Martin Indyk discusses his new book, Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy. A perceptive and provocative history of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic negotiations in the Middle East that illuminates the unique challenges and barriers Kissinger and his successors have faced in their attempts to broker peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and how Kissinger overcame them to lay the foundations for an American-led Middle Eastern order.
The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows.
HAASS: This is a really critical audience. I can see that. (Laughter.)
Welcome, one and all, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. I’m Richard Haass, president of this institution. And I’m joined today by Martin Indyk, who’s a distinguished fellow here. And we’re here to talk about his new book, Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy. Oh, I don’t even have to hold it up. (Laughter.) The digital age has already made me redundant. OK. I’m prepared for that.
We’ve got you all in the room. This is part of our new effort to once again reintroduce an in-person presence here at the Council. We’ve also got far more people in the room virtually. And this is, to use the overused word, the model of the new normal. We’ll have hybrid meetings. Martin and I will have a conversation for about half an hour, and then we’ll open it up to questions from you all and from those who are—wherever they are to ask questions.
But I wanted to say a couple of other things before we began and before we turn to Martin. And, well, I guess I’ll say one thing—two things about Colin Powell.
Colin was a member here for thirty-five years. He was a member of our board for ten of those years. And let me just say he will be missed. To me, he—along with people like Brent Scowcroft, George Schultz, and others who also we’ve recently lost, he, to me, represented the best in American life—a life and a career dedicated to public service. He had an extraordinary career: national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, obviously secretary of state. He was a pathbreaker in all three of those. Before that, he had an extraordinary career in the Army and helped resurrect that institution after Vietnam. But in just so many ways what he did, and in some ways even more important how he did it, just tremendous amount of honor in the man. So it was a real loss for us, this institution; for the country; and for me and for my family, for Susan and I and others, personally. I didn’t want to start this meeting—it’s the first meeting we’ve had after Colin’s passing—without saying a few things.
Before I turn to the book, Martin, as you all know, I’ve said, is a fellow here. He had a long and distinguished career at Brookings and the Washington Institute, and then, obviously, in government.
And I want to ask him one question about his career in government because Martin was the U.S. ambassador to Israel two times, and obviously the Middle East figures prominently in this. He was ambassador in the—in the ’90s, I think 1995 to ’97 if I’m roughly correct, and then again in 2000 to 2001. Not a lot of people get a chance to be ambassador twice. Not a lot of people get a chance to be ambassador to the same country twice. I’m curious: What did you learn the first time that led you to do things differently the second time?
INDYK: Thank you, Richard. Will you allow me a couple of grace notes?
HAASS: Of course.
INDYK: I got to have the opportunity to work with Colin Powell, although for a limited time. When he became secretary of state, he asked me to stay on Israel for seven months or so because the Intifada was raging there, and so I had the opportunity to work with him for six months. But he was, as you say, Richard, an amazing man, an amazing leader, and a wonderful, charming, charismatic person to deal with, who also spoke a little Yiddish—(laughter)—because he grew up in the South Bronx. And—
HAASS: Well-known for its Yiddish, yeah.
INDYK: But he died on the twenty-sixth anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. And so here were two warriors and statesmen, in a way had very similar characteristics. So it’s worthwhile to remember them in the same—
HAASS: Good point.
INDYK: —way at the same time.
My second grace note is to you, Richard, and to the Council. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for a very long time. The book took eight years to write. I did a few other things in between. But I started this book at Brookings and finished it here at the Council on Foreign Relations, and you were one of the few people to recognize its potential in bringing me here. And I have had a wonderful home here and the support to write this book, and that’s all due to you and the wonderful people here at the Council—who also organized this event today. So I just want to express my deep appreciation to you and to them.
So, what did I learn the second time? Well, in a way, not much because my life as ambassador to Israel was driven by a sense of destiny that I was being sent out there by Bill Clinton the first time to help Yitzhak Rabin make peace. And in fact, we had or the president had in his pocket a commitment from Rabin, who was prime minister at the time, to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which was Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad’s requirement for peace between Israel and Syria. And Clinton sent me out there to work with Rabin on the Israeli-Syrian peace, and we essentially thought it was done, it was in the pocket. And once that happened, there would be an Israeli-Lebanese deal because they controlled Lebanon in those days and there was no Hezbollah around, and then we’d be done. We already had a Jordan peace treaty. We had an Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. So that was—that was my sense of manifest destiny when I went out there the first time.
And five months later, Rabin was assassinated and the whole thing cratered. And Bibi Netanyahu came to power, and I had to work with Netanyahu, and then I came back to Washington to be the assistant secretary. And then, all of a sudden, out of the blue Netanyahu’s government comes down, Barak is elected prime minister, and he asks Clinton to send me back. So why I say I didn’t learn much was because, like, the second time was—you know, the second time’s the charm. Now we’re going to get to do it all over again. And I came back believing that Barak was committed, as he told Clinton, to finishing the peace deal, to redeeming Rabin’s legacy in his first year in office and Clinton’s last year in office. And so I was convinced that the deal was going to happen. I was scouting real estate in Jerusalem because as soon as the deal was done we were going to move the embassy to Jerusalem. And, therefore, I just thought it was a repeat performance.
