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Kissinger: Donít Exclude Military Action Against Iran if Negotiations Fail

Interviewee: Henry A. Kissinger
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 14, 2005

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Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, in a wide-ranging discussion of foreign-policy issues, says he is disturbed at the possibility that Iran will develop nuclear weapons know-how if current negotiations to stem Tehran’s nuclear program fail. In fact, he says, Iran’s program is more worrisome than the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

He says that if Iran secures nuclear weapons, nonproliferation may cease to be a “meaningful policy, and then we live in a world of multiple nuclear centers. And then we’d have to ask ourselves what the world would look like if the [terrorist] bombs in London [on July 7] had been nuclear and 100,000 people had been killed.” Asked if he favored military action against Iran if diplomacy failed, he says, “I’m not recommending it but, on the other hand, it is a grave step to tolerate a world of multiple nuclear weapons centers without restraint. I’m not recommending military action, but I’m recommending not excluding it.”

Kissinger was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of cfr.org, on July 14, 2005.


What are the lessons of the terror bombings in London? Do they indicate the war on terrorism is not that effective yet?

The war on terrorism cannot be effective in terms of preventing every attack. To launch an attack like this took five people, but probably weeks of preparation. I don’t think it can be fully measured in terms of whether each attack could be prevented. I believe on balance that the attacks on London mark a setback in the war on terrorism, because it’s brought the war now into Europe for the second time [after the Madrid bombings on March 11, 2004], and it’s brought it to a country which is not ambiguous about reacting to attacks on its territory. I believe whatever capability the terrorists have inside England will be significantly reduced as a result of this attack, and it will probably oblige the Europeans to take a more coherent approach, at least to attacks in Europe.

Are the London bombings related to Iraq in any way?

The attacks on the World Trade Center happened before Iraq. In fact, there was a whole series of attacks on the United States well before Iraq. And there have been attacks in Indonesia, Tunisia, Morocco, all totally unrelated to Iraq. Iraq undoubtedly helped in recruiting, but the underlying conflict transcends Iraq.

On Iraq, what is your feeling now on how we should deal with that country?

I supported the original decision to act against Iraq for the following reasons: I did not see how we could project the war against terror and leave intact a government that had the largest army in the region, had potentially the largest oil income, and the greatest capacity to support terrorism. And through its very existence, it symbolically demonstrated that you could challenge the United States through 17 violations of a U.N.-negotiated ceasefire. And in addition, I believe, as [President Bill] Clinton did and as [President George W.] Bush did, as did every intelligence officer that I’ve ever met, that they did have weapons of mass destruction.

I did not share the view that the follow-up of victory could be done by analogy to the occupation of Germany. I was of the view that the occupation of Germany and Japan were of countries which have a coherent national structure and a coherent national history. They were countries that felt they had been defeated and therefore needed a new approach. I did not think Iraq was a national country in the sense that European countries or Japan were. And for this reason, I preferred an approach, which is now being decried, of trying to get somebody to surrender and establish a government, and then creating some sort of U.N. structure, in which U.N. forces could protect the borders and help this government in a crisis, rather than [the United States] assuming full responsibility for rebuilding the country as a democracy. Having chosen the other alternative, I now believe it is imperative that it succeed.

What impact do you think the evolution of Iraq will have on other Middle Eastern issues, particularly the Israel-Palestine situation?

The Israel-Palestine issue is almost autonomous of the Iraq issue and could be heading for a diplomatic resolution. It seems to me the elements for it are in place. The only question is whether one is willing to run the risk of the turmoil that the effort of concluding it is bound to cause. Iraq affects it remotely in a negative way. If we fail in Iraq, which I define as the emergence of a radical, theocratic government in Baghdad, if that happens, the consequence will be that the more radical approach to the Palestinian issue will become dominant. But it means also that the radical side of Islam will get tremendous impetus in every Islamic country. And I don’t know any leader of any country that has a large Islamic minority, or is Islamic like Indonesia or Malaysia, that would not be grievously affected by an American defeat as I have defined it in Iraq.

Are you surprised that the European nations that have large Muslim populations haven’t been more supportive—the French and Germans in particular?

