The Flaw in Kissinger's Grand Strategy

The U.S. wields enormous power, but its success in using it depends on the actions of other nations. The Bangladesh crisis is a case in point.

Presidential advisor Henry A. Kissinger chatted with President Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, after his arrival, July 8, 1971.
Presidential advisor Henry A. Kissinger chatted with President Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, after his arrival, July 8, 1971. (AP)

In his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Henry Kissinger begins his description of America’s perpetual, eternal interests by saying, “We have to have faith in ourselves.” To him, the fundamental strategic question for Americans is: “What is it that we will not permit, no matter how it happens, no matter how legitimate it looks?”

That Kissinger has an incisive mind, an excellent grasp on history, and a special place in U.S. history as a strategic thinker goes almost without saying. But like all men confident of their greatness, he did not get everything right. An academic in government who understands the world is limited by the vision of the president he serves. Then there are political constraints to deal with. I admire Kissinger for much of what he has written in his 18 books, as well as for his accomplishments in government. One need not agree with everything he says or everything he has done to appreciate his contribution and his relevance.

In my view, Kissinger is right in his critique that President Barack Obama’s foreign policy involved insufficient exercise of U.S. power. Meanwhile others, such as former President George W. Bush, have often been criticized for going to war with insufficient forethought. Finding the right balance between asserting American force and avoiding incessant conflict is never easy. The U.S. is limited by the actions of other nations, both friend and foe. Kissinger’s desire for a stable U.S.-China relationship, for example, depends as much on China as it does on the United States. There’s no question that America wields great power, but it must assess correctly the intentions and actions of others in order to exert it effectively.

Numerous blunders in U.S. foreign policy are the result of failing to read others correctly, rather than mere errors in deploying American power. Several scholars now argue that understanding the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s desire for independence, and dealing with him as a nationalist, might have helped avert the long and painful Vietnam War. Instead of considering him a stooge of the Soviets or the Chinese, the U.S. could have placated Ho with support for an independent and unified Vietnam. Kissinger’s benign assessment of China’s ambitions could possibly (though not certainly) result in an error of judgment in the opposite direction. The Chinese might be dangling the prospect of cooperation only to ensure their gradual, unimpeded rise to the point where they might challenge U.S. global leadership. If that is the case, the U.S. would have to consider more assertive use of “power” than Kissinger advocates.

Kissinger cautions against pursuing “an essentially reactive and passive foreign policy.” But an active policy requires deep knowledge of other nations, which might not in all cases be present either within the U.S. government or even in American academia. The U.S. should surely not withdraw from regions “where we can only make things worse,” as Kissinger believes Obama has done. U.S. interests remain global and smart engagement, not withdrawal, is the real alternative to ill-considered intervention. Equally important is not acting on insufficient and flawed intelligence, or on presumptions of other nations’ intent that might be incorrect. Having the kind of grand strategy Kissinger advocates is only one part of being a global leader. Another significant element in successful foreign relations is a better understanding of on-the-ground realities in various parts of a complex world.

Nothing illustrates the difficulty of pursuing an active foreign policy without regard for local considerations better than America’s policy over the years toward the Indian subcontinent. As Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2011, I witnessed first-hand Washington’s penchant for disregarding historic patterns of behavior while expecting cooperation from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or India.

In his book World Order, Kissinger describes India as “a fulcrum of twenty-first century order: an indispensable element, based on its geography, resources and tradition of sophisticated leadership, in the strategic and ideological evolution of the regions and the concepts of order at whose intersection it stands.” But in 1971, when Pakistan’s erstwhile eastern wing fought to become Bangladesh, Kissinger had scorned India as “a Soviet stooge, supported with Soviet arms” over its support for Bangladeshi independence.