And in many ways it was a repeat performance because within five months the whole thing cratered again and exploded into the Intifada, and eight years of work to try to achieve comprehensive peace just blew up in our faces. And essentially, that’s why I decided to write this book, to go back and try to understand what went wrong.
HAASS; Well, let’s talk about the book. Book is published in about a week.
INDYK: Twenty-sixth is the publication date.
HAASS: Approximately a week. Already two pre-publication reviews, one from Kirkus: “A project worthy of Indyk’s painstaking, always lucid analysis”—“lucid,” always a good word. And then from Publishers Weekly: “Indyk paints a vivid portrait of Kissinger as a visionary statesman, Machiavellian operator, and occasional bumbler as he cajoles, arm-twists, and haggles over demarcation lines and diplomatic phraseology. This fascinating study illuminates both the cold logic of Kissingerian statecraft and the human factors that muddled it.” Pretty impressive.
HAASS: May all your reviews be so good.
INDYK: Yes. Yeah.
HAASS: So let’s start with why you did it. We did a—I was going to come up with a count of how many books there were about Henry Kissinger on Amazon and I ran out of time. (Laughter.) So why—he hasn’t exactly been in the witness protection program.
HAASS: He’s been a prominent face and voice in America’s public conversation for decades. Henry’s now ninety-eight, hasn’t lost a step. Why another book on Kissinger? And in the process, did you know that—did you have the answer to that before you started, or is that a question you answered in the course of writing this—researching and writing it?
INDYK: So there were two reasons. The first was, as I started to say, that I wanted to go back and see what Kissinger did to lay the foundations for an American-led peace process, because especially after the second time I went back into government as John Kerry and President Barack Obama’s envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—that ended in failure, too—I thought, you know, I really need to go back to where it all began and try to see what we can learn from Kissinger’s approach. So that was the justification for doing it.
And, yes, you’re right, there are many books written on Kissinger, some of which touch on the Middle East. But none of them dealt with the period of four years that he was secretary of state when he negotiated the ceasefire in the Yon Kippur War of 1973 and then three agreements, two between Israel and Egypt and one between Israel and Syria, which laid the foundations for the American-led peace process as we know it. And I presided over what I considered to be the end of that peace process, the last Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, which ended in failure. The two sides were further apart at the end of the negotiations than at the beginning. And there hasn’t been a negotiation since, in seven years.
So that was—that was the essential reason that I—that I sought to go back and look at the origins, but there was a personal reason as well. I got involved in the peace process in 1973, when I was an Australian student in Jerusalem about to begin a master’s degree at the Hebrew University in international relations when the war broke out. It was a great surprise to me. It was a surprise to Kissinger, too—
HAASS: And we’ll circle back to that.
INDYK: —and to the Israeli government. But I was there at ground zero during that war, and I would lay at my imagining that I could hear the drone of the C-5A U.S. Air Force military transport aircraft, these huge beasts that were delivering tanks and aircraft in pieces and critical materiel that enabled Israel to turn the tide of power in the 1973 war.
And then I would stay up at night listening to the BBC reports of Henry Kissinger’s shuttling, first of all to negotiate the ceasefire and then the beginnings of that negotiation. And it was during that period of high stress and emotion during a war in which there were terrible casualties that I decided that I wanted to do something to help Israel and its Arab neighbors make peace. It was like an epiphany—God tapped me on the shoulder and said, you go and do this. And I did nothing else, essentially, for my grown life except to study, write about, work on peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. And that was all because of Henry Kissinger. And so I thought, well, this is a kind of full circle now at the end of my career to go back to its beginning and see what I can learn from that.
HAASS: Biography becomes history. So in what you just said, and in reading the book—and I should say, you know, we publish, I don’t know, maybe eight or ten books a year by our fellows, so since I’ve been here we’ve published probably 150. So I spend a lot of my time reading them. This book is extraordinarily well-written. It’s detailed. It’s not short. But it will reward the reader. It flows. So it’s—
INDYK: Thank you.
HAASS: And for those of us who think we know a little bit about the Middle East, it’s interesting how much we learn how little we know. But what comes through in the book is how pivotal the 1973 October Yom Kippur War was, so let’s—let me raise two questions about that. I was thinking about it.
One is: To what extent did you conclude that that war was avoidable? That diplomats, had they—was it simply that nobody saw it coming and therefore it was not particularly avoidable? Or was it that people to some extent saw it coming, and could and should have done more?
My follow-on question is: Could Kissinger have succeeded, though, without it? Was it a necessary precursor of everything he did because it shook up the Israelis, shook up the Americans and the Soviets, and gave the Arabs in particular a degree of confidence that they lacked before? So, ironically, did we need those lemons to make lemonade?
INDYK: So the answer is yes and no. Yes, I think that it’s possible that the war could have been avoided. Of course, that’s a counterfactual.
INDYK: And what Henry Kissinger would call conjecture. But—
HAASS: That means he dismisses the idea. (Laughs.)
