Kissinger Speaks on the Arab Spring


In the April 2 edition of the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times, Henry Kissinger wrote an op-ed piece entitled "Defining a U.S. role in the Arab Spring". (Disclaimers: Henry Kissinger was raised in the Washington Heights section of the Bronx; I was raised in the Van Cortlandt Park section, further to the North. We both have PhDs in international relations.) For a host of reasons, nothing Dr. Kissinger writes is without interest, and an examination of one or two of his assumptions is quite revealing. When Henry speaks, those in power listen, while those out of power merely deconstruct.

The principle question is: "Will democratic reconstruction replace national interest as the lodestar of Middle East policy?" Kissinger assumes that democratic reconstruction and national interest are in opposition, that one cannot go with the other. Either one is for democratic reconstruction or one is for national interest, but one cannot have them both. As someone who has historically favored repressive regimes allied with the United States (the list is too long to enumerate), there is no question which Dr. Kissinger favors.

As for the Arab Spring, Dr. Kissinger's basic premise is that the United States should not naively align itself with the revolutionary movements in the Middle East, whether for moral reasons or to compensate for its Cold War policies. Obviously justifying his own policies, he proudly declares that "the Cold War structure lasted 30 years and induced decisive strategic transformations, such as Egypt's abandonment of its alliance with the Soviet Union and the signing of the Camp David Accords". Order is clearly his principle priority, as when he declares "The more sweeping the destruction of the existing order, the more difficult the establishment of domestic authority is likely to prove..."

One could only fantasize about an editorial from Dr. Kissinger in 1775. "The colonies' relationship with England has always been harmonious and orderly. Any revolutionary tendencies could upset that relationship and lead to unforeseeable circumstances and disorder. The world's harmony is guaranteed by the British Empire. Attempts at revolution in the colonies could spread to other regions upsetting the necessary balance of power in the world system and encouraging potential tyranny by revolutionaries".

His analysis of the emerging situations in Libya and Egypt are pessimistic and testify to his perception that democracy has not yet appeared in the region. On the contrary, Dr. Kissinger warns that "...the more fragmented the society grows, the greater the temptation to foster unity by appeals to a vision of a merged nationalism and Islamism targeting Western values or social goals."  The obvious nostalgia for leaders such as his dear friend the Shah of Iran is evident. Democratic regimes are only valid once they have been established and recognized as allied with the West. As the ironic commentary goes: "If the American Revolution happened tomorrow, the United States would intervene to stop it".

Having prioritized order over morality, as if the two were in opposition, Dr. Kissinger next turns to his other favorite obsession, national interest. In measuring the various preferences that might arise from truly democratic processes, he asks: "What outcomes are compatible with America's core strategic interests?" as if strategic interests are the only criteria and that he alone, or his with his chosen inner circle of advisors, could easily decide what they were. Are democratic processes really to take backseat to U.S. strategic interests? Isn't democracy itself and the rule of law a core interest? After all, one should quickly point out as a counterfactual, how many dictators has the U.S. supported with Dr. Kissinger's backing who have eventually fallen?

Finally, Dr. Kissinger concludes that "U.S. policy will, in the end, also be judged by whether what emerges from the Arab Spring improves the reformed states' responsibility toward the international order and humane institutions. It would not be without interest if a similar criterion of evaluation was used to describe the United States during Dr. Kissinger's service in the government. The Cold War has ended. While Kissinger admires much of the current U.S. policy "in avoiding placing America as an obstacle to the revolutionary transformations," his prioritizing order and national interest combined with binary distinctions reflect an outmoded if not dangerous set of assumptions.

However, in spite of reservations - one only has to read Christopher Hitchens' seething indictment of Kissinger, The Trial of Henry Kissinger to raise questions about his diplomacy - the International Herald Tribune continues to trumpet Kissinger. In a more recent op-ed piece on April 14-15, R. Nicholas Burns praises Kissinger and James Baker as masters of diplomacy on the occasion of their being honored by Harvard University. While Burns praises Kissinger as a brilliant intellect and the one who opened China to the West in 1972, he does say that Nixon and Kissinger "should have ended the Vietnam War well before 1973". Fair enough, but not enough.

Kissingerian diplomacy, if you will, always put his perception of the United States' national interest in the forefront, and at any price. His notion of order was his notion of order, and again, at any price. The era of grand strategies with Kissinger jetting back and forth in the Middle East has shown its limitations. To get nostalgic for superstar diplomats, especially Dr. Kissinger, is to be nostalgic about an era during which the United States thought it dominated and could do as it pleased. Kissinger's diplomacy was limited if not dangerous and immoral as Hitchens well documents. While Burns and the Herald Tribune are certainly right to praise diplomacy, using Henry Kissinger as an example of a master diplomat should be open to serious examination.




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  • Dear Sir, excellent piece. Probably, Burns didn't want to tarnish the glitter of this republican icon and call him outright a Master Deceiver, which appears more accurate considering it was Kissinger's advocacy that limited nuclear war was a viable policy option that brought him to the attention of Eisenhower and the Rockefellers (Standard Oil, Chase bank), chaperons of the Council of Foreign Relations.

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