Kissinger Is Wrong

Henry Kissinger published an article on April 22nd in which he lays out an overview of the Obama administration’s foreign policy choices and challenges in upcoming years.

He is correct in leading off by mentioning that the economic downturn creates a political window of opportunity for some agenda, much as it does in the domestic sphere. If the administration can be expected to use this the way it is using the domestic economic downturn, I suppose we might expect the White House to do what it can to avoid dealing with economics while it pushes a broad range of non related issues at international conferences, all the while leaving the department most necessary to deal with the political crisis at hand (in this case treasury) understaffed.

Of course Kissinger is far more diplomatic than this, merely pointing out the obvious point that success in one sphere of foreign policy has a direct impact on another, and suggesting that Obama may be moving toward a “concert diplomacy” paradigm, of which he is mildly critical.

Then he discusses negotiating with Iran and North Korea.

In the process, it must navigate between two kinds of public pressures toward diplomacy endemic in American attitudes. Both seek to transcend diplomacy’s traditional give-and-take. The first reflects an aversion to negotiating with societies that do not share our values and general outlook. It rejects the effort to alter the other side’s behavior through negotiations. It treats compromise as appeasement and seeks the conversion or overthrow of the adversary. Critics of this approach, who represent the second sort of pressure, emphasize psychology. They consider the opening of negotiations an inherent transformation. For them, symbolism and gestures represent substance.

This is over simplified. The fact is, that while the two camps he mentions exist, he fails to point out the most obvious use for negotiations; the instrumentalist point of view. This is simply the outlook that sees negotiations as a means to some end, not any kind of end in themselves. If one is trying to use negotiations to alter behavior, then the negotiation is the point; likewise if one sees negotiations as inherently transformative. Of course, as a man who has lived by negotiation for fourty years, I do not expect Kissinger to mention the large number of people who view negotiation as nothing more or less than glorified communication, stylized into a standard format between nations. In this view; they are like speaking or making a commercial. You have something to convey and wish to convey it to the person you engage in talks with. I believe that Russia is a good example of a nation that falls more into this category. Not that they mean what they say, but that they always go in with a plan and have something they wish to convey in the end.
Kissinger is dead-on when discussing proliferation and how it undermines the very concept of a global community. Obviously, anybody who wants to see some kind of order in the world built on something that is not the inherent power to wipe out other, competing states, must hate the idea that North Korea and Iran would go nuclear. We would go back to a wolf-pack mentality around the globe overnight in interstate relations.

Kissinger has this to say about North Korea;

North Korea has recently voided all concessions it made in six years of talks. It cannot be permitted to sell the same concessions over and over again. The six-power talks should be resumed only if Pyongyang restores the circumstances to which it has already agreed, mothballing its plutonium reactor and returning international inspectors to the site. When those talks resume, the ultimate quid pro quo must be the abandonment of the Korean nuclear weapons program and the destruction of the existing stockpile in return for normalization of relations at the end of the process. Since the outcome affects all neighbors of North Korea, and since the Korean nuclear program threatens them more than it does the United States, calls to place the emphasis on bilateral Korean-U.S. talks amount to a call for isolating the United States.

Forgive me if I am wrong, Mr. Kissinger, but you previously criticize a “concert of nations” model because it affords the opportunity for the “most irresolute member” to “veto” the decision of the majority of the concert states. Ironic, then, that the above paragraph implicitly calls for a return to the six-party talks where China usually played the role of the “most irresolute member” in chastising North Korea. Though I do not favor direct US-North Korean negotiations either, I find it hypocritical that the single biggest booster of anything with “Sino-US” in the title should be concerned about North Korea at all. Why? Because North Korea could not exist, nor threaten us without a constant, continuous, and unending support from China. Food and vital supplies flow over the border from China to North Korea, workers desperate for jobs flow the opposite direction. China constantly shields it’s protoge in the UN and any international forum, and in return, North Korea very usefully reminds Japan that it will never dominate East Asia again, and keeps the US off balance with missile tests. The US must come to China and beg for help dealing with the satellite regime that China constantly props up, and Henry Kissinger, the biggest lobbyist for Chinese interests in Washington for over thirty years, and with many wealthy corporate clients interested in doing business there, effectively urges us to go back to that wonderfully effective policy we have been studiously pursuing with North Korea for the last two administrations… talking a lot and watching them build nuclear weapons to throw at us.