Their problem is that European countries’ constituencies now won’t make any sacrifice for anything, either domestically or abroad, and the leaders know what the consequences of a defeat in Iraq will be. They have been helping us, within the limits of what they can do without any domestic penalty. They’re no longer trying to thwart us. But it’s not a heroic face.

Do you think there are players in the Middle East who can affect this agreement between Israel and Palestine? Have you met Palestinian President Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]?

I have talked to him on the telephone at his initiative. I think I met him once or twice, but it can’t be analyzed that way because I don’t think anybody by himself is strong enough to bring about the agreement. But the outline of the agreement is now fairly obvious.

What would that be?

The outline of the agreement seems to me to be that Israel and the Palestinians agree to Israel getting [territory] along the lines of the Barak plan [introduced by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000]—around 7 or 8 percent of territory in order to create a defensible security wall. Israel in return will give up some territory to symbolically balance this and, if you wanted to be really creative, you would take territory with significant Arab populations to help the demographic problem.

And there’ll have to be some partition of Jerusalem, along lines yet to be determined. But some de facto solution of the refugee problem which involves no return of [Palestinian] refugees into Israel. I think intellectually the elements of this are there; that most moderate Arab states and many thoughtful Palestinians agree with this and most Israelis sort of agree with this, although what it would mean is that the [Israeli] settlements on the other side of the dividing line will be on Arab territory.

Now, to bring this about, one needs support from the European states, at least in the sense that they will not look for an alternative to the Arab leaders and therefore give moderate Arab leaders an excuse to proceed, and one needs tacit support from countries like Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco to enable Abu Mazen to do this, not as a solitary Palestinian effort. And I believe an energetic American policy can bring this about.

Does Bush have the stomach for that? Does Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice? I don’t get the impression the United States is really digging in hard on the Middle East.

For whoever does it, it will be a very painful exercise because, having stated the outline, as you go through the process, the pain this will cause to all the parties is so intense that you can’t even be sure when it’s all over that it will totally quiet the radicals. You can be sure it will not totally quiet the radicals, but at least it will give some breathing room in which coexistence between a Palestinian state and Israel might evolve.

There’s been a lot of rhetoric from the administration, particularly in Bush’s inaugural address, about democracy and reform in the Arab world. And the Arabs themselves seem interested in this subject. But are we being too idealistic?

It’s important for the United States to stand for something else than simply a display of its power. I support the concept that this is what the United States would stand for. I’m more cautious on the ability to implement this as an administration program in a brief period of time. I’m also more cautious about involving ourselves in the details in the various countries where we have a tendency to lecture. So I support the concept, I support the attitude, but we should keep in mind that we also support stability. It’s difficult to apply this in every country, but if you take Iran, you can make that case. But you can also make the case, historically, that attempts to force feed democracy in the [President Jimmy] Carter administration produced [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, or contributed to producing Khomeini. So the line one has to walk here needs to be very sensitively drawn.

What do you think of the policy that’s being followed to try to stop Iran’s uranium processing through negotiations?

I agree that we should try to stop the processing and probably, tactically, it’s very useful to let the Europeans do the negotiating and we back it up. But the fact is, at some point in the relatively near future, we will have to decide whether those negotiations are working or whether they are not simply a way of legitimizing a continued program. That will be hotly disputed. Then we have to decide, we together with our allies, what measures are appropriate, and then we will face the question of how far we are willing to go to prevent nuclear-weapons technology in Iran. Iran will get us probably beyond the point where nonproliferation can be a meaningful policy, and then we live in a world of multiple nuclear centers. And then we’d have to ask ourselves what the world would look like if the bombs in London had been nuclear and 100,000 people had been killed.

Am I right to think you’re not adverse to some kind of military action down the road?

I’m not adverse to thinking about it, but I think it has to be very carefully looked at.

That would be quite a quagmire.

I’m not recommending it but, on the other hand, it is a grave step to tolerate a world of multiple nuclear-weapons centers without restraint. I’m not recommending military action, but I’m recommending not excluding it.

