Kissinger's Middle East Diplomacy, With Martin S. Indyk

Martin S. Indyk, distinguished fellow at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy reshaped the politics of the Middle East and continues to offer lessons for U.S. foreign policy today.

November 2, 2021 — 25:14 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Martin S. Indyk

Distinguished Fellow

Show Notes

Martin S. Indyk, distinguished fellow at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy reshaped the politics of the Middle East and continues to offer lessons for U.S. foreign policy today.

 

Enter the CFR book giveaway before November 16, 2021, for the chance to win one of ten free copies of Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy by Martin S. Indyk. You can read the terms and conditions of the offer here.

 

Books Mentioned in the Podcast

 

Martin Indyk, Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy (Knopf, 2020)

 

Henry Kissinger, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812–22 (Houghton Mifflin, 1957)

 

Henry Kissinger, World Order (Penguin Books, 2014)

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to the President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is Henry Kissinger's Middle East Diplomacy.

Jim Lindsay:

With me to discuss how Henry Kissinger shaped US diplomacy in the Middle East is Martin Indyk. Martin is a distinguished fellow at the Council. He has twice been US ambassador in Israel. First, from 1995 to 1997, and then again from 2000 to 2001. Martin was also the US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from July, 2013 to June, 2014. His new book Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger in the Art of Middle East Diplomacy is out now. Martin, thanks for coming back on the President's Inbox.

Martin Indyk:

Thank you very much for having me, Jim, and thank you for all the support and advice that you gave me in writing this book.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, it was a pleasure to read the manuscript Martin. It's a great book. So good in fact, that we have an offer for our listeners. They have a chance to win one of 10 free copies of Master of the Game. To do so, all they have to do is go to cfr.org/giveaway before November 16th, to enter the giveaway and to see the terms and conditions. You can also find a link to the giveaway in the show notes for the President's Inbox on cfr.org. Martin if we may, I want to begin with sort of a first order question, and that is, why have you written a book on Henry Kissinger? When I look at my bookshelves, I see them groaning under the weight of books written about Kissinger's diplomacy, several of which he wrote himself. So what did those previous books miss that led you to write Master of the Game?

Martin Indyk:

Two reasons, Jim. The first was that Henry Kissinger's diplomacy in the Middle East took place after the things that he's remembered for. They talked with the Soviet Union opening to China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Turin, and Chile, so on, Bangladesh. All of those things happened while he was National Security Advisor. But in 1973, September of 1973 became Secretary of State. For the next four years, he basically focused on making peace in the Middle East. And so that story has not had much attention. And there now is a treasure trove of documentation that he was responsible for ensuring every conversation, every phone conversation, every meeting is documented, 95% is declassified, and the Israeli archives for that period are also open. So there's a huge amount of material that lends itself to the deep history that I wanted to write about his diplomacy in the Middle East.

Martin Indyk:

But the second reason is that, I had, when I started this book, just come off a third attempt of my own to try to promote peace in the Middle East. In particular, Israeli-Palestinian peace. And each effort had ended in failure. So I decided that I should go back and look at a period in which the United States was much more successful in its peace diplomacy under Henry Kissinger who negotiated four agreements ceases thus far in the Yom Kippur War. And then two agreements between Israel and Egypt, one between Israel and Syria, which laid the foundations for the American led Arab-Israeli peace process, and also established an American led order in the Middle East that lasted for a good three decades. So it's a great story. There's a lot to be learnt. I learned a lot more than I expected to learn, and it lends itself to this deep historical account.

Jim Lindsay:

I want to get to the question of what Kissinger's diplomacy tells us about Middle East peace today, or the region in general, we'll get to that in a moment. Where I really want to begin is so what I take to be your very positive assessment of Dr. Kissinger. Again, the title of the book is Master of the Game. It's no secret to you that Dr. Kissinger is a polarizing figure. He has plenty of critics, many of those are on the left of the political spectrum, but not all. I recall that Ronald Reagan ran for the president in 1980 in good part, attacking the policies that Dr. Kissinger helped to craft, particularly toward the Soviet Union, but not just toward the Soviet Union. So maybe you can just give us your big picture view of why you have such a positive view of Kissinger's diplomacy.