INDYK: No, no. I think he does disagree with me on this, but there was a moment there when Sadat sent his national security adviser to meet with Kissinger, who was then the national security adviser, in February of 1973. And the prelude to this was that Kissinger had, since 1970, called for Egypt to evict Soviet military advisors, of which there were twenty thousand in Egypt at the time. And in July 1972, Sadat did that. And Kissinger’s reaction to that was, well, if he would—if he had come to me first maybe I would have given him something, but since he didn’t I got it for free. And that was a reflective of the basic attitude at the time not just of Kissinger, but also of the Israeli government, which was that Sadat was a fool, basically, incapable of doing anything, and they didn’t need to take him seriously. Kissinger has said more recently that he thought he was a character out of Verdi’s opera Aida, which of course was set in Egypt.
And so when Nasser (sic; Sadat) said that he wanted to send his national security adviser to meet with Kissinger, he basically delayed him for seven months. He had other things to do. He was doing the Vietnam negotiations, détente with the Soviet Union. But he put it off for seven months. And then, when he came—his name was Hafiz Ismail—they had a secret meeting in Armonk, New York. Those of you who are New Yorkers will know where that is, just up the road here. Why in Armonk? Because they were meeting behind the back of the State Department, secret meeting. And Hafiz Ismail puts on the table—and you can read about it in the book—a far-reaching initiative for peace which had some critical elements—I won’t go into all the details—that indicated a seriousness and a sense of urgency. Sense of urgency was manifest in Sadat’s willingness to move ahead of the other Arab states, which of course after the war became evident but before the war was kind of an eyebrow-raiser.
And Kissinger was at first very attracted to this idea, as was Nixon, but he then sat down with the then-Israeli ambassador in Washington. His name was Yitzhak Rabin. And Yitzhak Rabin completely dismissed it. And we have Itamar Rabinovich here, who was Yitzhak Rabin’s ambassador in Washington, and he knows better than me how when Rabin wanted to dismiss something he would just kind of, hand like this, “It’s nothing!”
HAASS: Actually, in Hebrew you do it from right to left. (Laughter.)
INDYK: “We’ve heard it all before. Nothing new here.” Kissinger was kind of defensive: Well, it’s new to me. But then Golda came to town and told Nixon, forget about it. And so they kind of gave up on it.
Kissinger vowed that after the elections in Israel, which were supposed to take place in October, then he would try. And Nixon, you know, was impatient about it, and said OK. And so they did nothing with this initiative, and Ismail basically went home empty-handed. And from that point on, Sadat prepared for war. There’s more to the story in the book, but essentially, that was the essence of it.
Now, your second question, I think, is important, because when the war broke out Kissinger jumped at the opportunity. And I think he recognized that the prewar status quo had become stuck, and he was unable, really, to move it. It worked for him in terms of maintaining order and stability based on Israel’s ability to deter Egypt and the Arabs from war, but he had an uneasy feeling about it, that it wouldn’t hold, especially because Sadat was saying every other month I’m going to war and nobody was paying attention to him, and everybody assume he’d just get beaten.
So now, when the war breaks out, Kissinger sees a moment to reshape the order in a way that would be more stable and serve American interests better.
HAASS: Can I just drop this in? Is Kissinger to some extent unique in that? Was he—did he see things—did he have an ability to see strategic opportunity that other people missed? Is that one of his special attributes?
INDYK: Yes, I think so. And I think it’s a product of his study of history and a product of his own circumstances.
I say that because, first of all, I mean, you know, as a refugee from Nazi Germany, comes to New York fleeing a really traumatic experience—thirteen of his closest family members are murdered by the Nazis—and, you know, that’s a kind of life-forming experience for him. And as a result of that chaos, he seeks order in his life and order in international affairs. And so that’s the prism through which he judges everything.
He then goes back and he studies how order was created in 19th-century Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. That’s his Ph.D. That’s his first book. And he has, therefore, a very well-developed strategic sense of the requirements for building and maintaining order in the international system. So that’s, like, his template. And he’s applying it all sorts of different ways—with China in terms of the balance of power, with the Soviet Union and détente with the Soviet Union. All of that is based on his concept of how to build and maintain order.
Now, suddenly, there’s a disruption to the order in the Middle East and a major war. And he sees in that a plastic moment to reshape things in a way that can not only provide a more stable order in which wars will not break out again, but an order that would advantage the United States.
HAASS: But not, which is the principal thread of your book as I understand it, that Kissinger was to some extent so preoccupied with order in the Middle East. But you distinguish between a pursuit of order and a pursuit of peace, and that essentially his statecraft was designed not so much to promote peace but to potentially, as I read it from you, that by trying to reach for that you could lose the chance to grasp order. So talk about that because I think that’s actually a really important—it’s a subtle but I think essential distinction to what you’re—what you’re writing about.