Then, America’s strategic judgment had been clouded by India’s refusal to formally align itself with the United States in the Cold War; at the same time, Pakistan had been a U.S. ally since the 1950s, partly to acquire U.S. arms for its military competition with India. Yet Pakistan’s support for the U.S. anti-communist effort was sporadic and never involved the deployment of the conventional forces maintained with American funding. Pakistan turned down U.S. requests for its troops’ participation in wars in Korea and Vietnam, saying its forces would be free to assist America once Pakistan’s outstanding disputes with India were resolved. On the other hand, U.S. arming of Pakistan became the principal reason the India turned to the Soviet Union as a weapons supplier.

India was no less important then than it is now. Its “geography, resources and tradition of sophisticated leadership”—recognized by Kissinger in recent years—were similar even if its policy of non-alignment was different. Many American officials, prominent among them the diplomats George Kennan and Chester Bowles, advocated distancing the U.S. from Pakistan to win over India. But U.S. diplomats beginning with John Foster Dulles, who served as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of state in the 1950s, embraced the notion that an unreliable ally in hand was better than a long-term friend that needed to be wooed. To be fair to Kissinger, he inherited the affection for Pakistan from his predecessors, and had the additional burden of working for a president who had been enamored of Pakistan since his first visit there in 1954.

During his first tour of Asia as Eisenhower’s vice president, Nixon had liked the well-staged anticommunism he encountered in Pakistan, especially as it contrasted with his experience in India. He was offended by what he saw as Indians’ unwillingness to even discuss the notion that communism was the gravest threat to civilization. The Indians had lectured Nixon about global poverty and injustice, both of which, they said, Western colonialism had exacerbated. Conversely, the Pakistanis seemed eager to join the American-led ideological struggle, even though their real purpose might have been to ensure economic and military assistance.

In his memoirs Nixon described India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as “the least friendly leader” that he had met in Asia. He once told the National Security Council that “Pakistan is a country I would like to do everything for. The people have fewer complexes than the Indians.”

By the time of the Bangladesh crisis in 1971—when Pakistan imposed martial law on what was then East Pakistan to crush the territory’s bid for more autonomy—Nixon felt he owed Pakistan’s military dictator General Yahya Khan a debt of gratitude for his government’s role in facilitating Kissinger’s secret trip to China. Ignoring reports of Pakistan’s military atrocities against Bangladeshi civilians, the U.S. actively supported Pakistan to the extent of violating congressional restrictions on supplying arms to Pakistani troops. Estimates of the human toll of what became known as the Pakistani Army’s genocide in Bangladesh range from 300,000 to 3 million fatalities.

As national security advisor, Kissinger visited both India and Pakistan several times during the Bangladesh crisis and fashioned the “tilt towards Pakistan”—a policy that avoided joining international condemnation of Pakistan’s actions in East Pakistan without expressly supporting them—that Nixon probably demanded. Nixon did not want “Soviet stooge” India to overrun “U.S. ally Pakistan” and wanted to spare the Pakistani Army from humiliation. In the end most of Nixon’s and Kissinger’s exertions proved futile. On December 16, 1971, Indian forces marched triumphantly into Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, where Pakistan’s army laid down its arms. Ninety thousand Pakistani troops, civilian officials, and allies became prisoners of war. The People’s Republic of Bangladesh was born and was, after some hesitation, recognized by the United States.

Although the United States, with Soviet help, had prevented India from overrunning West Pakistan as well, it received no gratitude from Pakistan for its efforts. The Indians claimed that they had no plans of doing that anyway, whereas the Pakistanis resented the United States for not stepping in with guns blazing to help save the country’s eastern wing. Meanwhile, the Indians often recall America’s failure to scare them from supporting the Bangladeshis. Nixon had ordered the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet to move to the Bay of Bengal to psych out India, though the fleet was instructed not to engage in conflict. The Bangladeshis to this day remember that the U.S. supported Pakistan’s army as it committed atrocities against them.

In this case, the Americans erred in determining “what is it that we will not permit.” Perhaps U.S. action motivated by errors of judgment or a president’s personal sentiment can sometimes be worse than inaction and passivity.