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Exploring Henry Kissinger’s Middle East

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avatar by Sean Durns


Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

“Men become myths,” Henry Kissinger once wrote, “not by what they know, or even by what they achieve, but by the tasks that they set for themselves.” In his new book, “Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy,” author Martin Indyk seeks to deconstruct the real Kissinger from the myth. He succeeds admirably.

Kissinger is no stranger to controversy. Serving as national security adviser and later Secretary of State to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger played a key role in formulating American foreign policy in the 1970s. He is perhaps best remembered for his advocacy of détente with the Soviet Union, and for rapprochement with communist China — both deeply controversial policies that garnered both praise and substantial (and often well-founded) criticism.

Yet, as Indyk makes clear in his book, Kissinger should be remembered for his substantial role in the Middle East as well. Like his subject, Indyk has extensive experience in diplomacy, having variously served as an Assistant Secretary of State, an ambassador to Israel, and on the National Security Council.

Indyk’s governmental experience augments the book, which, at nearly 700 pages including footnotes and bibliography, is perhaps the most exhaustive look at US peacemaking efforts in the 1970s Middle East to date. His public service provides him with both an essential understanding of the policymaking process, as well as how the bureaucracy works. This makes the book more valuable and insightful than a work produced by an academic writing from an ivory tower.

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Indyk’s book also benefits from key source material, including extensive interviews with Kissinger, and access to never-before referenced documents. As he notes, his own wife once served as Kissinger’s secretary. Yet, while Indyk clearly admires Kissinger’s approach to the Middle East, he avoids hagiography.  The “master of the game” comes in for plenty of criticism.

Kissinger, Indyk makes clear, is fallible. That Indyk isn’t held hostage to the access that he was clearly granted is commendable and all-too rare.

Indeed, the book’s thesis is that the very strengths that made Kissinger successful in conducting Middle East diplomacy also resulted in what Indyk feels were potentially missed opportunities. For example, had Kissinger taken Egyptian ruler Anwar Sadat “seriously at the outset,” Indyk convincingly argues, “he might have averted the Yom Kippur War.” More debatable is that, “had he enabled King Hussein of Jordan to regain a foothold in the West Bank when he had the opportunity to so … the Palestinian issue might well have been dramatically different.”

Kissinger’s preference for gradualism, his innate cynicism and skepticism, and his belief that peace is a chimera, assisted in some of his key accomplishments in the Middle East. It is a view that Indyk himself has grown to appreciate. He asks: “Was it better to try for less the Kissingerian way and limit the consequences of failure? When I was an adviser to President Clinton, I thought it was better to try for more. But at the end of this journey, I have come to appreciate Kissinger’s view.”

But Indyk presents Kissinger’s ideology as potentially holding him back from seeing a broader picture and achieving more grandiose accomplishments. Yet, the author makes clear that achievements like Israeli-Egyptian peace, embodied in the Camp David Accords under the subsequent Carter administration, were very much the result of not only Kissinger’s fabled “shuttle diplomacy,” but of a farsighted Arab leader, Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Indeed, Carter’s own approach to Arab-Israeli peacemaking comes in for some well-deserved criticism.

“Master of the Game” also depicts Kissinger as acting in “little-recognized and unacknowledged ways to protect and help Israel — acts that had a profound and lasting impact, for better and for worse, on the Jewish state’s future.” For many, this might seem like a bold claim. Kissinger had, at times, a rocky relationship with Israel’s leaders and her people.

Yet, Indyk backs it up, correctly observing that it was under the Nixon administration that the US began to view Israel as a strategic asset, increasing arms shipments and, in key respects, helping to lay the groundwork for the secure and prosperous Jewish state that exists today. A not inconsiderable part of this was due to Kissinger’s diplomatic work, as well as his efforts to thwart those, including his colleagues and bosses, who sometimes sought comprehensive final status negotiations and imposed terms.

While he himself wasn’t above employing the threat during negotiations with Israeli leaders, Kissinger resisted attempts to get Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, which he rightly recognized as vulnerable and dangerous. It was, Indyk records, one of the reasons why he was “so determined to avoid Nixon’s and Ford’s preference for a comprehensive solution that would have required the imposition of the 1967 borders with minor rectifications.”

From the vantage point of today’s US-Israel relationship it is easy to take such a position for granted, but the 1970s after all weren’t that far removed from the 1950s when the Eisenhower administration had no problem imposing terms on the Jewish state.

The book succeeds in painting character sketches not only of Kissinger, but of his contemporaries and associates. Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, Golda Meir, and Shimon Peres, among others, are fleshed out. Indyk’s time in government also helps him appreciate the constraints that policymakers faced. For example, he notes how lackluster US intelligence was during the Yom Kippur War — and its resultant effects on decision making.

The biggest flaw in “Master of the Game” isn’t the author’s recounting of historical events. Rather, it is when he tries to impart lessons from the Arab-Israeli peacemaking of the 1970s to present-day Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Indyk notes that both the world and the region have changed substantially. But it is far less clear that what worked in one realm half a century ago would work today in another. There is no Palestinian leader who is remotely comparable to Sadat.

Indeed, Yasser Arafat never wanted peace with the Jewish state. Indyk blames Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s push for a comprehensive peace settlement as being responsible for the breakdown of peace negotiations and subsequent Second Intifada. Yet, Arafat was never committed to peace. Indeed, in a May 10, 1994, speech in South Africa — and in another one in August 21, 1995, at Al-Azhar University in Cairo — Arafat compared his decision to participate in the Oslo process to deceptions that the Prophet Muhammad engaged in against rival tribes.

As Arafat stated in a 1996 speech: We plan to eliminate the State of Israel and establish a purely Palestinian state. We will make life unbearable for Jews by psychological warfare … We Palestinians will take over everything, including all of Jerusalem.”

Elsewhere, Indyk sometimes draws a false equivalency between the construction of Israeli settlements — the building of Jewish homes in Judea — to Palestinian anti-Jewish violence, implying that both are similar obstacles to peace. They are not.

The overwhelming majority of the book, however, is concerned with Kissinger and his mostly successful attempts to fashion an American-led order in the 1970s Middle East. “Master of the Game” is a valuable contribution to the historical record, and an important work of scholarship.

The writer is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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