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The Wheeler-Dealer

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
September 27, 2004
The New York Times

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THE FLAWED ARCHITECT
Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy.
By Jussi Hanhimaki.
Illustrated. 554 pp. Oxford University Press. $35.

Few figures in American history have been as reviled and as admired as Henry Kissinger. At the height of his celebrity in the early 1970's, following the opening to China, detente with the Soviet Union, Mideast shuttle diplomacy and the end of the Vietnam War, for which he shared a Nobel Peace Prize, he was hailed as “Super K,” a lone genius who was reshaping international relations. A few years later, he was being denounced as a war criminal who was personally responsible for atrocities ranging from the Indonesian occupation of East Timor to the Khmer Rouge's genocide in Cambodia.

“The Flawed Architect” is an attempt by the Finnish historian Jussi Hanhimaki to “break through the heavy polemics” that have “tended to mar most previous accounts” by presenting “a balanced view of its subject.” His book takes the form of a narrative of Kissinger's eight years as national security adviser and secretary of state (positions he held concurrently from 1973 to 1975).

Though “The Flawed Architect” is clearly written and easy to read, its chronological structure probably represents a conceptual mistake on the author's part. The basic story of Kissinger's tenure has been told many times before -- not only in Kissinger's own beautifully written (if inevitably self-serving) memoirs but also in Walter Isaacson's masterly 1992 biography. Hanhimaki touts his use of recently declassified materials, but his account does not contain much, as far as this reviewer can tell, in the way of significant new information. He would have been better advised to adopt a more thematic organization to examine the various charges that have been leveled against Kissinger.

These can be grouped into the critiques of left and right. The former accuse Kissinger of being too aggressive in fighting the cold war, the latter of not being aggressive enough. As a European academic, Hanhimaki is clearly more interested in a dialogue with leftist critics. He sympathetically examines the reckless charges flung against Kissinger by the likes of William Shawcross, Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens. Though he ultimately dissents from any characterization of Kissinger as a war criminal, he feels compelled to apologize for reaching such an “unfashionable” conclusion. (Unfashionable where? At the faculty club?)

With evident reluctance, Hanhimaki makes some telling points in Kissinger's defense. He argues, for instance, that the rise of Pol Pot cannot be attributed exclusively to Nixon and Kissinger's incursions into Cambodia; “many other factors, including the role of the North Vietnamese, the Chinese and the Soviets in Cambodia, need to be considered to fully fathom the killing fields.” Nor was Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor predicated on a go-ahead from Kissinger; when the Indonesian strongman Suharto notified Washington of what he was planning to do, he “was not asking for permission, he was giving advanced warning.”

But ultimately Hanhimaki's defense of Kissinger rests on a questionable assumption: that American cold war policy was misguided, and that Kissinger was no more culpable for Washington's “unsavory conduct” than numerous other leaders from Truman to Reagan. It does not seem to occur to Hanhimaki that the policies he criticizes as immoral may have contributed to a very moral outcome: the collapse of the Soviet empire.

This brings us to the conservative critique of Kissinger, which “The Flawed Architect” addresses only in passing. It is, essentially, that Kissinger was too dedicated to peaceful coexistence with Communist regimes. Kissinger's reply is that he did the best he could given the dire circumstances he faced while in office. There is a good deal of merit in this self-defense, but Hanhimaki exposes its inadequacy.

Take the issue of South Vietnam. Kissinger has said that the 1973 Paris peace accords represented the best deal he could get, and if Watergate had not come along, the United States would have honored its commitment to defend South Vietnam. But, as “The Flawed Architect” shows, Kissinger privately told the Chinese and Russians that all he wanted was a “decent interval” before North Vietnam swallowed the South.

Kissinger hoped his careful cultivation of Soviet and Chinese leaders would pay off in greater success in handling regional crises, but this did not turn out to be the case. The Communist bosses had no intention of reining in their third world allies, and their continued aggression gradually undermined Kissinger's credibility. By 1976 he had become an electoral liability for President Ford, who had to fight accusations from both left and right that his secretary of state was pursuing an immoral foreign policy.

Hanhimaki agrees that Kissinger was guilty of “immoral realpolitik.” He also supports some of the standard criticisms of Kissinger's “domineering, scheming, at times almost paranoid personality” and his excessive penchant for secrecy. Kissinger's personal failings, in Hanhimaki's view, made it difficult for him to muster domestic support for his policies. Still, Hanhimaki is right to hail Kissinger, for all his flaws, as an outstanding diplomatic tactician. The skill with which he conducted complex negotiations with interlocutors ranging from Anwar el-Sadat to Zhou Enlai has seldom been equaled.

The tragedy of Kissinger's tenure, which Hanhimaki only dimly grasps, is that he was brilliant in coming up with new strategies to achieve his ends but strangely stilted in defining those ends. He could not envision a purpose for all his wheeling and dealing beyond managing the status quo. The former Harvard professor lacked the vision of a former movie actor who was determined to end the cold war and consign Communism to the “ash heap of history.” “Reagan doesn't know what he's talking about and he's irresponsible,” Kissinger fumed during the 1976 primaries. It turns out it was Kissinger who didn't know what he was talking about.


Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.