INDYK: So, as I said at the beginning, I started to write this book to understand how Henry Kissinger made peace. And indeed, that’s what he appeared to have been doing for four years when he was secretary of state. But what I discovered on this intellectual journey—and Kissinger is very good at kind of obfuscating things. It’s one of his fortes. So it wasn’t obvious, but it became obvious as I—as I delved into these protocols of his conversations with the Israelis and the—and Sadat and Assad of Syria, that there was something else going on. And I went back and read his first book, and there it was on the first page.
HAASS: His first book being A World Restored.
INDYK: Exactly, A World Restored. And it’s in the subtitle, too: Castlereagh, Metternich (sic; Metternich, Castlereagh) and the Problems of Peace. From the very beginning of his intellectual journey, he saw peace as problematic. Why? Because, as he says on the first page of his book—of his first book, the pursuit of peace often produced its opposite. This is what he called the paradox of peacemaking. And why was that? Because he had, for instance, lived through the appeasement of the—of the prelude to the Second World War, and had studied history, and had seen how the pursuit of peace as a pursuit of what he called immortality and universality on the part of leaders led them to try too hard, to overreach. And in the process, instead of getting peace they destabilized the order.
Now, his experience in the Middle East was actually the opposite. He was maintaining the order that was disrupted. And he came to understand that the only way in which he could stabilize the order was to have a peace process—not to try to resolve the conflict, because he didn’t believe in that—he didn’t believe that nation-states, powers, would actually resolve their conflicts—but rather to ameliorate the conflict, the better to stabilize the order. For Kissinger, peace was a problem, not a solution. And order was a solution, but order in the Middle East could only be maintained by the mechanism of a peace process.
HAASS: But at some point, in order for—in order for order to be maintained, did a peace process also have to yield product?
HAASS: That a process without progress at some point becomes a bit empty?
INDYK: Exactly. And why was the progress necessary? Because, again, from his study of the European 19th-century order, he came to understand that unless you had the powers in the order feeling a sense of fairness and justice about the order itself, they would not have a stake in maintaining the order. And so when he applied that to the Middle East, he said, OK, the Arabs will not—the Arab powers, particularly Egypt, will not be satisfied with the order unless they have a sense of fairness and justice, and that requires a peace process in which Israel would yield territory which it had occupied in ’67 in order to give the Arabs a sense of a stake in maintaining the order. And so that’s why he invented the peace process. It was a mechanism for producing order.
Now, it doesn’t mean that he didn’t believe that peace would eventually come. He did. He accepted kind of Immanuel Kant’s approach to perpetual peace. But his view was Kantian in the sense that he believed that you needed a long period of time in which the powers would exhaust themselves and would eventually accept peace and reconciliation. So, therefore, he—
HAASS: Do you think—
INDYK: Sorry, just last point.
HAASS: Go ahead. I apologize.
INDYK: Therefore, he needed to introduce a long, incremental, gradual process that would get both sides habituated to the idea of living together.
HAASS: That was, though, a calculation on his part. Do you think he calculated correctly, or in some ways did he overbias things towards order? And in any way did he forfeit opportunities for diplomatic progress?
INDYK: So there are two examples that I give in the book of what I call aiming too low.
Kissinger, through two agreements between Israel and Egypt, laid the foundations for peace between Israel and Egypt. Jimmy Carter got the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt two years later. And there are plenty of indications, as I show in the book, in his conversations with Sadat and with Rabin that they were ready to go much further than he was. And he backed them off, and he told them, no, no, no, let’s just focus on the next step. Let’s not aim too high. And you know, I said to him—I had the opportunity to interview him quite a few times. He was very generous in that regard. And he—I asked him at the end, the last interview; I said, do you ever regret that you didn’t go for the peace between Israel and Egypt? You could have had it. And he said, no. I’m very happy that they achieved peace, but, no, I don’t regret it, because I feared that if I pushed too hard, I would break it.
That was like a lightbulb going off in my head because that’s exactly what we did. The end of the Clinton administration, when we schlepped Arafat—
HAASS: But you mean—you’re—pushed too hard?
HAASS: OK. Just—
INDYK: We pushed too hard and we broke it. And we haven’t been able to put it back together again. So his caution may have led him to undershoot, but it also had the advantage of not breaking the process, because once you break it it’s really hard if not impossible to put it back together again.
HAASS: It’s the Humpty Dumpty theory of Middle East peace.
INDYK: Exactly. Exactly.
HAASS: Just let’s get it on the record. Say a little bit about your relationship with Kissinger—with Henry Kissinger in the writing of this book. How are people to understand? And I don’t mean for you to go beyond what you’re comfortable with, but how cooperative was it? To what extent do you have his sense of the book? What was—often one writes books like this when people aren’t around anymore and you deal with diplomatic papers. Because Henry is very much still around, say something about that.
INDYK: Well, I was very fortunate. I mean, he’s ninety-eight years old and he remembers the details better than I do, at least many of them from that period, which if you think about it is almost fifty years ago. And you know, unfortunately, most of the other people who were involved with him at the time have long since passed away. I did get a chance to—I knew Joe Sisco, who was his trusted deputy, and Hal Saunders who was another one, quite well from my time in Washington, and I managed to interview Saunders before he died. I didn’t—Sisco died many years ago. But essentially, there were very few people who were involved in these negotiations other than Kissinger himself, so I was very fortunate that he is still alive, and still remembers, and was willing to talk to me about it, and was very generous in giving me his time.