Martin Indyk:

Well, this is by no means a hagiography. And there are several places where I criticize him for missing opportunities. In one case that could well have avoided, the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In another case that actually may have, if he pursued, it changed the whole context in which the Palestinian problem would've been dealt with and could have changed the course of history in that regard as well. So it's not as if he didn't make mistakes and they're all there in the account, but after all he was the master of the game in the sense that diplomacy is the art of moving leaders to places they would rather not go or, in another version of that telling people to go to hell and making them want to go there.

Martin Indyk:

But in one way or another Henry Kissinger was the master of the manipulations involved in diplomacy. Part of what I wanted to do was to show what diplomacy is actually about to take the reader into the rooms behind those closed doors, where the actual negotiations take place. And because Kissinger preserved the memorandums of his conversations, all of his conversations with these Middle Eastern leaders, I can actually recreate the negotiations themselves. And because I was in the same rooms, in many cases with some of the same leaders, I can illuminate that story with my own experiences to give people a real sense of what diplomacy is all about as practiced by say, one of the masters of the game.

Jim Lindsay:

Well. This book is in part, small part, a memoir as well, because you interweave some of your own experiences having been in the negotiating room, trying to get people to give up things they don't want to give up and to accept outcomes they don't want to accept, but before we get again to the issue of how this relates it today, could you do us a favor Martin and just set up for us, what prompted Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy? You and I are both old enough to remember the Yom Kippur War, the October War. I think a lot of our listeners may not recall it or even been alive at the time. So could you set the stage for us?

Martin Indyk:

A lot of them weren't born. It's a long time ago, almost five decades. For me, it was a life forming experience. I happened to be an Australian student of international relations about to start a master's degree at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When the war broke out, it was a surprise to me, but more importantly, it was a surprise to Israelis, and it was a surprise to Henry Kissinger because he thought that he had created a more or less stable order based on a balance of power tipped in Israel's favor, in the Middle East heartland and in the Shah of Iran's favor in the Persian Gulf. And that together with, they top with the Soviet Union, and the understanding that he had reached with Moscow, neither side would seek to exploit local situation for particular advantage meant that there was a more or less stable situation until unless that the president of Egypt decided to launch war.

Martin Indyk:

He'd been warning for three years, that if his grievances were not addressed, meaning that there wasn't a way for him to get territory occupied by Israel in 1967 returned to Egypt, and he would go to war. But nobody took him seriously, especially not Henry Kissinger.

Jim Lindsay:

Was that Kissinger's mistake that you alluded to before Martin?

Martin Indyk:

Certainly. That was at the heart of it. He says to this day that he thought Sadat was a fool. He likens him to a character in the Verdi opera Aida, which is set in ancient Egypt. That was his view of him, some kind of buffoon. So much so that when Sadat expelled 20,000 Soviet military advisors in July, 1972 Kissinger's attitude was... Well, he never talked to me about it, he gave it to me for nothing. So I don't have to do anything about it. And he didn't. Then in February of 1973, Sadat sent his National Security Advisor to meet with Kissinger in a secret meeting to lay out a peace initiative, that was quite far reaching and came with a real sense of urgency and Kissinger at first found it very interesting as did Nixon, but then Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel and Yitzhak Rabin, who was then Israel's ambassador in the United States, dismissed it completely. They said, there's nothing new here, we're not interested.

Martin Indyk:

And Kissinger backed off instead of pursuing it. The war broke out and suddenly he's confronted with a major conflict. And he decides to seize the moment and recognizes, what I would call the plasticity of the moment. But the status quo has now been upset and now there's an opportunity to mold the conflict in a way that can play to America's advantage. And that's what he proceeds to do in the war.

Jim Lindsay:

Could you just situate this moment Martin, in the context of domestic politics in the United States at that time, as I recall, there were some other things going on were particularly relevant to president Richard Nixon.

