We’re Not in Kissinger’s Middle East Anymore
Martin Indyk, Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy (Knopf, 2021)
When I was an undergraduate studying international relations in New York City, I took the opportunity one evening to see Henry Kissinger speak. While filing into the venue, several well-dressed individuals with “Welcome Committee” lapels handed out what appeared to be programs. It was only when I got to my seat that I realized the pamphlet was actually an unsparing indictment of Kissinger’s career from advocates for East Timor. Declassified documents indicate that in 1975 Kissinger personally assured Indonesian dictator Suharto that America would support his invasion of East Timor. In the following years, 100,000 civilians there were killed.
It was my first education in the ways of subversive protest, and my first real life exposure to the sweeping shadow Kissinger continues to cast over American foreign policy. Afterwards, I eagerly read anything by and about the former Harvard academic turned statesman turned international businessman. Kissinger’s tenure in government, from 1969 until 1977, saw the crystallization of what many will instantly recognize as the stable centerpiece of Washington’s Middle East policy: the special relationship with Israel and close partnerships with those states committed to the geopolitical status quo. Kissinger’s strategy was based on incrementalism, a preference for simple order over big peace conferences, and a long-term strategy to supplant the Soviet Union as the leading global power in the Middle East.
While informed by his idiosyncratic realism, Kissinger’s guiding principles in the Middle East were forged by what he confronted there at the time. That may be why, as I moved toward a greater academic and professional focus on the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I lost touch with Kissinger and his legacy. He had, of course, dealt with the Middle East portfolio in government, but in my mind the “shuttle diplomacy” he famously performed there following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war was quickly overshadowed by events, among them the Lebanese Civil War; the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt; the 1979 revolution in Iran; the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon; and the Iran-Iraq war. The events of 9/11 and the Arab Spring seemed to push Kissinger’s world even further into the background.
So what, if any, lessons could Kissinger’s time possibly hold for us today? In his new book, Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy, Martin Indyk tells the story of Kissinger’s role on the Middle East and tries to tease out contemporary insights. There is inherent value in the study of the ideas of important players in history. But there is also a risk to elevating individual, sometimes quite flawed, actors. This risk is especially present when discussing Kissinger, who continues to propound his views on foreign affairs in ways that both reflect and belie the pragmatism with which he has become indelibly linked.
Entering the Middle East Fore
Kissinger’s career only belatedly intersected with Middle Eastern politics. In his years as a faculty member in the Government Department at Harvard and later as an adviser to perennial Republican presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger did not write or say a great deal about the Middle East. The region was also relatively absent from his initial years in government. As Indyk writes, the Middle East file initially belonged to William Rogers, President Richard Nixon’s first Secretary of State. As National Security Adviser, Kissinger was preoccupied with the challenges of Vietnam, détente with the Soviet Union, and preparing to a launch a daring gambit to exploit the Sino-Soviet split. For the Middle East to reach the top of Kissinger’s agenda, two things would have to happen. First, a crisis would need to capture Washington’s attention. Second, Kissinger would need an opportunity to outmaneuver Rogers. Both would soon arrive.
When Nixon assumed office in 1969, the Middle East was less than two years out from the most recent Arab-Israeli war, which concluded with the Israelis occupying the territory of two Soviet-aligned U.S. adversaries, Egypt and Syria. This situation had became a major sticking point between the two superpowers, and for Nixon, the resulting tensions were not acceptable. He had promised in his inaugural address that “after a period of confrontation [with the Soviet Union], we are entering an era of negotiation.” Nixon understood from the start that détente would not be able to bypass the Middle East. What’s more, the recent war had impressed upon both Washington and Moscow the importance of defusing the situation between Israel, an American ally, and the “revolutionary” Arab states. Thus Nixon delegated to Rogers the responsibility to craft the American position. In 1969, Rogers released a comprehensive plan for Arab-Israeli peace that would bear his name. But since Israel at the time was not interested in negotiating a return to its pre-1967 borders without significant modifications, which the warring Arab states were not willing to make, the plan went nowhere. A serious American-led initiative was put on ice.
An existential crisis for a key American partner in the region, King Hussein of Jordan, would refocus American attention onto the region and serve as a formative Middle Eastern moment for Kissinger. In September 1970, what would become known as Black September, radical Palestinian militants backed by Syria and Iraq launched a violent civil war against the Jordanian monarchy. The crisis soon reached the White House. “State might have control of the diplomatic process in the Middle East,” Indyk writes, “but crisis management was the natural preserve of the national security adviser.”