That, of course, when you’re writing—this was not a biography, but it was a slice of his government life. And when you do that, you’re—as an author, you’re really kind of caught—constantly caught between, you know, your sense of appreciation and obligation and, frankly, Henry Kissinger was my hero from those early days, as I explained.
HAASS: Is he still your hero?
INDYK: Oh, yeah. Yeah. He is. But I had to—I had to try my best to be objective about it. And, you know, there are things in the book which he objects to pretty strongly. But, you know, I had to kind of try to do my best to call it as a saw it. Or, more importantly, as the documents showed it to be. And in a sense, he was hoisted on his own petard, because he made sure every conversation—even telephone conversations, every meeting that he had—was documented verbatim. So it was an amazing treasure trove of documents which record everything that he did.
HAASS: Yeah. I could ask a hundred more questions. I’m just going to ask one more. Something you said, I just would point out, Martin Indyks of the future who want to do detailed histories of this or that negotiation are not necessarily going to encounter such a trove of documents.
INDYK: (Laughs.) That’s right. That’s right.
HAASS: And I wonder and worry a little bit about the consequences of this digital age of ours, and what historians are going to have to work with. You have an enormous treasure, if you will, to mine here. I’m not sure historians of the future are always going to have that. And often you’ll have—what you’ll have may not necessarily be representative. It certainly won’t be comprehensive. But that’s a—
INDYK: Yeah. And I would just add that Arab documents are not available. The Israeli archives were open, so that was a great advantage. But either the Arab governments don’t keep archives, believe it or not. Imagine, Egypt doesn’t have any archives.
HAASS: Having been to their museum, I believe it. (Laughter.)
INDYK: And Syria does, but they won’t let you anywhere near them. But you’re absolutely right, because now I know from my second time back in government that everything is conducted through email, text messages. And it’s not at all clear how we’re keeping those.
HAASS: So one last question. Again, I’ve got dozens, but I’ll show uncharacteristic discipline. You have the three agreements with Egypt and Syria. And you have all the interaction between Kissinger and Sadat, Kissinger and Assad, Sr. What’s missing from this conversation are the Palestinians. So just say something about Henry Kissinger and the Palestinians. To what extent was that a factor in this thinking about what were the pieces ultimately—forget about peace, even of order in the Middle East? I remember Golda had her famous, again, dismissive comment about Palestinian significance. Where did Henry Kissinger come out? Because I’m struck by, to some extent, the lack of emphasis. This was between states. Say something about that.
INDYK: So Kissinger did not dismiss the Palestinians. And on his watch, the PLO with Yasser Arafat was responsible for killing two American diplomats in Sudan. So he was very much aware of them, but he was aware of them as a terrorist organization that had, in 1970, again on his watch, tried to overthrow King Hussein in Jordan. And that was his first Middle Eastern crisis, 1970. It was an interesting story in itself that I told in the book about how we used Israel to deter the Syrians and enable the king to restore his throne. So he, not surprisingly saw the PLO as a terrorist organization. But he did not ignore them.
So that at the beginning of his diplomacy in the Middle East, after the 1973 war, when he began his first shuttle, he had the then-deputy director of the CIA, Vernon Walters, make with them—you remember him.
HAASS: We interacted a lot, yes.
INDYK: (Laughs.) He had him make with the PLO in Rabat, in Morocco, right at the beginning of his shuttle diplomacy, so as essentially to make sure they would—they would disrupt things. And that succeeded. They did not disrupt things. But that was—his attitude was they needed to be contained, but not addressed.
HAASS: Did he then, therefore, just assume that between Egypt and Gaza and Jordan that one way or another Palestinian people would be taken care of through the states? That that was a lesser included case?
INDYK: As you know from your study of international order, it depends on a hierarchy of states in which the great powers are the ones who determine the order. Much like China and the United States today. And so Kissinger again, as a student of 19th century Europe, and the great powers decided the fate of small nations—had a hierarchical view in which smaller states, like Jordan, didn’t really count for the balance of power, and therefore didn’t count—period. He said he liked the king, but Jordan didn’t really factor into his calculations—let alone a nonstate actor like the PLO, that was seeking to overthrow Jordan and destroy Israel.
So from his point of view, this was, you know, beneath him to deal with. It was Jordan’s problem and Israel’s problem. And they were the ones to deal with it. So that’s the way he approached it. Palestinians were hardly willing to make peace. He checked that out with Walters, and they made clear that they wanted to overthrow the king. That was still their agenda. So his attitude was: It’s Israel’s problem.
And interestingly, and I go into the details of this in the book, after the war, when he negotiated an Israel-Egypt agreement and an Israel-Syria disengagement agreement, then the king came in and said: Now we need an Israel-Jordan disengagement agreement, which would put the Jordanian Army back on the West Bank. It had been evicted from the West Bank by Israel in 1967, when it occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank. Now this was a way to bring the king back into the West Bank, and back into Palestinian affairs. And the Israelis, Golda, was interested in engaging in this negotiation. And Kissinger encouraged her to do so, but he kept on saying, you know, I’m not going to pressure you. I’m not going to get involved. It’s up to you to work it out with the king.