Martin Indyk:

Well, there were two things going on. One was the withdrawal from Vietnam. Somewhat like the withdrawal from Afghanistan that we've just lived through. And then, as now there was also domestic turmoil all centered around the impeachment of Richard Nixon for what was known as Watergate. And that impeachment process unfolded during the 1973 War that Kissinger was trying to work on. The Saturday night massacre, famous because of Nixon's attempt to fire the special prosecutor and the various Department of Justice senior officials who resigned rather than firing him that took place while Kissinger was in Moscow negotiating a ceasefire from the 73 War with the Soviet Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev.

Jim Lindsay:

So Kissinger launches his shuttle diplomacy. But as you tell the story, Martin, you distinguish between searching for peace and searching for order. Can you explain what that means in this context?

Martin Indyk:

So as I said before, when I started out writing this book, it was a study of Kissinger's peace process diplomacy. But what I discovered along the way, and it was a discovery because Kissinger is a master of obfuscation, never really lays out exactly what he's up to. It's part of the skills that he has. And in particular, he was often hiding what he was up to from president Nixon, his boss himself. But what I discovered along the way was that Henry Kissinger saw peace as a nice thing to have, but not something that he felt was useful to pursue.

Martin Indyk:

In fact, he is very concerned that American leaders in their desire for what he called immortality, but actually greatness. The desire for the Nobel Peace Prize would pursue peace with too much energy and too much passion. And in the process they would achieve the opposite. They would destabilize the order. So for Henry Kissinger, order was what was important. He wrote a whole book called, World Order. Order in his own life because of the KRC experience in fleeing from Nazi Germany, order in the international system, two sides of the same coin for him was what mattered.

Jim Lindsay:

That was the theme throughout a lot of his academic writing, right?

Martin Indyk:

Exactly. The first book that he wrote was based on his PhD was called A World Restore: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace. So it's right there in the title. And it's on the first page where he talks about the paradox of peace that statesmen who pursue peace often end up with its opposite. And so therefore he was looking for something that was more realistic because he was a realist, of course. He was looking for something that was more tangible and more long lasting. And for him that was order. Now, a peace process in the Middle East context was necessary to legitimize the order, particularly for the Arab powers, who would not have a stake in the order unless their grievances were addressed when it came to the territory that Israel had occupied six years earlier in 1967. And therefore the peace process was his mechanism for maintaining order, but he was always very cautious to pursue peace in a gradual incremental way.

Martin Indyk:

He called it step by step diplomacy and he eschewed and was opposed to the idea of jumping to an end of conflict negotiation because he, first of all, didn't believe that the Arabs were ready to end the conflict with Israel. And he, secondly, he didn't believe that Israel was strong enough to make the concessions necessary to achieve that end of conflict. So he structured his peace process in a way that would give Israel time to build its strength and give the Arabs time to essentially exhaust themselves to the point where they were ready to make peace. And so that was the essence of his approach.

Martin Indyk:

And it was for me a real revelation because I had been guilty of pursuing peace with too much passion. And the consequence of what we did during the Clinton Administration was that we tried to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict at Camp David in 2000, we failed. And when we failed, it produced an eruption, an intifada, which killed thousands of people on both sides of the conflict over five years and completely consumed the framework of peace that had taken us eight years to build. And despite the efforts of four presidents, nobody's been able to put it back together again like Humpty Dumpty.

Jim Lindsay:

I will take your self-criticism Martin, but isn't it possible for that self-criticism to be true. And for Henry Kissinger to have missed the opportunity to construct a viable piece. And I ask that because you tell a masterful story with some very colorful and impressive heads of state who are interacting, who are pretty tough. And as best I can tell don't want to be led to where Henry Kissinger wants to go, except for one individual, and that’s Sadat who seems almost to bend over backwards to give Kissinger another chance to embrace what it is that he, Anwar Sadat was trying to do.

