Time for an All-Out Attack on ISIS, Says Kissinger

Time for an All-Out Attack on ISIS, Says Kissinger

By Toby Harnden - September 8, 2014

NEW YORK -- If there were any doubts about whether Henry Kissinger, at the age of 91 and having undergone heart surgery in July, has kept his edge, he dispatches them almost as soon as he sinks into a sofa in his high-rise corner office in midtown Manhattan.

News that a second American journalist has been beheaded in Syria has just broken. But the former US secretary of state — who helped to bring the Vietnam War to an end, initiated a rapprochement with China and led the policy of detente with the Soviet Union — is already clear about what should be done.

“We should launch an all-out attack on them,” he says, adding that it should be “of limited duration as a punitive measure”. He describes the actions of Isis, also known as Islamic State, as “an insult to our values and to our society” that demands a “very significant retaliation”.

“There can’t be any debate any more about fighting them.”

Under President Barack Obama, he charges, “we have made ourselves bystanders” in the Middle East until now.

“This could be very substantial — on most known targets — and I would not make any distinction between Syria and Iraq. In my view this should have happened already.”

He adds: “ You can’t go through public agonies over what you will not do or what you will do, whether Syria is part of it, Syria’s not part of it.”

This week Kissinger’s book World Order — his 17th — will be published on both sides of the Atlantic. On most days the statesman who became an unlikely celebrity in Richard Nixon’s White House still goes to his 26th-floor office, which has windowsills crammed with scores of framed photographs of world figures he has met.

Unless, that is, he is travelling. He will soon visit Europe and a trip to China is planned. His firm, Kissinger Associates, has dozens of employees around the world and an extensive and very secret client list.

In his book Kissinger argues that “the concept of order that has underpinned the modern era is in crisis” and countries that “set aside their sense of identity in favour of a seemingly less arduous course” or lack a “comprehensive geopolitical strategy” will be judged harshly by history.

It is a sweltering day and the air- conditioning system is in overdrive. Ever the diplomat, Kissinger proposes in his gravelly baritone, which accentuates a Germanic accent he has never tried to shed, that I take my jacket off if he will too. He asks his staff to bring a pot of tea, specifying that his English guest would surely take his with milk.

His tact extends to our discussions of the present incumbent of the Oval Office, but only so far. When I ask him how he views Obama’s foreign policy, he pauses for nearly 20 seconds before saying that he has “sympathy for the argument that we are living in a new era”.

Obama, however, does not seem to appreciate that other countries yearn for American guidance. “We don’t have the power to impose our preferences but without us, and without some leadership from us, the new order cannot be created.”

The US president does not know what makes Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, tick, Kissinger says, adding sarcastically: “I don’t know whether psychological understanding of others is what he will be known in history for.”

Obama has been “far too reactive” over Putin’s aggression in Crimea and Ukraine with “little escalations every week” that have left the West “at the limit” — a point where Russia has to accept Ukraine’s independence: “You can’t accept treating the border of Ukraine as totally illegitimate.”

At the same time, Russia should not be humiliated. “I believe that Putin [whom Kissinger has met many times] is understandable in terms of Russian history. That doesn’t make him right. It certainly doesn’t make him pleasant.

It has never been joyful to live with a nationalist Russia.

“But they also contributed to the equilibrium. They saved Europe against Charles XII, against Napoleon, against Hitler. So one has to look at the importance of the historic entity of Russia, from that point of view, in addition to the many cultural contributions they have made.”

It was important, he emphasised, for the US to seek to shape events, rather than being buffeted by them: “One should have attempted a fundamental talk with Russia, not only to see how to fix the immediate issue but what kind of world do we want?

“Do we want a Ukraine that is somebody’s strategic outpost? Or do we want a Ukraine that is free to chart its own path and that acts as a bridge between the East and West? And if you make that decision, then you would work seriously on it.”

Few modern statesmen look at Putin’s action in the context of the era just after the French revolution, never mind that of a Swedish king who died in 1718. Kissinger worries that the age of Twitter and Facebook is so frenetic that leaders no longer have the time to think historically.

He does not use social media and confesses that he cannot even type. He deals with emails by having them printed out by his staff and brought to him. He scrawls a response, which assistants dutifully transcribe and email back.

He has twice visited Google’s headquarters in California and appreciates the vast advances in technology and the benefits they can bring. The downside he sees is that politicians struggle to “develop a perception of the world and of themselves” while reacting to the 24-hour news cycle.

“In order to be a great statesman you must have a sense of history and some vision of the future and that becomes much more difficult to acquire but also extremely difficult to sustain in the face of all the pressures that descend on leaders now.”

Part of the argument of his book, he says, is that “we should deepen the current cognitive exercise to a level that is more compatible with conceptual thinking and less geared to the immediate emotion”.

He fears that if this trend continues then in the United States “the danger is you will get two internet machines, with the presidential candidate becoming largely a fundraiser feeding that effort”.

Kissinger served on the staffs of the Democratic presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson as well as the Republicans Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon and Gerald Ford. He advised Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. Last week Hillary Clinton — who could be the next president — volunteered that she “relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state”.