And there was a second opportunity when Rabin took over from Golda as prime minister. And Peres and Yigal Allon—Rabin’s foreign minister; Mr. Peres was defense minister—wanted to try with Jordan. And a second round of Israel-Jordanian negotiations took place in the Wadi Arabah, in the Arabah desert, in a caravan. In a Winnebago, if you can believe it. And again, Kissinger kept on saying to both of them: You deal with it. You should deal with it, because if you don’t the PLO is going to end up representing the Palestinians. But I’m not going to get involved. I’m not going to pressure you.
And this is a kind of head-scratcher. Why was he so determined to stay out of it? And it was precisely because of the hierarchy of states. He needed to get Egypt out of the conflict with Israel in order to stabilize the order. That was his strategic objective. And Sadat was in a hurry to do a second deal after the Syrian deal. And so he had to choose, because the Israelis weren’t going to be able to do both—although, I argue that we could have—he could have had two tracks going simultaneously, which is what Rabin did when he became prime minister the second time, during the Oslo process when he was also talking to the Syrians. But Kissinger wasn’t prepared to play that game. He was focused on Egypt.
And that meant that Jordan was left behind. And again, it’s conjecture, but had he weighed in and had they been able to negotiate the disengagement that would have put the Jordanians back on the West Bank, it would have changed the entire context for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem. A few months later, the Arab summit in—I forget, was it Algiers or Rabat?
INDYK: Rabat summit, announced that the PLO was the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinians. And that was the end of any Jordanian role, to this day.
HAASS: Teagan, let’s get a question from our virtual audience, then we’ll go to some people here in the room.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the first—
HAASS: It’s on the record. Don’t forget.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the first question from Gary Sick.
Q: Thank you very much. This is Gary Sick, Columbia University.
Martin, I have ordered your book, and I’ve read the Foreign Affairs part. And I think it’s really terrific. I look forward to seeing it in greater depth. I want to ask you a question about your own policy and the application of sort of Kissingerian ideas. And I’ll take you to your speech in 1993, when you spoke to the Source (ph) Council and basically proposed the dual containment policy. What you’ve talked about so far in the question and answer has been the Arab-Israeli thing. There was another part of the Middle East. (Audio break)—the Gulf—(laughs)—or have made our lives involved with that. And I just want to very quickly say you said—and you said, “We do not accept the argument that we should continue the old balance of power game. We will have the means to counter both the Iraqi and the Iranian regimes. We do not need to depend on one to counter the other.”
Now, that left us, the U.S. government, fully responsible for what happened in the Gulf. In other words, we were the—we were the balance there. We were going to have to sort this out. If Iran did something, if Iraq did something, it was our responsibility to take care of it. And the governments in the region came to believe that. That led to a series of consequences. It has always struck me as very—
HAASS: Gary, can you bring this to a head as a question?
Q: —very un-Kissingerian in this decision to abandon the balance of power and take it upon ourselves. And I wonder if you see it the same way.
INDYK: It’s a very good question, and one that I’ve thought about a lot. I’m not sure I would agree with you, but we can certainly discuss it later, as to whether we took on the full responsibility. But I think that the context in which we decided on that policy—and it wasn’t my policy, I just happened to brand it. It was the Clinton administration’s policy as a result of a series of interagency taskforces. But it came from the experience with trying to maintain a balance of power between the Iraqis and the Iranians during the ten-year Iraq-Iran War, where some of you will remember that in a Kissingerian way we tilted towards Iraq. You especially will remember, Richard, because you were there. (Laughter.) We tilted towards Iraq. And that made a significant contribution to Iraq’s ability to defeat Iran in that war.
Now, balance of power theory—and I remember Zal Khalilzad at the time, who was a great advocate of balance of power theory, saying: The theory now—he was in policy planning—theory now requires us to tilt back towards Iran. Now that Iraq has won, we have to tilt back towards Iran. But, and this is the answer, Gary, we couldn’t tilt back towards Iran, because Iran was in a revolutionary phase in which it was fundamentally hostile to the United States. And so therefore that’s why I said in that speech we couldn’t pursue a balance theory approach because backing Saddam had ended up with the invasion of Kuwait. And backing—you know, I mean—backing—we couldn’t back the ayatollahs in Iran.
So therefore, since both Iraq—the regimes in Iraq and Iran were hostile to the United States, our approach was to contain both of them and not try to play one off against the other because they were hostile to us. So that was the essential theory of the approach. But, and it’s in the speech but it was not taken seriously at the time, we were very clear that there was a different approach to Saddam Hussein and the regime in Iran. We were on the one hand determined to have nothing to do with Saddam Hussein. And in fact, as is now known, there was a covert program to try to overthrow him. But in the case of Iran, we made very clear, it’s in that speech, that we were ready for a dialogue, we wanted to engage with them, and we were ready for a different kind of relationship with them. And so, yes, it was dual containment, but it was—it was putting Saddam in a cage by sanctions and trying to reach out to Iran.