Martin Indyk:

Yes. And here's the conundrum, Kissinger was very careful not to overreach. And as I said, you can see the dangers of overreaching and the consequences in the explosion of the peace process that I described in the failure in Afghanistan, as we overreached to try to create democracy there. The history of a lot of America's endeavors since the collapse of the Soviet Union is a history of overreaching. But the conundrum is that Kissinger in his conservatism under reached, if there's such a word, he shot too low on occasions. And that was the story about his failure to take advantage of Sadat's first peace initiative, which came before the 1973 war. And then, his failure to take advantage of an opportunity to have an agreement between Israel and Jordan, which came after the Yom Kippur war. And in both cases, it was because he was too conservative. Somehow United States needs to find a way to have the Goldilocks approach somewhere in between not overreaching, but not under reaching either. And I think that's a real challenge for the United States in the world today.

Jim Lindsay:

Well it certainly is, and I imagine historians can always rehash history to argue when someone did too little and they could have done more and how we can always get into counterfactuals. But again, you tell a wonderful story Martin, you're a great writer. Could you tell us a little bit about two of the leaders that appear at time to time again in the manuscript we haven't mentioned yet Golda Meir and Hafez al-Assad?

Martin Indyk:

Yes. Well, Golda Meir was a very tough prime minister in Israel. One of the founding mothers of the state partner with Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol, she carried the weight of the Holocaust on her shoulders and felt a great responsibility for the survival of the Jewish state, which was only what - I mean 1948 to 1973. So really it only existed for a short period of time. So she was very resistant to the idea that Israel should give up any territory. Especially, after Egypt and Syria had launched war on Israel. And she would rally against the unfairness of and tell the story in the book of the knockdown drag-out fights that she had with Kissinger. Kissinger of course was first jury, Secretary of State. And she played on his sense of guilt. She treated him like the wayward nephew and he responded like that too, but he was quite willing to fight with her and argue with her because he believed strongly that she was really putting the jury state in danger by her obduracy.

Martin Indyk:

And that his approach was going to work out much better for Israel as it did, but it took him a hell of a battle to convince her. Once convinced however, she had the ability to bring her cabinet and her people with her. And that was something that Kissinger highly appreciated Hafez al-Assad, father of the president, horrendous leader of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Hafez al-Assad was a very smart, cautious man, somewhat like Kissinger in a way. He calculated the balance of power, like a computer. He played a fairly weak hand, Syria, small country with not many resources, but it was the beating heart of pan-Arabism. So he played the Arab national card and he did it quite effectively.

Martin Indyk:

He was really smart. Kissinger saw him as an icon in terms of the way that they jousted with each other intellectually. But unlike Kissinger, he was not a man of the world. He barely traveled outside of Syria except to the Soviet Union. They would spend the first hour or so of their meetings, which Henry would give him a tour de resistance and explain the world to him. And in that way, charm a very tough cookie and eventually brought him around too. It was match of wits and guile but in the end, Kissinger managed to convert him just like he managed to convert Golda Meir to his peace process.

Jim Lindsay:

So explain to us Martin where Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy netted up after, he finished going from capital to capital. And I must say his travel schedule seemed quite rigorous and exhausting, particularly since he was Secretary of State, presumably was responsible for much of the rest of the world. Where did the United States, where did the Middle East end up at the end of that shuttle diplomacy?

Martin Indyk:

Yes, first of all, that shuttle diplomacy in which he shuttled back and forth between Arab capitals in Israel was the epitome of the relentless diplomacy that Joe Biden talks about now as something that he wants to pursue. Kissinger spent 30 days out on the Middle East highways shutting between Damascus and Jerusalem, Cairo and Riyadh. He made 13 shuttle trips between Jerusalem and Damascus just to get a disengagement ring. And in the end, what he managed to produce through these four agreements that he negotiated was to remove Egypt from the conflict with Israel, which therefore made it impossible because of Egypt size, power and influence in the Arab world made it impossible for other Arab states to contemplate going to war with Israel. So that was the first very important thing that he achieved.

Martin Indyk:

He flipped Egypt from a radical state to a moderate state, from a Soviet client to an American client in the midst of a cold war. And that changed the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict in a fundamental way. Then he used the Israel's Syria disengagement ring to legitimize what Egypt had done in the Arab world. Because as I said before, Assad was the beating heart of pan-Arabism. So to have an Arab nationalist leader also do an agreement with Israel was very important for a legitimizing Kissinger’s peace process.

