoil in Saudi Arabia on the oil supply around the world will be catastrophic.

Now somewhere along the road, this may break down in the sense that there may be a revolution you can’t handle. I of course happen to believe that Iran could have been handled. That we did that to ourselves. Now the part about Saudi Arabia that bothers me is the acquiescence, the continued acquiescence in the financing of the Madrasas, and my inclination would be to crack down much harder on them.

The Saudi interest is clearly the Saudi interest. That’s clearly something very different from American interests in the Middle East.

Neither of us wants Iran to dominate the region. But the Saudis have additional interests on the religious side. What we have is a practical marriage of convenience for a finite period of time.

And in terms of being the keystone of a forward-looking new security architecture for the middle east, that would be problematic.

I have sympathy for what they’re intending to do. First of all, if we don’t get Iran out of the nuclear business, we have lost this ground, and more. They’re either going to be out in a year or so, or they’ll be in forever. And if they’re in forever, that means Turkey, Egypt, everybody will be in. And then we live in a world that is uncontrollable.

Assuming that Iran can be brought to the point where it behaves like a nation and not like an empire, and we get into a negotiation with them, the worst outcome is a nuclear Iran and a vacuum in Iraq. So we have to try to fix the vacuum in Iraq. That’s a rough business that has to be done. Iran needs to know that it has the option to negotiate. But in the meantime, we have to work on the incentives to negotiate, and that means again, we do several things at the same time.

When Ahmadinejad came to New York for the UN thing in September, I followed him around for the week just because I wanted to see him. And I saw a person who was having a wonderful time.

He thinks he’s winning.

What do you think the possibilities are, looking forward, for this administration to do something constructive in the next few years? Which areas do you think they’d be best advised to spend their time and resources on?

I think we have a chance to bring the Korean thing to a conclusion. That will be quite important. They have to bring the Iranian nuclear issue to some clear perception of where we are. And I actually believe that if we do it right, there is a chance for meaningful negotiation on Iraq.

Sure, we have a lot of problems right now, but if you look at it from Tehran’s point of view, if you are halfway rational, you are antagonizing a superpower with endless capacities to harass you, even if it looks distraught in Iraq. There are so many ways we can get at them. And there’s always the possibility that we will, in the end, say enough of this, and do a variation of what Israel did in Lebanon, which would be catastrophic for the Tehran regime. It wouldn’t be good for us—they can make life very hard for us in Iraq. But in the end, they might inherit the same situation we are in now. So it’s interesting to me that for these conferences, to which we’re not paying enough attention, everybody we invited came. So this can either mean that they think that we’re looking for a way out, or—- more likely—- that they are all at least looking to see whether there might be a way out for everybody.

Turkey doesn’t want Iraq broken up, because it doesn’t want an independent Kurdistan. But the Kurds may want some international guarantees. For Syria their frontier with Iraq is more trouble than it’s worth. What Syria wants is Lebanon and the Golan Heights. If you go around the countries, you can see motives for a neutralization of the conflict for a while. It’s conceivable to me that if we acted with energy and conviction in both the military and the diplomatic field, we can make a deal. People who want us out are destroying diplomacy. And gaining nothing.

Will a regional bargain with the Iranians and the Syrians last? I don’t know.

What you’re suggesting is that that’s more likely to come in the form of a package deal than it is one by one by one by one.

Absolutely. I don’t think it can get much further piece by piece. I don’t think it’s possible to do it like that.

And do you think that package deal would be likely to include some sort of Saudi-backed pan-Arab recognition or toleration of Israel in some kind of official—

If it’s properly done. If we panic out of there, then any Israeli deal we offer will be part of the retreat. And then the people who make the deal will be accused by the radicals of having sold out. And it will become an additional weapon in the radical armory.

But if America shows that it can keep its nerve and have a vision, then I think progress in the Iraq negotiation should bring progress in the Israeli negotiation. And I don’t think there’s much to be gained by asking the Palestinians to do things. We need some moderate Arab states—- Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—- to assume the responsibility for this. And let them produce a government that accepts Israel.

When you imagine the show of U.S. military/national resolution that would be necessary to convince all of these actors—

You know the irony is that it wouldn’t even take such a hell of a lot.

That’s what, in your estimate? Is that 20,000 troops in Baghdad?

It’s enough to achieve your objective. 20,000 troops, I don’t know. But it has been a scandal to permit Baghdad and the airport road to be contested for the whole period that we were there.

But part of it was when they set up milestones and objectives, these objectives were things like, We want to see a constitution by this date, or we want to see elections—

This idea that we don’t want to fight. We don’t want a big footprint. So we train the Iraqis to fight instead. That means you’ve wasted two or three years. Which in a guerilla war means that if you don’t win, you lose.

We made the same mistake in Vietnam. We fought a war of attrition. You can’t win a war of attrition against guerillas. You certainly can’t win a war if you’re not fighting the guerillas, but waiting for somebody else to fight them. That was an even bigger mistake than the army demobilizing.

One feature of the policy disagreements over the Vietnam war was that there were these memos—- there were McNamara memos, there were Bundy memos, there were all kinds of memos—- that would be leaked in order to show the agonized souls of the policymakers as they wrestled with these difficult questions, and which suggested, of course, that the policymaker who wrote the memo was a good person who should be admired by the New York Times and whomever else. But also present in those memos was a record of hard questions being asked, or critical thinking going on, however self-exculpatory it was. In this administration, we don’t have a record of hard questions being asked, of analytical and critical—

Well, they don’t ask a lot of questions.

You think we’re looking at a year to do a deal and to find out whether Iran is going to be irrevocably committed to having a bomb?

That’s what I think, yes.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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