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DG interview: Henry Kissinger

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/Press Association Images

The place and time of my meeting with Henry Kissinger seem appropriate. It is the day before the 13th anniversary of 9/11 and I am in the New York offices of Kissinger Associates, the consultancy firm he co-founded in 1982 to advise clients on international relations. President Obama, having recently authorised airstrikes against Isis in Iraq, is about to announce the expansion of operations to Syria. Meanwhile, the whirr of helicopters in the pristine blue autumnal sky signals that the Big Apple is going into security lockdown for the annual spike in the terror-threat level.

I’m here to talk to the former US secretary of state and national security advisor about the Middle East and North Africa – a part of the world on which he had a significant impact during the Nixon and Ford administrations from 1969 to 1977. Today, Syria is in flames, the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is as fraught as ever, Libya has degenerated into an arms bazaar for competing militias and several other countries in the region are threatening a similar deterioration.

Kissinger hardly ever gives interviews, but he’s got a new book to promote, World Order, in which he carefully lays out his political philosophy. He declares that “few events in world history equal the drama of the early spread of Islam” that laid low empires in the seventh century. “In a century of remarkable exertions, [the] world was overturned. Islam’s rapid advance across three continents provided proof to the faithful of its divine mission,” he writes. “Islam was at once a religion, a multi-ethnic superstate and a new world order.” I put it to Kissinger that from the current political perspective, his analysis of the spread of Islam makes for particularly chilling reading.

A significant portion of the world’s territory and population is on the verge of effectively falling out of the international state system altogether”

“I don’t know of anything similar to [the initial spread of Islam] that has happened even on a limited scale anywhere else,” he replies in his resonant Mittel-European rumble. “Of course Isis is trying to replicate their perception of what happened.” Just a week before we meet, Kissinger had been highly critical of President Obama’s hesitation in giving the go-ahead for the bombing raids in Syria, although he also refuses to rate Isis as a greater threat than it is. “We should keep in mind that Isis is only 20,000 fanatics,” he says. “We should know whether we are dealing with those particular fanatics or alternative [jihadist] movements like them that may appear and will surely appear – and what that implies.”

Kissinger had a heart valve replacement just under a month before our interview, yet, walking-stick aside, there is little sense of infirmity. His mental agility is impressive. He deftly interlinks different aspects of current affairs at the same time as diving deep into their historical backgrounds. Like many people of my generation, my initial encounter with him was through Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger, yet he’s a more complex, nuanced individual than the man denounced in that book as a war criminal. He is Machiavellian, certainly – an arch-realist for whom practical considerations have usually overridden ethical ones. He looks like a cross between Cardinal Richelieu and a barn owl, a diminutive yet imposing figure. His office photos, in which he poses with international politicians – from the late Nelson Mandela to current US secretary of state John Kerry – show how many powerbrokers appreciate this controversial man’s analysis.

Kissinger and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat with reporters in Alexandria, 1975. Photo: AP/Press Association Images

Kissinger and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat with reporters in Alexandria, 1975. Photo: AP/Press Association Images

Would he agree that one of the key challenges facing the US is the ‘alternative movements’ in Islamism to which he refers? Isis’s unexpected success seems to have bred a succession of disconcerting alliances and admirers, including members of the Taliban in Afghanistan. “I’m particularly worried about what’s happening in Afghanistan,” Kissinger says. “If a [proper] regional agreement is not achieved, Afghanistan will repeat Iraq, and will become an even more explicit centre for Islamist terrorists, because there is no core to Afghanistan.”

Kissinger believes passionately that the stability of the individual state is a core building block of global harmony. His book dates the birth of world order to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War and conscripted the states of Europe into a general equilibrium of power. “When states are not governed in their entirety, the international or regional order itself begins to disintegrate,” he says. “Zones of [Islamist] governance or jihad now stretch across the Muslim world, affecting Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Mali, Sudan and Somalia… [A] significant portion of the world’s territory and population is on the verge of effectively falling out of the international state system altogether.”