HAASS: One of the things I like about the Council, one of the many things, you have a question asked by Gary Sick, who was one of the two Middle East hands, along with Bill Quandt on the National Security Council in the Carter Administration, talking to Martin Indyk who had the job later on, and I had that job in between. So it’s only at the Council on Foreign Relations. Let’s get a question from an insider in this room. I can’t recognize, in some cases, people, because I don’t—with the mask. I apologize.
Q: No worries. Thank you, Martin. Great book. Look forward to reading it.
HAASS: Please identify yourself and ask a quick question.
Q: Oh, sorry. Krishen Sud with Sivik Healthcare. Thank you for this book. Look forward to reading it.
Slightly different question. I know this is focused on the Middle East. But do you think, given Kissinger’s desire to have order, could he, if he were secretary of state during the Reagan administration, have seen a path to peace with the Soviet Union?
INDYK: I’m sorry, I missed—what—
HAASS: Could he have seen a path to peace with the Soviet Union in the Reagan administration? That takes us far afield. I don’t know if you want to go there.
INDYK: Well, but I will just say one thing about it that I show in the book. Kissinger engaged with the Soviet Union in the Middle East at a time when there was détente between the superpowers. And détente between the superpowers was marked by a Bidenesque approach, which is to say we’ll cooperate in some areas and compete in others. The Chinese refuse to accept this but the Soviet Union was prepared to accept it. What Kissinger did in the Middle East was not just compete with the Soviet Union, but actually sideline them completely. And amazingly—I think he was amazed by it—they basically took it lying down. They did not try to disrupt his efforts at peacemaking, which demonstrated that only the United States could deliver Israeli territorial concessions to the Arabs, which put the United States in a position to essentially dominate the region.
And the Soviet Union—I mean, he humiliated them, at times. And they just went along. And for him, it was a real revelation of just how weak they were, not just in the Middle East, but more generally. And how sclerotic their leadership had become that they had no ability to even compete with him when he determined that he was going to sideline them.
HAASS: Let me get Ambassador Rabinovich. Itamar, we have these things called microphones.
Q: Yeah, thank you.
Martin, can you speak to the relationship between Kissinger and Rabin? You mentioned it had ups and downs from Rabin’s ambassadorial days to his assassination. And it would be fascinating if you could address that.
INDYK: Thank you. Itamar, of course, has written a wonderful biography of Rabin. So he knows what he’s asking, but I didn’t put him up to it. But, yes, you’re absolutely right they—that the book goes into detail about Rabin’s relationship with Kissinger, first when Rabin was ambassador in Washington. And Kissinger was famous for his backchannels. He had a whole—his way of doing business from the White House, which was fully backed by President Nixon, was to essentially subvert the State Department by having his own secret channels, often through the ambassadors in Washington, like Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador, where he would essentially conduct policy as national security adviser, even though conducing policy was supposed to be preserved in the State Department.
So Rabin was one of his channels. And Rabin was a strategic thinker, like Kissinger. And they really, I think, impacted each other’s thinking. But essentially, in that period, which was—which was from 1969 through 1973, when Rabin went back to Israel—that period was a period in which they concerted policy to elevate Israel into a strategic partner of the United States, manifested most clearly in the way they worked together to prevent the overthrown of King Hussein, as I mentioned, in 1970. And that relationship was a very strong one. And the expectation was that when Rabin became prime minister that they would simply transfer that relationship. But it didn’t work like that.
And interestingly, Rabin—and Itamar has told me this; I didn’t understand it until he did—Rabin was prime minister now. And his counterpart was the president, not the secretary of state. But by that point, Rabin was kind of very much aware of Kissinger’s maneuvers. And he had kind of decided he wasn’t going to be maneuvered by him, because he wasn’t ready to give up territory. He needed to consolidate his position domestically in Israel. And he had Peres on his right, as defense minister, who’s a hawk, who was looking to do everything to undermine him. So giving up territory was a dangerous proposition for Rabin, but it was critical to Kissinger’s whole peace process.
And so they ended up having a real confrontation. And I detail that I the book. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight, a period of reassessment. The United States withheld new arms sales to Israel for three months. Imagine doing that today. And in the end, Kissinger succeeded in bending Rabin and Peres to his will, to the ultimate advantage of Israel. But that relationship at the time was a very, very difficult one. And ironically when Rabin came back to power the second time and did the deal with the Palestinians, the Oslo deal, he borrowed Kissinger’s concept of a step-by-step process, without defining the end game.
Oslo was—the epitome was Kissingerian in its concept. And so even though they had a very contentious relationship, Rabin learnt from Kissinger too.
HAASS: Do you think it also led him to cut out the United States? (Laughter.)
Maureen, you’ve had your hand up.
Q: Thank you, Richard. And thank you, Martin, for this terrific book.
I have a question that refers back to something you said. You said there were parts of your book that Kissinger strongly objected to. Do you want to share one of those anecdotes with us? Or do you want us just to read it? (Laughter.)