Bush’s policy, with input from Henry Kissinger, was an abject disaster in relation to North Korea. The six-party talks did nothing but provide diplomatic cover for Kim Jong Il’s nuclear weapons program. Now we are to return to that? Why? Let us stop talking to the puppet and start talking to the man. China fuels, feeds, and pays for North Korea to exist. Let us tell them that we are unhappy with their client state. If they think we are serious enough to actually threaten our trade relations with them over the issue (and I think that hitting one of our Western states with a ballistic missile is worth getting unhappy over), the Chinese regime will reign in North Korea. They cannot survive a rupture with American trade, so to stop that from happening, they will choose to cut off North Korea, and retain their entire economy, rather than lose the latter to keep a northern puppet that does nothing but leech their resources.

Kissinger completely fails to understand the possibility that China has been bending over sideways to cover for North Korea, feeding them, supplying the, and providing them with nuclear know how for decades because they want them there, threatening us as they do. Perhaps ever cautious China does not want to risk any direct threat against the United States, but as they grow and move toward a regional hegemony, having a puppet that can launch missiles at us without the blame accruing to them is useful. A similar situation existed in Lebanon for years. Hezbullah’s entire supply line ran through Damascus, and therefore they had to bend to their will. Syria complained that they were not responsible for missiles launched by Hezbullah, but when Israel told them that every Hezbullah missile would be answered not with a direct return strike, but with a hit on a Syrian target, the missiles mysteriously stopped. So much for having “no control”.

On North Korea, Kissinger demonstrates either hypocrisy or simply lack of perceptiveness, but on Iran, he is simply dead wrong.

Iran is, of course, a far more complex country with a greater direct impact on its region. The diplomatic process with Iran is just beginning. Its outcome will depend on whether it is possible to establish a geostrategic balance in the region in which all countries, including Iran, find security without any country dominating. To that goal, bilateral U.S.-Iranian talks are indispensable. Any negotiations with Iran will be heavily influenced by whether progress toward stability in Iraq continues or whether an emerging vacuum tempts Iranian adventurism.

With this statement, Kissinger displays a complete mis-read of Middle Eastern politics. He establishes as the proper goal of the United States in the region a “geostrategic balance” in which no country dominates. If we attempt to reach that goal, we will face disaster.

Kissinger has a very tidy theory of strategic balancing which he elaborates in “Diplomacy”. He bases it on the history of Europe and the power balancing that went on there for centuries. He correctly notes that European states display a natural tendency to balance away from any rising power. Any state that would dominate Europe generally saw a coalition of unlikely friends develop to balance against them, and for most of it’s history, no single empire was able to hold that subcontinent because of it. Unfortunately for the former Secretary of State, the Middle East is a completely different animal from Europe. In the Middle East, single empires have held sway for most of the known history of the region (which dates back in our records significantly farther than that of Europe). Usually, one or two huge empires would dominate all of the area we now think of as the Middle East. With these empires changing every now and again, people groups developed a strong loyalty to family and tribe, but a very weak loyalty to the state. This is almost upside down from a European outlook.

In the Middle East, a rising power bent on domination of the region was seen as no more evil than the current state which ruled the local inhabitants of a region and to which they owed no particular loyalty (outside of a vague conception of Dar Al Islam perhaps) and was sometimes welcomed as bringing more stability. Arabs, Ottomans, Romans, Persians, Mongols, and many others have successfully controlled virtually the entire region at one time or another.

With a history and cultural make-up so different from Europe, should we expect power balancing to work the same way as well? I would suggest otherwise. Middle Eastern states are more likely to balance toward a rising power than away from it. If a state appears on the verge of dominating the region, smaller states will supplicate, and larger ones will placate. A bandwagon effect takes place, where the Arab League, for example, finds few issues to argue about with Iran when it is strong, and many when it seems weak. This explains the tremendous bluster and saber rattling that leaders from other regions find unsettling about the Middle East. To appear strong and ready to move aggressively against your fellows is the best way to avoid being victimized, and if these bluffs are believed, a bandwagoning will take place which elevates the status of the blusterer.