Kissinger quickly went into gear, convening a meeting of the interagency Washington Special Action Group. The question facing the administration was whether to plan for an American intervention on behalf of King Hussein or to back an Israeli intervention. Kissinger believed American forces were stretched far too thin to make any sort of commitment to Amman. Nixon, however, believed that Israeli intervention, despite it being welcomed by the King, would undermine him domestically and in the broader Arab world. In the end, Kissinger was able to convince Nixon to sign off on a plan for Israeli intervention. Although Israel did not ultimately intervene in any militarily significant way, King Hussein was able to hold onto power with the backing of the United States and Israel, and a new formula for an American-led Middle Eastern order was born. Israel became America’s primary strategic military partner in the region, helping to preserve this order and counter Soviet influence. Although not in sync with Nixon and Rogers’ initial vision to preserve détente through a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, Kissinger’s maneuvers confirmed the president’s belief that the Middle East was going to be a major concern for the administration’s foreign policy.
Now that Kissinger had asserted his place in the administration on Middle Eastern affairs, the next step was implementing his strategy of maintaining order to America’s advantage. This meant supporting U.S. allies (mainly Israel and the conservative monarchies) to ensure they could either deter or quickly repel any challenge from a revisionist actor. The potential for peeling off an actor from the revisionist bloc was not yet on Kissinger’s radar. What his policy amounted to was supporting the status quo, not only for its own sake but to convince the Arab states, particularly Egypt, that throwing in their lot with the Soviets would not be worthwhile. In Kissinger’s mind, a solution to Egypt’s conundrum was not urgent because it did not pose a threat to order.
But the limits of this approach quickly became clear. After the 1967 war, Egypt felt aggrieved at its loss of the Sinai Peninsula to Israel and began preparing for the next round of fighting. Kissinger, who regarded Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a mere shadow to his charismatic predecessor, the Arab nationalist firebrand Gamal Abdel Nasser, did not take this threat seriously enough. By continuously postponing a diplomatic solution, Kissinger helped convince Sadat that only a surprise attack would infuse the issue with a sense of urgency for both great powers. On Oct. 6, 1973, during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, an avoidable war was launched by Egypt and Syria against Israel.
But the war was also an opportunity for Kissinger, and he seized it with undisguised relish. The substantive heart of Master of the Game describes how Kissinger, as both the Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser, worked simultaneously behind and in the scenes to ensure an outcome that would prove beneficial to the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. It was by no means a smooth road, but by the end of his tenure Kissinger was able to successfully pluck Egypt out of the Soviet orbit and negotiate the Sinai Interim Agreement, a critical precursor to the 1978 Camp David Accords. This is a story that has been told many times before, but Indyk does an effective job tying Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy his overall approach to foreign policy, which was emerging in the years before 1973.
Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who has served presidents of both parties in a number of White House and State Department roles, is unquestionably an admirer of Kissinger’s intellect and experience. However, it would be plainly wrong to suggest, as one critic already has, that his account of Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy is a fawning “love letter.” The title of the book may lead some to suspect hagiographic intentions. But “master of the game” is a fair summation of Kissinger’s view of himself, a cocksure self-confidence to which Indyk attributes several missteps before and after the 1973 war, including a failure to anticipate the Arab oil embargo against the United States. Moreover, no sycophant of Kissinger would reproduce in their book — as Indyk does — what may be the most morally debased statement ever recorded in the Oval Office, an awfully high bar to clear in the Nixon administration.
This fits with one of Indyk’s larger criticisms of Kissinger’s approach: that he was sometimes reluctant to deal with the more ambitious and even ethical requirements of order-building. In leaning so heavily on supporting Israel in preserving the regional order, Kissinger overlooked a key ingredient: that for such an order to hold, enough states must believe in its justness — and that can’t only be friendly states. His failure to recognize the seriousness of and adequately address Egypt’s dissatisfaction with the status quo, clearly and repeatedly articulated by Sadat, nearly led to direct superpower confrontation in the Middle East. That it did not is a credit to Kissinger’s wartime diplomacy, but that a major crisis took place at all reflected this key weakness of Kissinger’s statecraft. He would continue to underestimate Sadat, and it was only in the following administration when an Egypt-Israel peace treaty was signed.
