Kissinger and the Arab world, myths and realities

The former American diplomat is ostensibly the only person to have made such a profound impression on people well beyond the United States. An unparalleled negotiator with the cunning of a fox, “Super K,” as he is known to some, is the very embodiment of cynicism in politics. In the Arab world, he is perceived as both a “strong man” and a conspirator, with some going so far as to hold him responsible for all the region’s ills, particularly in Lebanon.

Kissinger and the Arab world, myths and realities

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during a ceremony honoring his diplomatic career on May 9, 2016 at the Pentagon in Washington DC (Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

What do modern Turkey, Warner Bros, and Henry Kissinger have in common? They were all born in 1923.

The former US Secretary of State was an infant during Hitler’s failed coup in his native Bavaria. He also witnessed the Führer’s rise to power in 1933, as well as his defeat in 1945. He was 41 when racial segregation was abolished in the US.

He lived through major global events which include the Cultural Revolution in China, the Nakba, the Oslo Accords, the failure of the Oslo agreement and the birth of the Abraham Accords. He witnessed the Iranian revolution, the 9/11 attacks, the Arab Spring and its subsequent dwindle.

Kissinger was present during the Russian invasion of Ukraine and remains an influential figure providing advice to Western diplomats.

With his characteristic mix of humor and occasional arrogance, he continues to warn about the dangers of artificial intelligence and offer insights on preventing potential conflicts with China.

A century of life is a short time in human history but a remarkable span in human terms, especially when someone who has existed this long has received the status of a living legend.

Kissinger, who turned 100 on May 27, embodies US foreign policy at its most ingenious to its supporters, and at its most cynical for its critics.

Son of Weimar

Born in Fürth, Germany, to devout Jewish parents, young Heinz — later Henry — was forced to flee Hitler’s anti-Semitic regime and settled in New York in 1938.

Thirteen members of his family perished in the Shoah (Holocaust), exterminated by the murderous madness of Nazism.

From this dark period, Kissinger perhaps developed the dark vision of human nature that would go on to shape his understanding of geopolitics.

As a child of Weimar, he was wary of democratic puffery.

“I witnessed the collapse of a very secure society,” he confided in 2001, during an interview at the Museum of Jewish Heritage which was reprinted in an article by the American journalist Jeremi Suri. It was enough to convince him of the pusillanimous nature of democracies— cowardly and unarmed in the face of danger.

In 1943, he briefly worked with the US Army as an interpreter and intelligence officer in Europe. After that, he returned to the US where he pursued an academia at Harvard University.

Endowed with a sense of sarcasm, Kissinger long denounced Washington’s sanctimonious foreign policy at the time and argued for a more pragmatic approach.

It was under President Richard Nixon, and then under Gerald Ford, that Kissinger, an American Machiavelli, rose to prominence. From 1969 to 1973, he served as National Security Adviser. He then became Secretary of State, a position he held until 1977, and was the first American Jew to do so..

An outstanding negotiator, Kissinger was guided above all by the defense of American interests. His host country was his promised land.

He was prepared to do anything for it, even if it meant utilizing lies and manipulation as an art form.. He would assert his opposition to certain individuals or groups while simultaneously persuading another group that he was against different adversaries.

Kissinger was close to Nixon and the two men worked together, reshaping foreign affairs in their own image and cleverly bypassing bureaucratic obstacles.

The Kissinger doctrine that emerged reflected a harsh and deeply pessimistic worldview. It suggested that the available options were consistently limited to two unfavorable solutions. Stability must be imposed everywhere, but on Washington’s terms, whose power must never be questioned, and never be suspected of weakness.

The Cold War imposed its tempo. The main person involved on the US side, Kissinger, did what he could to calm the tumult. A staunch anti-communist, Kissinger nonetheless wanted to strike a balance in the diplomatic arena and recognized Moscow as a rival power with which it had to cooperate.

He also played a key role in America’s policy of opening up to China at the beginning of the 1970s. This was a real turning point.

But these initiatives did little to hide the other side of the coin.

“Kissinger is the perfect incarnation of Realpolitik and contempt for ethics in international relations,” says political scientist Karim Bitar. “The decisions he made during the Cold War turned out to be disastrous, and the consequences can be counted in the millions of deaths.”

Kissinger was accused of having prolonged the war in Vietnam and extended it to Laos and, above all, Cambodia. At the dawn of the 1970s, Kissinger also encouraged Nixon to support the Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan in his repression of Bengali nationalists.

He gave Turkey the green light to invade Cyprus in 1974, and Indonesia to attack East Timor in 1975.

