Nadim Koteich

A Meaningful Lesson From Kissinger to Biden

The Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union. The so-called “Arab-Israeli conflict” has taken complex paths since the cease-fire agreements between Syria and Egypt on the one hand and Israel on the other hand, following the 1973 war, all the way to the Abrahamic Agreement between the UAE (along with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco) and Israel, through the main Oslo Agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel.

It is a completely different Middle East from the one built by Henry Kissinger during his tenure as National Security Adviser and then Chancellor and Secretary of State between 1969 and 1977, under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, which was based on the special American relationship with Israel and close partnerships with the forces of stability among countries of the region.

Kissinger’s Middle East is a cornerstone in the strategy of confrontation with the Soviet Union. The latter was extending an ideological umbrella over many regional countries, enjoyed military bases in the Middle East, and engaged in a large number of proxy wars around the world.

None of these features apply to the nature of the ongoing Chinese-American competition. Some may argue that Washington’s current interests, needs and fears do not require a direct US role in the Middle East. Such claims would make Kissinger’s biography a subject for amateur history books, without any lessons learned for today’s world. But this is not the case. What are then the applicable Kissinger lessons?

We are remembering Kissinger today following the publication of a recent book by US diplomat Martin Indyk, about the legendary diplomat, politician and theorist, who climbed the ladders of advancement in America at superb speeds, and the refugee to the new world from the hell of the Holocaust in Germany, where he lost more than ten immediate relatives in Adolf Hitler’s cremation ovens.

What distinguishes Indyk’s book from the dozens of books and hundreds of studies that have been written on Kissinger, is that it is devoted exclusively to the man’s diplomacy in the Middle East, as a complex mechanism for maintaining stability.

Stability, according to Indyk - which is the most important discovery in the book - is the priority of the Kissingerian mind, who saw peace as a problem by nature.

Stability – not peace - is the goal. Indyk notes that Kissinger’s doubts about the practical political value of the idea of peace as an ideal accompanied his thinking since the beginning of his intellectual and cultural maturity, as suggested by the subtitle of his doctoral thesis, his first printed book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-22.

Peace was a problem from the start, in the mind of Kissinger, who always sided with “the peace process, not peace” as a mechanism for maintaining stability.

After the 1973 war, Kissinger contented himself with signing preliminary agreements, two between Egypt and Israel and one between Syria and Israel. He was not in a hurry to reach comprehensive peace agreements that address all issues of dispute.

For this reason, Indyk’s book reveals how the legendary diplomat managed, with varying success and failure, the balance game between the Egyptian and Israeli armies, to reach a military balance on the ground that would allow the two parties to enter a peace process with a reasonable degree of national dignity and a more reasonable level of common interests, which would pave the way for the building a new Middle East suitable for Washington and disturbing for Russia, without dealing a fatal blow to the policy of appeasement with the Soviet Union.

Indyk alludes in more than one part in his book that Kissinger was the one who indirectly suggested to Sadat that war was his only means of attracting Washington’s attention and re-involving it in the Middle East file. This is a hint reinforced by Indyk’s remarks that the 1973 war was essential to putting into practice Kissinger’s theories of balance and stability.

Many circumstances allowed one man to impose his ideas on the course of the Middle East. The magnitude of the turmoil that impacted those Washington years reached all levels. Politically and militarily, Washington was heading towards a humiliating exit from Vietnam, and institutionally, the Nixon administration was facing huge cracks, beginning with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew to the frustration and semi-mental absence of the president himself.

At the media and public levels, the Watergate scandal surrounded the White House and drained the entire focus of the Nixon team. In the midst of this chaos, the 1973 war erupted and the Arabs resorted to cutting oil supply, while the Soviet-American confrontation reached the brink of nuclear war through Washington’s announcement of activating the highest level of military alert around the world.

Indyk concludes his book by calling on American policymakers to return to Kissinger’s gradual approach as part of a broader strategy to build a new Middle Eastern order backed by the United States.

Obviously, Indyk, who spent most of his career in the “peace industry” between the Israelis and the Palestinians, is pointing to this particular file and not any other, while the Palestinian-Israeli issue is the least important problem in the region now.

What we conclude today from the book is Kissinger’s lesson, which says that pushing hard towards peace would eventually lead to war and break the peace process. This is what Indyk admits happened with the Palestinians in the last days of Bill Clinton’s term, when the administration tried to impose peace with force and stubbornness.

This is an important lesson for President Joe Biden’s administration, which is striving to enforce the international-Iranian nuclear peace without taking into account Kissinger’s ideas about the terms of peace.

Indyk says that Kissinger understood that the balance of power was not enough. For the regularity to be sustainable, it must also be legitimate. This means that all major powers within the system must adhere to a set of generally accepted rules.

These rules will only be respected if they provide a sufficient sense of justice to an adequate number of countries.

Kissinger added that resolving all complaints was not required, but rather addressing the injustices that would motivate the attempt to overthrow the system. He concluded that a legitimate system would not eliminate the conflict, but would limit its scope.

The problem with the agreement with Iran is that it does not address the main complaints of the concerned countries in the region. Israel will not accept such an agreement as long as tens of thousands of Iranian missiles are deployed along its borders. The Gulf States will reject it as well, as long as Iran continues to sponsor sectarian strife in Arab societies, and run criminal militias and dangerous security cells.

The problem of stability in the region today is not Israel, the Cold War or the Arab eastern camp states, but rather Iran as a revolutionary regime that is relentlessly seeking to change the rules and balances of the game.

Attempts to impose peace by force, and to buy time without a vision to reproduce a system of stability in the Middle East, is the shortest path to a new war, drawing Washington back into the Middle East, just as happened in 1973.

The difference at that time was that Anwar Sadat, who initiated the war back then, was planning for peace and the restoration of just stability. He knew that he was engaging in battle with a nuclear country, but he was certain that the war would remain in its traditional framework.

The revolutionary Iran, however, is seeking to spread devastation in preparation for the appearance of the Hidden Imam. No one knows how this war, to which we are led by a naïve insistence on making nuclear peace with Tehran, will unfold.