What is his position on Israel, the ally seen by many as the cause of anti-US feeling in the Arab world? Kissinger, a German-born Jew who emigrated from Nazi Germany less than three months before Kristallnacht, talks about the conflict with Hamas this summer in which more than 2,200 people died, the vast majority of them Palestinians. “The basic problem for Israel is it faces a situation in which part of the country is potentially under permanent siege,” he says. “They have Hezbollah to the north and Hamas to the south. What is a proportionate response to a constant threat? It’s very easy for people to say Israel is using excessive force but if you look at the history of the region, there have been flare-ups in violence every two years. That’s a tragic situation for Israel to be in.”

It’s a statement that expresses sympathy, yet Kissinger has given the opinion on more than one occasion that Israel should return to the demarcation lines that held it in check before the Six-Day War of 1967. It’s a fraught question at the best of times and recent polls show that around 75 percent of Israeli Jews oppose such a move. Does he think there is any genuine hope it might take place? “I think they might, one day, retreat to their ’67 borders,” he replies cautiously. “To try to make a permanent deal and then try to protect it with legal documents may not be possible, and therefore what you should look for is graduated steps.”

Could the US ever recognise Palestine? He takes a deep breath. “I have argued that the best interim approach would be to recognise the existing West Bank,” he answers. “Establish it as a sort of quasi-sovereign identity, so that the Israelis and Palestinians could work out the actual process with each other as two sovereign peoples, and then go on to the more complex issues of how many settlements are left and how many people can return. In the end we’ll have to recognise some sort of Palestine.”

Kissinger’s own world-order-shifting intervention in the Middle East took place in the wake of the Yom Kippur War when he was President Nixon’s secretary of state. As Israel was being supplied by the US, and Egypt and Syria by Russia, the 1973 conflict marked an escalation in Cold War tensions, a proxy clash of superpowers.

The basic problem for Israel is that it faces a situation in which part of the country is potentially under permanent siege”

Kissinger found himself in his element. What he achieved – in a high-wire diplomatic game that involved the balancing of complex personalities – was nothing less than extraordinary. Between November 1973 and the end of 1975, he engaged in a series of meetings with the various political leaders, flying back and forth between countries in what is now known as ‘shuttle diplomacy’. His exhaustive efforts led not only to disengagement between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Syria, but also paved the way for Egypt’s official recognition of the state of Israel in 1979 during the Carter administration. Equally momentous was the dialogue with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat that led to Egypt shunning Soviet influence and embracing the US as its key ally.

Was he worried, when Mohamed Morsi took charge of Egypt in 2012, that his efforts would be reversed? “I think if the Muslim Brotherhood had stayed in office the agreement would have been totally undermined,” he replies solemnly. “I was concerned. The Brotherhood looked at it from the Islamist perspective, while [today’s president, General Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi looks at it from the strategic perspective. Sadat [president of Egypt from 1970-1981] had initiated the move towards peace because he had made a strategic assessment. It was an extraordinary decision. But I think Sadat was one of the relatively few great men that I met.”

Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Egyptian Islamists who could not forgive him for the peace with Israel. His fate stood in contrast to that of the then Syrian leader – the wily Hafez al-Assad – whose ruthless legacy endures through his son Bashar today. When Kissinger went to Damascus to coax Assad to the Geneva Conference of 1973 – which sought to negotiate a settlement in the wake of Yom Kippur – he reportedly found him sitting beneath a picture of Saladin slaying a Crusader. Kissinger recounts wryly how the Syrian president made him spend an hour explaining what would be involved in the conference before revealing he wasn’t going to come, and had never intended to. “He was a political animal, and very tough,” Kissinger says, laughing. What does he think of his son? “I underestimated him,” Kissinger admits. “He understood that we were treating Syria as if it were a unitary state. The perception in Washington was that if you remove the head of it, that alone would unify it under a more benign head. Well, in fact the result would be civil war. And Assad understood the nature of the civil war.”

Despite the current pre-eminence of the Sunni Islamist threat, Kissinger thinks that the West’s biggest worry will ultimately be Iran, with its great imperial history. “If Iran develops nuclear weapons, or comes so close to nuclear weapons, that fact alone will shift the balance in the region, no matter how moderate the government may in the end turn out to be,” he declares.

It’s an aptly disconcerting conclusion to a conversation that, for all its enlightened analysis, provides little comfort for the future. At 91, it’s unclear how much of it Kissinger will witness. His influence, however, will outlive us all.

We hope you enjoyed this sample feature from issue #16 of Delayed Gratification

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