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The Once and Future Kissinger

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As for Kissinger’s involvement in the current international debacle, McCain, taking a subtle dig at the White House, points to the outcome of the war as evidence that Bush and Cheney have never really listened to Kissinger. “I think the question should be asked how much they consulted with him before the invasion was initiated,” he says. Even if Kissinger had advised Bush to change course, it’s doubtful the famously bullheaded president would’ve listened anyway, he suggests. “I’m not sure Kissinger, if—and I emphasize if—he felt that way, it would have that effect.”

Unprompted, McCain, who has known Kissinger since 1973, says of their friendship, “I’m not at all embarrassed about it; I’m proud of it.” (But during the 2000 presidential race, his handlers opted not to have the two appear publicly together, fearing the legendary obfuscator would taint the image of the “Straight Talk Express.”)

Asked if he’ll support McCain if he runs for president in 2008, Kissinger says, “Very likely.” Then he corrects himself: “Almost certainly. I don’t have to qualify that.”

It’s the most unequivocal thing he’s said to me yet.

Kissinger obsesses over Woodward’s “Don’t give an inch” quote. “To what is it I said we shouldn’t give an inch?” he asks. ‘To whom shouldn’t we give an inch?’

Weeks have passed since Kissinger and I first spoke, and he is still obsessing over Woodward’s “Don’t give an inch” quote. “To what is it I said we shouldn’t give an inch?” he asks. “To whom shouldn’t we give an inch?”

But Kissinger himself is starting to give an inch. The world—or at least the political climate—has changed. Americans’ approval of Bush’s handling of Iraq has dropped to an all-time low of 31 percent. After taking control of both houses of Congress, Democrats are pushing for troop withdrawals within months. And the White House is making noise about “flexibility” and being open to new ideas on Iraq (although Bush, in Vietnam recently, was still oddly echoing old-school Kissinger doctrine: “We’ll succeed unless we quit”).

As the power shifts, Kissinger is shifting along with it. Now that the Iraq Study Group, led by former secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton, is hammering out a new strategy for Bush, Kissinger is carefully aligning himself with the pragmatic fixers coming in from the cold instead of the enablers who supported the war all along.

After arguing for 30 years that Vietnam was lost because a Democratic Congress failed to live up to its promises, he says he now believes the country needs a bipartisan approach to strategy in Iraq. Regarding troop withdrawals, he says he’s never been against the idea as long as it’s “tied to an overall strategy.”

Whatever the Baker-Hamilton report comes up with, he says, “I will stretch to try to support it.” (The study group recently interviewed Kissinger, who is calling for an international conference with Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran.) Of Donald Rumsfeld, Kissinger will only say, “I feel deeply for him at this moment. It’s a very tragic situation to be in at the end of his public life.” On Rumsfeld’s replacement, Robert Gates, a former CIA director under President Bush’s father and a critic of Rumsfeld’s handling of the war, Kissinger predicts that he and Gates will have “probably very parallel views.”

Last week in London, Kissinger even went so far as to announce that he believes military victory in Iraq impossible and that we have to move to “some international definition of what a legitimate outcome is.”

Sounding like an old realist again, Kissinger tells me that the United States can live with a nondemocratic Iraq. “We may not have any choice,” he says. “It’s a worthwhile goal. You just have to understand the consequences of what you’re saying. You cannot say we want to get out in eighteen months and we want a democratic Iraq. We cannot have both.”

And neither can Kissinger. When I point out that he’s hedging again, trying to have it both ways, he smiles and gives me one last spin.

“At the age of 84,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye, “what great ambitions can I have?”

Henry Kissinger, ever the revisionist, is 83.


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