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The Once and Future Kissinger

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With George W. Bush in Austin, Texas, July 2000.  

That Kissinger should now want to distance himself from the war in Iraq should come as no surprise—every hawk from Richard Perle to David Frum is doing the same thing. But Kissinger’s maneuvering is more artful than most.

“I have basically supported the objectives of the strategy, and I want it to come out well,” Kissinger tells me, but he adds that the views expressed in his syndicated newspaper columns “don’t amount to a cheerleading advocacy of every step that has been taken.”

Asked if the White House now understands the need for international legitimacy and diplomatic solutions, Kissinger says, “I believe they understand it today, yes.”

Suggesting indirectly that the White House didn’t understand it until now is as close as Kissinger gets to criticizing the Bush administration. When I bring up a comment he made on CNN in 2004 remarking that “they want to believe that Iraq could be occupied in the same manner” as Germany and Japan during World War II, but it “turned out to be wrong,” Kissinger suddenly doesn’t recall who “they” are: “I have no idea,” he says. “That was a general view that one could read. You will not get me to talk about any individual.”

When I point out that the foreign-policy advice buried deep in his 2,000-word newspaper articles might suggest a certain displeasure with the execution of the war, Kissinger demurs. “Displeasure, perhaps, is a strong word,” he says. “Uneasiness is a better word.”

Bob Woodward is amused when I tell him that Kissinger believes he “happens to be wrong” about his influence over the Bush administration. “Is Kissinger backtracking on Iraq?” He laughs. No matter. “What I’m reporting is the view of people like Cheney and people in the White House about Kissinger’s influence,” he says, “not Kissinger’s evaluation of his influence.”

Kissinger admitted to Woodward that he has met with Cheney every month and the president every other month since he took office. Whether this constitutes influence depends on your definition of influence: No doubt, Kissinger never minded being seen as influential, but he argues that meeting with the president half a dozen times a year hardly makes him the architect of a policy. Woodward counters that a total of 36 hours over six years adds up to more time with the president than almost any outsider ever.

Kissinger’s advice to Bush and Cheney, says Woodward, was “very soothing. That’s why they talked to him. It’s all part of the refusal to face reality. If you go back to the Nixon tapes, he’s a flatterer.”

Some of Kissinger’s closest friends are skeptical of his influence on the White House for this very same reason: his legendary sycophancy. Kissinger, they say, didn’t tell Bush and Cheney anything they didn’t want to hear.

“It’s good advertising for Kissinger, and it’s good advertising for the president,” says Brent Scowcroft. “They love that—especially Henry Kissinger—if they can go out and say, ‘Henry agrees with us.’ They want his support, they don’t want his views.”

“I think he likes to please people too much,” says Melvin Laird, the secretary of Defense during the Nixon administration. “You’ve got to be a little bit of a son of a bitch sometimes.” (Laird would know: During the Nixon years, he and Kissinger battled so fiercely for influence that Laird had Kissinger’s phone tapped to gain advantage.)

“The tragedy of Henry Kissinger is that he is a very large intellect joined to a very small man,” says Mark Danner, a foreign-policy writer who knows Kissinger. “No one is more brilliant, but in offering advice to policy-makers he invariably lets his obsession with his own access and influence corrupt what should be disinterested advice, tailoring his words to what he thinks the powerful want to hear. As a matter of character, he is more courtier than thinker.”

Kissinger, of course, takes issue with the notion that he’s a man who favors power over speaking truth to power. “It’s wrong,” he says. “It will make you popular with your friends in the New York intelligentsia if you say that, but it’s totally wrong.”

If Kissinger is, in his own careful description, uneasy about the execution of the war, and if he is not afraid to give the president an analysis that he might not want to hear, then what exactly was he telling Bush?

I frame the question by recalling Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s secretary of State, whom Kissinger wrote about recently in The New York Times Book Review, mischievously calling him “perhaps the most vilified secretary of State in modern American history” (thereby relieving himself of the distinction). Acheson was one of a group of former statesmen dubbed “the Wise Men” who famously met with President Lyndon Johnson during the Tet Offensive in 1968 to tell him the Vietnam War was lost and he should pull out. Did Kissinger do an Acheson?


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