Obama has not sought him out. He has occasionally asked Kissinger to do something for him — such as deliver a message to a foreign leader Kissinger was meeting — but he has never consulted him.

That could be in part because Kissinger is still vilified by the left for his role in bombing targets in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, the overthrow of the socialist president Salvador Allende of Chile in 1973 and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, which began in 1975.

Kissinger also supported the invasion of Iraq. He is adamant that the decision of George W Bush and Tony Blair to go to war was made in good faith. “They believed it. And they were wrong. One could ask oneself how could such a unanimous view develop. But they absolutely didn’t lie.”

Now Kissinger is prepared to concede that he might have been wrong — although, characteristically, he responds that neither he nor anyone else could have had any idea that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. “Would I do it today, knowing what I know now? Probably not. But I didn’t know it then and I couldn’t know it then. And so I would do it again, in that sense.”

On the charges from the left, however, he gives no ground and bristles at the oft-levelled accusation that as the father of American realpolitik he had no concern for human rights.

Kissinger was born Heinz Alfred Kissinger in Bavaria in 1923, a German Jew whose family fled to the United States. He says that “certainly over 50%” of his school classmates died in the Holocaust, along with “about 14, 13” members of his family.

“When you have lived in a country as a discriminated minority, excluded from public places, all the aspects of segregation, and had many members of your family killed, it would be amazing if you disregarded human rights.

“But fate placed me in a position where American security had to be my task. What you could say publicly was more limited than what you might do in other respects. We brought Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union up from 700 a year to nearly 40,000, but as a quiet diplomatic approach, not as a public confrontation with Moscow.”

In general, most observers now accepted that “serious people were trying to come to the best conclusion” and his critics were largely ignorant.

“Take the ‘bombing of Cambodia’. Do you think anybody who says that knows what they are talking about? I mean, the attack on North Vietnamese sanctuaries in parts of Cambodia that Hanoi had conquered and was using as a staging ground for attacks into South Vietnam. It’s the essence of these guerrilla wars, which probably has been practised by Obama much more intensely than by Nixon.”

He adds that the perennial allegations of being a war criminal or an abuser of human rights are “not a problem that preoccupies” him: “I am 91. What difference does it make to me how long that debate goes on for?”

Before arriving in New York in September 1938 — he became an American citizen in 1943 — the 15-year-old Kissinger stayed with a great-aunt who ran a bed and breakfast in Golders Green, northwest London, for a fortnight.

“We went on a train from Dover to London and I was struck by first of all the fact that you could walk in and sit down.” In Germany he had been beaten up and confronted with signs warning “Jews are not welcome here”.

He returned to Britain during the war as a lowly infantryman stationed near Salisbury, where he was impressed by “the extraordinary politeness and helpfulness of the British”, even when they were taunted by some of Kissinger’s rowdier Irish-American comrades.

Kissinger says he was unaware of Nixon’s anti-semitic tirades, revealed over the years as the Oval Office tapes have been released: “He certainly didn’t express it in the context of foreign policy and nor in his personal conduct towards me.”

The night before Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974 he beckoned Kissinger over, telling him: “Henry, you are not a very orthodox Jew and I am not an orthodox Quaker but we need to pray.”

Nixon, Kissinger says, “was a man of enormous complexity in which various aspects were struggling, but who resolved them on issues of national policy in favour of an extremely coherent and courageous policy”.

One of Kissinger’s great friends in Washington from the late 1960s was Henry Brandon, chief American correspondent of The Sunday Times from 1949-83. Brandon was among a group of reporters and officials whose phones were bugged on the orders of Nixon aides.

He still remembers his embarrassment when Brandon came to see him in the White House to ask if he had been behind the wiretapping, which had lasted 21 months. Kissinger assured him he had not, but admitted he had been aware of it.

Their friendship survived until Brandon’s death at 77 in 1993 and Kissinger says that Nixon’s actions over bugging were “infinitesimal compared to what some other presidents have done”.

Kissinger has five grandchildren — the eldest 21 — and hopes for great-grandchildren soon. “One of them has just spent a week with me, if I look bedraggled and worn out,” he chuckles.

In his single days — he has been married to his second wife, Nancy, since 1974 — Kissinger escorted beautiful women such as Candice Bergen, Shirley MacLaine and Liv Ullmann (who described him as “the most interesting man I have ever met”). It was, Kissinger quips, “not the most taxing thing I did”.

One of his most famous observations was not about meeting Chairman Mao or President Brezhnev but about sex when he, as a bachelor, noted that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”.

“When you are in a high office, it is very seductive,” he elaborates. “But of course there is a decline of that intensity. I’m a workaholic, so I basically was working all the time.”

He says he is not yet ready to consider how he should be remembered: “I haven’t thought about what I want on my tombstone.” And as we say goodbye he is more focused on the immediate matter: whether he has been enticed into straying too far from talking about his new book. Perhaps, he frets, he might have said a little too much about Obama.

“I will not be invited to the White House when he gets to read it,” he says. 


Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission. 

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