What about the North Koreans? There are hints they’re ready to deal. You’ve been in China, you talked to the Chinese. Do you get a sense of a deal?

I even met some North Koreans here. I am more confident of the Korean problem than I am on the Iranian problem, which doesn’t mean I’m very confident. But I have the impression that when China, Russia, Japan, and the United States are in fundamental agreement that there should not be nuclear weapons in North Korea—and when this is really a fundamentally bankrupt country that has no economy—the North Koreans may be beginning to look for a way out, from what I’ve heard, now from all sides.

And if that is true, the frantic efforts of the South Koreans, who keep offering more and more, at some point could become an obstacle. Without the South Koreans it cannot be really settled, because no one will put in the resources into North Korea that it takes to stabilize the economy. It’s a country of 20 million people. It will never be hugely attractive for investment even if its system became more like the Chinese, which would be a huge step for them. But I actually think the North Korean issue is probably moving toward a resolution.

You’ve become one of the world’s great experts on China since you first visited there in 1971. There seems to be a looming problem with China, as there was with Japan ten or fifteen years ago. Is China becoming so powerful it will endanger U.S. interests?

In the United States, there’s always a temptation to believe that we can write the course of history, that it’s entirely up to us to decide whether a country is powerful, less powerful, whether it is helpful to us or not. And one of the fundamental lessons we have to learn is that we are moving into a world in which a lot of things are happening that we cannot control. We can shape, but we cannot prevent China from becoming a major country. We can slow it down and then pay the consequences ten to twenty years down the road, and policymakers have every right to consider that. But fundamentally, China is going to emerge as a major power in Asia. Secondly, the center of gravity of the world is going to shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Those are realities.

Then we have to ask the policy question: Do we want to slow down that process at the risk of producing a generation of Chinese considering us to be the biggest obstacle of their national endeavors? Or do we want to signal an attitude of cooperation while defending specific American interests when they are being challenged? That we must always do. I tend to lean toward the second course. I believe also that a new equilibrium will emerge in Asia, and if we want to be relevant to that, it is wiser to do it from a posture of cooperation with China than from a posture of trying to recreate the Cold War, because in the second course, all the countries around China will be forced to choose and we will be blamed for putting them in a position where they are forced to choose. It will weaken our position in those countries, rather than strengthen it.

Washington seems worried about China’s military buildup. Is this a factor?

The growth of Chinese influence in the next ten years does not depend on their military strength. It depends on the economic ties they are creating with all the countries around them and on the extraordinary subtlety and skill of their diplomacy. So in the foreseeable future it is a political problem. The Chinese military budget—there will be endless debates on this—is a maximum of around $60 billion. It’s probably less, around $50 billion, about the same as the Japanese. Then if you add together the Japanese military budget, the Indian military budget, the Korean budget, and the Russians’, China is not in a position to overrun the world, and that doesn’t even count us.

Certainly, China’s growing industrial capacity will improve its military capacity, and surely in a war with us, China could do us more damage in ten years than it can do now. But surely it would suffer total devastation in such a war. The thing we have to get used to is that war between major countries in the nuclear age is not the same as it was before World War I. And even in World War I, if any of the leaders in August 1914 had known what the world would look like in 1918, they would have recoiled from it. So we cannot look at this problem as a primarily strategic issue. China will not be in a position for a generation to threaten vital American interests militarily. But it can surely affect vital American interests politically.

Do you see a strengthening relationship between the United States and India?

I think the interests of India and the United States are very parallel. In the region from Singapore to Aden [in Yemen], for example, we have very parallel interests. We don’t want domination by radical Islam, we don’t want major powers active. We have an interest in protected energy supplies. I think, in the natural course of events, it is important for the United States and India to increase their interaction so they can give expression to common interests that exist in a very wide range.

I do not think it is wise to put India in the position as a key player in an anti-Chinese coalition. India will know how to protect its own security and it will know that America has an interest in the overall balance of power. Certainly, the fact that we are both democracies eases our interaction, but it didn’t produce close cooperation in earlier periods when we were also two democracies. So that is a useful, but not a decisive, element.

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