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The Once and Future Kissinger

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With President Richard Nixon on Air Force One, July 1973.  

Even Kissinger’s advice that “victory over the insurgency is the only meaningful exit strategy,” which appeared in a column under his own byline, is an “accurate sentence out of context,” he says.

When all is said and done, Kissinger has done such a thorough job of rebutting Woodward that it starts to worry him. After all, he is not one to alienate the powerful—including a certain famous and well-connected Washington Post journalist. And so later, after thinking it over, Kissinger calls to edit the record yet again.

“I thought about one exchange we had this morning, with respect to the Woodward quote,” he says, in a friendlier tone. “My view is, I have no recollection whatever of ever having said anything like this in connection with Iraq. On the other hand, I think Woodward is an experienced journalist who wouldn’t invent quotes.”

He wants to retract the “totally untrue” comment.

“I don’t want to make it as a flat statement,” says Kissinger.

In saying so little, it seems, he has already said too much.

You can see why this Iraq business so vexes Kissinger. He hardly needs another quagmire around his neck—especially after he played this one so carefully. When the neoconservatives began driving foreign policy after 9/11, the consummate realist hedged his bets and supported the decision to invade Iraq. There were caveats galore, of course: Kissinger said postwar reconstruction of Iraq would require U.N. involvement and international diplomacy and that he was opposed to occupying a Muslim nation in order to “reeducate the country.” He also said preemptive war as a doctrine was a bad idea, except in rare instances.

His standing on Iraq was so nuanced the New York Times included him in a list of prominent Republicans who objected to the war—only to print a tortured editor’s note amending the report after right-wing critics attacked the paper for misrepresenting his views. “I’m not sure the Times got it wrong,” says Walter Isaacson, the president of the Aspen Institute, a former Time managing editor, and the author of the biography Kissinger. “They just pinned him down when he wanted to stay unpinned.”

At New York dinner parties before the invasion in 2003, Kissinger related to friends that he was “very concerned that there was no plan for what happens after they bring it down and topple it,” recounts one associate. “He predicted to a group of people at a dinner that it would end in civil war.”

Despite private reservations, Kissinger openly supported the war. It was no wonder. The public dissent of Brent Scowcroft, Bush Sr.’s national-security adviser and Kissinger’s longtime friend and former business partner, got Scowcroft cut off from the White House inner circle. For Kissinger, this wouldn’t do.

He was already bitter about being largely ignored by the previous two presidents, especially the first Bush administration. “I think there was little question that the first Bush did not engage Henry in any meaningful way. And that soured Henry on the first Bush. He would prefer to be consulted,” says Lawrence Eagleburger, the former secretary of State under Bush Sr. and a Kissinger friend. “If he does a Scowcroft, he’s out in the cold.”

But the second Bush was clearly willing to bring Kissinger in from the cold. In 2002, he appointed Kissinger chairman of the 9/11 Commission, a position that would have put him at the forefront of the national debate on U.S. intelligence failures and capped a long public career with a crowning achievement.

In the vetting process, however, Kissinger ran into a snag. Five years after he left office, the former secretary of State had founded the consulting firm Kissinger Associates and established himself as a kind of diplomatic fixer who could work the back rooms of Moscow, Beijing, and Riyadh for corporations needing influence. He charges $200,000 (a reported $50,000 just to walk through the door) to consult for companies like Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., a mining company with assets in Indonesia. As much as Kissinger wanted to be the nation’s healer, he valued his business interests more. When Congress requested that he reveal his consulting firm’s client list, he stepped down from the commission.

Nonetheless, Kissinger remained a favorite administration ally, appointed by Donald Rumsfeld to the Defense Policy Board, the outgoing secretary of Defense’s personal think tank. And Cheney told Woodward last year that George W. Bush is a “big fan.” He’s not alone, of course. Kissinger is, after all, a foreign policy genius emeritus, whose exacting skills as a strategic thinker have made him an indispensable adviser to many leaders of the free world. And he’s certainly the guy you call when you’re planning to wage war in the world’s most complicated geopolitical hot spot.


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