Party of One: Judging Kissinger

Interesting men are always complex. Simple people are more reliable, more predictable in both the good and bad senses. Men without illusions, the complex ones, always calculate their interest, and cannot be counted upon unless their own interest is served. But then, as Henry Kissinger has remarked, “Cathedrals were not built by saints.” Kissinger fascinates me; he is without illusions and no saint, but he has labored to build an edifice. He won’t be able to finish it, and may even be out of a job by the time you read this. I only hope that his career does not end with a bang and a whimper. As his time in office draws to its end, I try to sort out my own opinions about this complex fellow.

He has lately been beset by unfair charges against him by that foreign affairs illiterate Ronald Reagan, and by sabotage from White House advisers. His response has been increased petulance, and a pessimism about his own circumstances which he translates into a pessimism about the country. A scrambled, melancholy scene: he will be lucky to get offstage with dignity and honor. One can disagree with his outlook and criticize his policies (as I do), yet consider him the most intelligent secretary of state we have had in at least half a century. It should be possible to honor him while also thinking him now dispensable.

Our foreign policy has traditionally been haphazard and given to fits and starts until the nation is roused to anger. Kissinger sought to inject steady power and careful preparation. For Russia he prescribed “penalties for adventurism and incentives for restraint.” How strange that he should now be taxed with softness toward Russia! Kissinger’s fate thus ironically begins to resemble that of Dean Acheson, a dedicated cold warrior whose last days in office were bedeviled by Nixon’s venomous attacks on Acheson’s Cowardly College of Communist Containment. To think of Kissinger as a patsy in negotiations with Moscow is to ignore his own scorn of people who are made grateful and relaxed by temporary moderations in Soviet behavior.

Kissinger has never deviated from the proposition, laid down on the first page of his 1964 book on Metternich and Castlereagh, that “those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. . . . Whenever peace-conceived as the avoidance of war has been the primary objective of a power or a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member of the international community. Whenever the international order has acknowledged that certain principles could not be compromised even for the sake of peace, stability based on an equilibrium of forces was at least conceivable.”

That passage is a key to Henry Kissinger. He belongs to the macho tradition in foreign policy. We need, he once wrote, “a twentieth century equivalent of ‘showing the flag,’ an ability to make our power felt quickly and decisively.” He is an unabashed balance-of-power man who believes that ‟without the ultimate sanction of power, conciliation soon becomes surrender.”

Kissinger is a man fascinated by power, a student of it, a ruthless seeker of it, a respecter of others who have it. a skilled wielder of it, and sometimes, alas, a man intoxicated by it. His lose of the perquisites of power, the television camera’s attention, the long black limos, the special plane, is so evident to everyone that in self-defense Kissinger can only wittily confess his weakness. He does not easily share power or give credit: a flattering courtier of those he serves, he is hell on the help. Demanding loyalty, intelligence, and long hours, but abrupt and dismissing of those who provide them, he has thus made unnecessary enemies of many of them. He would not regard being a “nice man” as an essential qualification for his job. The press respects Kissinger (perhaps he respects its power), and considers him the ablest elucidator of policy in Washington: if only other Cabinet members could reason so well and would speak so freely! He is an infighter; he can be devious; there is guile. But there is also achievement.

Kissinger’s greatest triumph was the opening to China, the most dramatic shift in the balance of power since the Cold War began. The decision to elevate outcast, isolated China to the position of a makeweight against Russia was Nixon’s (perhaps suggested to him by De Gaulle). Kissinger brilliantly brought it off and has not since cheaply exploited it, has not sought to exacerbate the quarrel between the two communist countries or taken sides. That is statesmanship. For a subtle diplomat like Kissinger, talking to Chou En-lai must have been Super Bowl. The Russians, whom Kissinger neither cares for nor admires, are all iron and no irony. Chou was wise, wily, witty: these two clever antagonists enjoyed one another: everything since has surely been anticlimactic for Kissinger.

His Middle East shuttle diplomacy has not yet brought success, but those who denigrate the attempt should try to imagine what the Middle East would now be without it. What other diplomat could have made clear our dedication to Israel’s survival, while persuading Egypt to break with Russia and trust us? Yet the whole frantic exercise goes against Kissinger’s earlier harsh criticism of his predecessors for their planehopping diplomacy and their absorption in every passing crisis: a secretary’s job, he saw, was to stay home and render sage long-range counsel to his President. Perhaps experience changed Kissinger’s mind: more likely his Middle Eastern travels were also intended, in the demoralizing days of Watergate, to give Nixon (and the United States) a much needed foreign policy success.

Lately Woodward and Bernstein have reported that Kissinger despised Nixon. I remember spending an hour with Kissinger on the oceanside terrace of his quarters in San Clemente right after the invasion of Cambodia, Nixon’s disastrous, demagogic speech on Cambodia must have offended the fastidious Kissinger, but unlike so many in government who seek to curry favor with journalists by privately attacking the boss, he said only, leaving me to draw the inference: “I will defend the policy but not the speech.”

Kissinger as well as Nixon must answer to history for the invasion of Cambodia, for the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, and for the prolonged negotiations in which our side was not always as zealous for a quick settlement as it made itself out to be. Nixon feared the right-wing backlash at home for the peace he would have to make. Kissinger’s motives may have been in part professional. Some years back, after paving tribute to Mao’s patience and “rare psychological insight,” Kissinger the historian came to this conclusion about negotiations: “The side which is willing to outwait its opponent—which is less eager for a settlement can tip the psychological balance, whatever the outcome of the physical battle.” On Vietnam, did he follow this advice himself? If so, Kissinger might say, as he once said about a policy of Metternich’s, “Philosophers may quarrel with the moral stature of this policy, but statesmen can study it with profit.” I only know that in Vietnam thousands on both sides, and thousands innocently in the way, died during the protracted negotiating, while each side sought to psych the other.

Idealism is not a word that crops up often in Kissinger’s writings. To him it suggests democracy’s sentimentality, which leads to impulsive crusades. Kissinger’s pragmatism brought a needed corrective to our foreign policy, but it is too much a cold calculation of power and interest. In the days of his greatest prestige, when the leaders of Congress admired his skill unquestioningly, Kissinger could speak authoritatively to authoritarians. That is the kind of one-on-one diplomacy that exhilarates Kissinger, and that he excels in, but it is not a normal or proper attribute of diplomacy in a democracy. I once heard Kissinger admiringly describe President Assad of Syria as a real leader who did not have to postpone answers until he talked to others. Kissinger could barely conceal his contempt for those European diplomats who had to consult their cabinets or their divided parliaments before committing themselves. Besides, he felt, allies are a hindrance to superpower diplomacy, and he kept them out of his act. He now finds his own congressional support eroded, and lugubriously laments, as if it were a fatal flaw in democracy, that Congress should have such power to check him.

As he becomes a lame duck, the shortcomings of his methods and attitudes become more apparent. Kissinger may not have written off Eastern Europe as a Russian sphere of influence, but time after time, as in his advice to Gerald Ford not to see Solzhenitsyn, he shows a reluctance to espouse moral issues that might jeopardize a negotiation. The man who succeeds Henry Kissinger as secretary of state will find much of value to build upon, but will also have the chance to restore a moral context now largely lacking in our foreign policy. The absence of this moral context has confused many who once trusted us.

Friends report that exhaustion with office has led Kissinger to bouts of Spenglerian gloom about the decline of the Western world. He underestimates our resilience and resources, and has never really appreciated the advantage of moral force on our side, morally used. Let there be thanks along with the goodbye. But with a new secretary let there be a return of American values lately neglected.