INDYK: You know, there weren’t a lot of arguments over fact, it was arguments over interpretation. But I think that he is understandably sensitive to some of the things—some of the ways he comes out in the book. Look, the essence of diplomacy is manipulation. You don’t go in with guns blazing, because that’s not what diplomats do. They have to use their arguments, and back them up with leverage and pressure. And I titled the book Master of the Game because, in my view, Henry Kissinger was the master of that diplomatic manipulation and persuasion. And there are times when he doesn’t come out looking great as a result. And I think that he didn’t like that portrait. But as I try to make clear in the book, that he was, in fact, the master diplomat and that overall he should be pleased by that portrait. (Laughs.) But I think on the one hand he was flattered by the amount of detailed attention given to his diplomacy, but on the other hand he didn’t like the warts and all approach.
HAASS: Teagan, we probably have time for one last—you said you have a virtual question? OK. Let’s squeeze it in.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the last question from David Merkel.
Q: Thank you. David Merkel with the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Ambassador Indyk, I wonder if you could talk about the relationship between Dr. Kissinger and Nixon during this time period. In his secret mission to Moscow, you talk about how he went beyond some instructions from Nixon because of the time period in receiving those instructions. And there was obviously a lot going on in Washington with Watergate. So just a little bit about the back and forth between the—or, between Kissinger and Nixon.
INDYK: Well, thank you for the question, because I think it’s a—it’s a fascinating part of the book and an important explanation of a lot of things that Kissinger was doing. Nixon was essentially an anti-Semite, and yet he picked Kissinger to be his national security adviser. And Kissinger, as a Jew who was proud of his identity as a Jew, operated in an anti-Semitic environment. And that was very difficult for him, compounded by the fact that Nixon made clear from the beginning that Kissinger was not to deal with the Middle East; that he wanted Kissinger to do all the other things that they had to do with China, and the Soviet Union, and of course ending the war in Vietnam, but the Middle East was to be the preserve of Secretary of State Rogers.
HAASS: Was that because Nixon didn’t trust Kissinger, as a Jew, to do it?
INDYK: Correct. And he says it in—and Nixon says it in his biography, that because Kissinger was Jewish, he didn’t think that he could be objective. And so for Kissinger that was a real challenge on one hand. (Laughs.) Like, you know, if you don’t want me to do it, I’m bound that I’m going to do it. But it was insulting. And it implied a dual loyalty, which was very problematic to Kissinger. And so that’s the environment in which he was operating.
Now, as time went on he succeeded in undermining and going around Rogers. And essentially because Rogers made mistake after mistake, Kissinger was able to take advantage of that until finally, after three years, he got control of Middle East policy. And Nixon was prepared to give him control of Middle East policy, but he never trusted him. And he constantly complained that Kissinger was pushing a pro-Israel policy, and he couldn’t rely on him. He complained to Haig about it, who was his chief of staff. And occasionally he would dig at Henry as well. And so it was a very uncomfortable situation for him. And yet, Nixon’s power was seriously declining during this period. Watergate had already started when Kissinger became secretary of state.
And as a result, Nixon was increasingly preoccupied, unable to function effectively. That was especially true during the crisis with the Soviet Union that I detailed in the chapters on the 1973 war. And so Kissinger essentially became the president for foreign policy, because Nixon was essentially out of it. And as a result, he felt himself in a position where he could on occasion either fail to consult with—fail is wrong word here—not consult with Nixon, as occurred when they put American forces, strategic forces in particular, on defense condition three alert around the world to confront the Soviet Union at the height of the Yom Kippur War. Nixon was abed, probably drunk, and not functioning. And so Kissinger and the other national security aides made that decision without him—without consulting him. Which is kind of amazing when you think about it.
But and then, as David suggested, there was a moment when he was instructed to meet with Brezhnev and impose a peace on the Israelis and Egyptians. And that was exactly the opposite of what Kissinger thought was needed because, again, he didn’t believe that you could impose peace. And therefore, he just simply ignored Nixon’s instructions. But Nixon by that point was too weak to do anything about it.
HAASS: Well, Martin, we have to thank the fact that Richard Nixon did not prevail in keeping Henry Kissinger out of the Middle East, or your book either would not have existed or been a lot shorter. (Laughter.) We have barely touched the surface of this. It’s a rich book about diplomacy, about the Middle East, and actually about statecraft. So, and as I said, it is exceedingly well-written. So, Martin, congratulations. And thank you for this. I really do urge people that are in the room or virtually to get the book, certainly to buy it, ideally to read it as well. You will be well-rewarded.
INDYK: Can I just say something that I was told by your staff to say? Is that if you’re a member of the Council on Foreign Relations you can actually get this book free, if you just make sure you follow the instructions.
HAASS: That was a very expensive statement for me. (Laughter.) That’s why I was somehow overlooking it. I have to go out and now raise money to support this act of extraordinary generosity.
Speaking of generosity, there’s a reception here for those at the Pratt House on the first floor, I believe. But again, thank you all who were here virtually, thank you all physically, and thank you. (Applause.)