Master of the Game is a serious work of diplomatic history that is not weighed down by its fastidious attention to detail. Both the reader looking for the particulars on what arms the U.S. air-and-sealifted to Israel during the Yom Kippur War and the one more interested in the foreign policy big picture will find the book valuable. The personal anecdotes Indyk inserts are relevant and illuminating, never indulgent. The book also makes excellent use of Israeli archival sources, most of which are in Hebrew and in the process of being fully declassified.
Does Kissinger’s Middle East Still Exist?
Where Indyk, now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is somewhat less convincing is in the contemporary twist. In the epilogue, Indyk writes, “It is time for U.S. policymakers to return to Kissinger’s step-by-step approach as part of a broader strategy for building a new American-supported Middle Eastern order.” There is something to be said today for Kissinger’s modest ambitions, provided we recognize his mistakes and blind spots. Yet it is increasingly hard to envision an effective, necessary, and positive American leadership role in the region (“American-supported” is an appropriate nod to the irreplaceable role of allies, but Indyk clearly favors a leading American role, albeit one that reflects relatively fewer interests than in the past). And finally, Kissinger’s own writing on the subject is highly problematic.
Even if U.S. officials were not constantly talking about the need for a pivot to Asia, America’s partners in the Middle East long ago sensed its shifting priorities. The lack of serious reprisal to a devastating Houthi attack on major Saudi Arabian oil refineries in September 2019 was as much a watershed as the failure of former President Obama to enforce his “red line” over chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime. The United States is not quite putting the Middle East in the rearview mirror: Rising gas prices are only the most recent reminder of America’s critical interests in this part of the world. But the writing is clearly on the wall. The bulk of America’s foreign policy bandwidth will not be spent in the Middle East.
Furthermore, a leading American role may not be all that necessary for, or even conducive to, a stable regional order. Since Kissinger’s time, Israel has established relations with several Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran remains a concerning threat, but here again Washington’s best role is perhaps not a leading one. The Trump administration’s decision to abandon the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran and institute a “maximum pressure campaign,” at the encouragement of Israel, was a spectacular failure, as even former Israeli officials now readily admit. By contrast, the Biden administration’s mere signaling that it does not intend to continue this approach is encouraging Saudi Arabia to look for ways to defuse its rivalry with Iran, a salutary departure from the recklessness Riyadh’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman exhibited when he had full American backing under Trump. To the extent the Middle East faces significant danger ahead, it is due to a malpractice of American leadership: the withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the attendant diplomatic vacuum with regard to Tehran’s nuclear program.
The great-power competition factor is also markedly different today. The Soviet Union was a major military power in the Middle East in the 1970s. A large portion of Indyk’s narrative is dedicated to showing Kissinger navigating the risks of Arab-Israeli war leading to a breakdown of détente and spurring direct superpower confrontation. China certainly aspires to be a significant economic player in the Middle East, but the stakes in the region are much lower when it comes to the U.S.-Chinese rivalry.
If interests, needs, and great-power concerns no longer strictly dictate the American role in the Middle East, then Kissinger’s experience and diplomatic philosophy may be of limited use. Perhaps the relevant question today is whether America can do good — broker peace where possible, encourage sustainable development, promote human rights, etc. — in the Middle East. Indyk spent most of his government career dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is here where he offers a concrete policy recommendation: The United States should work to achieve another interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, this time including additional Israeli redeployments from the West Bank, and U.S. and Israeli recognition of a Palestinian “state-in-the-making.” Final status and border negotiations would come later. The suggestion is thoughtful, but what it amounts to is an American reinvestment in a political process that neither Israel nor the Palestinian leadership are currently interested in advancing. Besides, America’s ability to serve as an honest broker between the sides is severely hampered by its existing alliance with Israel, and the potential consequences of failure are too great. Instead, as Dalia Dassa Kaye suggests in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, it may be time to locate and work on alleviating global problems found in the region, most urgently the effects of climate change.
If Kissinger’s Middle East is no longer relevant, what of his ideas generally? After all, he is not only a historical figure but an active participant in our present policy discussions — thus not much guess work is necessary in teasing out the Kissingerian position. The indications here are mixed and not necessarily encouraging for those who want to hold up Kissinger as a potential model.