Jim Lindsay:

Providing cover to Sadat.

Martin Indyk:

Exactly. And on top of that, creating a stable situation on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. A situation which has lasted for 40 years remains essentially quiet even today. When Iran is in there pushing its malice to get up to the Golan border with Israel, essentially that border remains quiet and remained quiet ever since Kissinger did that deal. And so therefore he created an environment in which peace became possible, but it was a peace that he figured would take a good 40 years to take hold. And his ultimate indication was not just that Egypt never went back to war and that Syria never went back to war with Israel. But that the Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco just now normalize their relationship with Israel. And what did the Emirates leaders say? They were tired of the conflict. So they too fulfilled Kissinger's prediction that time would lead to the exhaustion of their powers.

Jim Lindsay:

So what are the lessons we should take away from Kissinger's diplomacy Martin? For the region today, when you were critical of the choices you made when you were in government, but what does that mean for a Biden Administration going forward?

Martin Indyk:

Well, I think the first lesson is that peacemaking in the middle east needs to be a gradual incremental process. Unless you have leaders who are actually ready to tie the knot, make the peace deal. Otherwise there's a lot of wisdom in Kissinger’s incremental approach that is especially the case today. Because as I said, after four presidents tried and failed to end the Israeli Palestinian conflict, we're now in a situation where the Israeli government is a left-right coalition that cannot agree amongst themselves as to how to deal with the Palestinians. And the Palestinians have a polity that's divided between Palestinian Authority that rules the West Bank and Hamas that rules Gaza, and they can't agree on how to deal with Israel. So in those circumstances, you can, by now define what the outcome should be. We know what it looks like, the two-state solution, because we spent so long negotiating it, but we can't get there from here. That's why we need a gradual incremental process exactly, along the lines of Kissinger designed it.

Jim Lindsay:

Do you see the Biden Administration sketching out something along those lines?

Martin Indyk:

Well, certainly they've begun down that road because they've got a government in Israel that's willing to take some steps, but they're economic steps. That's not enough. According to the Kissingerian approach, which always had as its critical element, territorial steps. And so far, there's only a very limited territorial steps. Today, Israeli government granted 1,300 building permits for Palestinians in areas C of the West Bank, which is completely under Israel's control. So it was the first, very small territorial step in favor of the Palestinians. But at the same time, it did 3,000 new settlement units, which is a reversal of the process that Kissinger had in mind. Where the settlements taking up more of the territory that Israel's supposed to be handing over incrementally to the Palestinians.

Martin Indyk:

So the Biden Administration has to decide whether it really wants to get behind an incremental process and given everything else that the president has in his inbox. I think that it's unlikely that they will decide to put the kind of effort that Kissinger put into it. Essentially, because he was coming off a major war, there was an Arab oil embargo. The world was heading into a global economic recession. He had to get things moving, to get the oil embargo lifted, to prevent another war from breaking out. There's no such sense of urgency today. The assumption is somewhat like in the days before the 1973 War, that Palestinians are never going to do anything to disrupt the status quo. And so therefore we don't need to worry about it. And that's probably true until it isn't as Kissinger discovered.

Jim Lindsay:

On that note, I'll close up the President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Martin Indyk distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, an author of the excellent new book Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger in the Art of Middle East Diplomacy. Thank you Martin for joining me today.

Martin Indyk:

Thank you Jim. Real pleasure always.

Jim Lindsay:

As a reminder, you can win one of 10 free copies of Master of the Game. Just go to cfr.org/giveaway before November 16th, to enter the giveaway into see the term and conditions. You can also find the link to the giveaway and the show notes for the President's Inbox on cfr.org. Please subscribe to the President's Inbox on apple podcast, Spotify, wherever you listen in leader's review, they help us get noticed and improve the show. The books mentioned in this episode are listed on the podcast page for the President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always opinions expressed in the President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, none of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis, with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Zoe. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

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