Kissinger therefore applies a well worked out European formula to Iran, and demonstrates a dangerous lack of insight into Middle Eastern politics. If we pursue a goal of “no country dominating” the Middle east, we will have a recipe for low level warfare, cross-border terrorism, belligerent posturing, and proliferation of nuclear weapons as states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt rush to complete a bomb because Iran has it and we will not allow them to solidify under Iran’s hegemony.

Kissinger applied his reasoning to the Israeli-Arab conflict during his time in the White House and despite the great publicity surrounding the resulting peace deal; with Egypt and Israel chained into just the type of paradigm he here proposes for Iran and the region in general, we see a cold peace with Egypt constantly building up arms for the inevitable final round, supporting terrorists across the border, smuggling arms through tunnels into Gaza, and looking the other way while Al Qaida operates on their territory. We have forced them into a “Kissingerian stability” which is really a freezing of their relations at the moment when they signed the deal; in the middle of an arms race, and now we spend our own tax dollars to arm both sides to equal ability to pound one another to the stone age, both using American weapons, the second we are not strong enough to enforce this “stability”. Is this peace? If so, give the Middle East “war”! At least the conflict will end sometime, instead of going on and on forever or until the two states are too heavy for America to carry.

In Europe, stability was achieved by not allowing a single state to dominate. In the Middle East, stability is achieved by allowing the right state to dominate. This is what Kissinger, a thorough European, and student of European history, does not understand.

The only time in history when the Middle East was forced to exist as a group of many small, relatively similar-sized states is the period immediately after the Europeans were strong enough to colonize most of the area and then impose European style boundaries, many of which make no logical sense whatsoever on the ground. We then wonder why the region is unstable?

George W. Bush went into Afghanistan, and the world thought that it was something like Bosnia, or any number of other small, peripheral sorts of conflicts we have been involved with over the years. Then America went into Iraq, and everyone took notice.

In the months after our routing of Sadaam Hussein’s forces in the initial campaign, Libya chose to give up it’s WMD program voluntarily, Syria chose to make significant withdrawals from Lebanon and allow far more freedom there, Iran temporarily suspended it’s nuclear weapon program, and Pakistan nervously produced A. Q. Khan and information about his activities to appease the United States. What was happening in this period was that the Middle East was reacting to a new, rising, dominant player; us. George W. Bush spoke of transforming the Middle East, and the regional states reacted by band wagoning and trying to play along with the new “American era” just as they had to previous regional powers.

At this point, Kissinger enters the picture. L. Paul Bremer, a student of Kissinger, and follower of his policies, was appointed head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. I do not have the space to elaborate the tremendous mistakes made by him, but his disbanding of the entire Iraqi military and what was left of it’s government structure is worth mentioning. Meanwhile, Henry Kissinger was being brought in to counsel the Bush administration on the intricacies of Middle Eastern foreign policy issues. Rice was an “East Europe expert”, and a lack of people in top positions who understood the Middle east was a problem. Kissinger was thought to be successful because of his Camp David talks, which I elaborated above. It was the influence of this thinking; that no nation should dominate the Middle East, that a “balance” should be created, and that this would lead to stability, that caused every gain made by the unilateralist instincts of George Bush to stall and eventually reverse themselves.

We had only created a “peace” between Egypt and Israel on the back of billions of dollars in annual aid and a constant American military presence. A thing is not stable if it requires constant force to keep it the way it is. Yet we tried to enact this strategy (use a European paradigm, and if it doesn’t seem to fit; use a lot of muscle to make it fit) on the entire region, and predictably, we were not big and powerful enough to do it.

From a Middle Eastern perspective, we came in, stated that we were the new power in town, and then proceeded to ignore what we were supposed to be in control of, in hopes that the little states would assert themselves and create Kissingerian stability. This was a power vacuum, and Iran seized the opportunity to fill it. Now, Middle Eastern states are moving toward Iran because they are seen as the most powerful state in the region because they (somehow, in a way nobody can understand) defeated the United States.

We have to do something relatively simple. We have to pick a winner. Let it be Turkey or Israel or even a quasi NATO like alliance of states that are more generally friendly to us; but if we fail to pick some kind of a local dominant player, that role will be filled by a nuclear Iran. To quote the most oft-repeated statement of former Secretary of State Powell on the Iraq situation; “You break it, you own it.”

We broke it, and we had better own up to it, or it will get far more out of control than we expect.


~ by Jubal Biggs on April 24, 2009.

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