Kissinger’s ideas on the modern Middle East have not been especially illuminating and may, paradoxically, lead away from the type of careful hardnosed realism with which he is associated. Perhaps the most recent and lengthiest exposition of Kissinger’s views here is in his 2014 book, World Order. Although he has an engaging style and knows the relevant history cold, his analysis stands out with its superficiality and essentialism. Two examples can serve to illustrate this point.
First, in his discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue, Kissinger says that, in contrast to the United States and Israel, “the core countries and factions in the Middle East view international order to a greater or lesser degree through an Islamic consciousness” (emphasis my own) that would make reconciliation difficult if not completely infeasible. This was a baffling perspective to read in 2014, and it is even more so in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords. While Saudi Arabia has not established formal relations with the Jewish state, its partnership is an open secret. It turns out that the leaders in the region may not be all that fundamentally different from others: When interests change, longstanding policy follows along with it. Instead of focusing on all the traditional factors often involved in shaping national interests, Kissinger puts an excessive premium on religion and ideology for the Middle East that may not be justifiable. This is not to say that ideology and religion are unimportant, but to treat them as nearly impenetrable barriers to achieving certain policy objectives is to commit the error of not even trying.
This Middle Eastern exceptionalism can also be seen in Kissinger’s commentary on Iran. In 2015, writing with fellow former Secretary of State George Schultz, Kissinger was resolutely skeptical of the agreement then being forged in Vienna: “Iran’s representatives (including its Supreme Leader) continue to profess a revolutionary anti-Western concept of international order; domestically, some senior Iranians describe nuclear negotiations as a form of jihad by other means.” If Kissinger was able to work with the Soviet Union on arms control without addressing Washington’s myriad other problems with Moscow (not to mention its putative commitment to global communism), he sees no such possibility with Iran. In a recent interview, he warned against rejoining the nuclear deal without offering much in the way of an alternative.
The Middle East will always be an area of interest for Washington policymakers. Learning from the accomplishments and mistakes of leaders of the past is important, and Master of the Game will surely benefit generations of graduate students in international affairs. It is a noteworthy achievement in its own right. But instead of relying on Kissinger’s experience, realist axioms, and flawed post-government analyses, future policymakers would do better to first take stock of U.S. interests in the region, assess the extent to which American involvement is necessary, and measure its capacity to contribute to peace and general flourishing. Kissinger was never one to care much about the last piece, but it will arguably be more crucial than ever before in convincing Americans to remain involved Middle East. To that end, there is no replacement for learning the history of the region, and not just the history of American foreign policy there. If Americans hope to remain engaged in the region in a positive way, this calls for studying its languages to better understand the perspectives of its leaders and the needs of its people. And it calls for building meaningful connections with individuals and organizations on the ground.
Indeed, there may be better ways to apply Kissinger’s gradualist modus operandi to the Middle East than those he himself has come up with: There are areas where a limited and calculated American strategy aimed at preventing and mitigating conflict can contribute a great deal. In Yemen, for example, the United States can use its close relationship with Saudi Arabia to reduce human suffering and bring an end to the war there, which has been a net gain for Iran and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Indyk identifies Saudi Arabia as a “problematic pillar” in the American-backed regional order and persuading the country’s brash crown prince to be a more constructive partner would be a beneficial step. Libya, where NATO intervened militarily a decade ago, may be another area where the United States can work with its interlocutors to carefully put the country on the path to stability. Finally, a willingness to challenge allies where necessary — as Kissinger and President Gerald Ford did in their 1975 reassessment of the U.S.-Israeli alliance — is something the current administration can learn from in fixing its predecessor’s mishandling of the Iran nuclear file.
I do not suppose Indyk would take issue with any of the above, yet these are considerations invariably lost when we elevate the importance of individual statesman and their ideas. Kissinger, after all, is a man and not a synonym for prudence and wisdom. These are worthy fundamentals for American foreign policy, which point to numerous possibilities for the United States in the Middle East. However, I suspect their status is burdened rather than enhanced when tied to someone with as controversial and spotty a record as Kissinger’s.
Martin Indyk has done a magnificent job recreating an earlier era of Middle East history through the eyes of its most consequential diplomat. After taking this in, we should perhaps consider leaving it there and looking at the world as it is in our own time.
Abe Silberstein studies Middle Eastern history and anthropology at the CUNY Graduate Center. His writing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and U.S. foreign policy has previously appeared in the New York Times, Ha’aretz, The Forward, and War on the Rocks.
Image: Saudi Press Agency