In Argentina, Kissinger, the master of cunning, did not hesitate to support the military junta while tens of thousands of opponents “disappeared”. He actively supported the other “September 11”, that of 1973: Pinochet’s coup d'état in Chile against the democratically elected President Allende.

The Assad card

Kissinger’s mark on the Middle East is indelible. Admittedly, the fallout from his strategy has been less costly in human lives than elsewhere.

In an Arab world where many individuals feel overwhelmed by politics and reliant on the benevolence of regional and global powers, Kissinger's influence is captivating, serving both beneficial and, more frequently, detrimental purposes.

Some perceive Kissinger as a patriotic figure who, despite his cynicism, prioritized the interests of his country above all else. Their viewpoint is bolstered by the failures of the US administration in the early 2000s, where a combination of security-focused and ostensibly moral objectives resulted in dismal outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is noteworthy, however, that Kissinger himself supported the invasions of both these countries.

But his admirers have to contend with his critics, more numerous, who perceive him as an evil hydra whose schemes are said to be behind the calamities that have plagued the Arab world since the 1970s, particularly in Lebanon.

He himself has never ceased to cultivate ambiguities, so much so that today his name crystallizes all sorts of obsessions and fuels multiple conspiracy theories. Is this a revival of old anti-Semitic allegations about a Jewish conspiracy for world domination?

No doubt, in part. But only in part. Kissinger sees the southern hemisphere as a vast chessboard. And in the Arab world, which was in upheaval at the time, his strategy was based on the construction of an order that was fully committed to Washington.

The 1973 war provided him with an immense opportunity to deploy his talent and implement new stratagems.

He sought to reduce Soviet influence — as before — but by directing efforts toward the Egyptian and, to a lesser extent, Syrian regimes, and to ensure that the US became the only extra-regional player able to influence inter-state negotiations.

To achieve this, he believed that Washington’s allies, i.e., Israel and the conservative Gulf monarchies, needed to be strengthened and that a form of shuttle diplomacy needed to be initiated, based on going back and forth between the conflicting protagonists until an agreement was reached.

For Kissinger, Lebanon was of negligible quantity, as was the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

On one hand, he hoped to find common ground between Israel and Egypt and on the other hand, Israel and Syria.

His approach proved successful, leading to the separate Israeli-Egyptian peace in 1979. It strengthened Hafez al-Assad and made him one of the guardians of the regional temple.

In Kissinger’s vision, peace is less important than stability.

Without peace, the Assad dynasty was able to guarantee Israel's stability until the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in 2011, despite the occupation of the Golan Heights.

“Kissinger had immense respect for Hafez al-Assad, whom he saw as a seasoned negotiator who knew how to use trickery and a variety of techniques to catch his adversaries off guard,” says James R. Stocker, author of Spheres of Intervention: US Foreign Policy and the Collapse of Lebanon (1967-1976).

However, the region’s observers remain divided over Kissinger’s exact role, and Washington more generally, in Syrian intervention in Lebanon.

Did the US encourage Damascus to do so in order to subdue the PLO and the Lebanese left in favor of Christian groups more aligned with American objectives, within the context of the Cold War? Or did Damascus suggest the idea to the US out of fear that the rise of the Palestinian factions would jeopardize its leadership?

The most recent archives seem to indicate that it was indeed Syria that sought Washington’s approval as early as March 1976.

This prospect was initially rejected by Kissinger, who was worried about an Israeli counter-intervention and a subsequent regional conflagration. Gradually, however, he reversed his position, encouraged by gains in the so-called progressive Palestinian camp.

“The Ford administration did not accept the Syrian occupation of Lebanon until just before or just after [its inauguration’,” writes David M. Wight in the January 2013 issue of Diplomatic History. Just long enough for Israel to demonstrate its “acceptance.”

This version also seemed to have been accepted by Kissinger himself, who in his memoirs, published in 1999, judged that Assad’s endeavors had led to short-term appeasement, prevented a new Israeli-Arab conflict, and weakened the Palestinian groups, with whom he did not want to negotiate.

“According to Kissinger, the Palestinians were unimportant. He did not even want to put pressure on Israel to return the territories conquered in 1967. He had nothing to propose as a solution to the refugee question in Lebanon,” explains James R. Stocker.

“Yet demographic fears about the presence of a Palestinian population with a Muslim majority were one of the reasons behind the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war,” he added.

By neglecting the Palestinian issue in Lebanon out of contempt for the main parties concerned on the one hand, and to flatter the Jewish state on the other, the US diplomacy designed by Kissinger, according to its critics, has played a large part in fueling tensions.

“When he realized that Lebanon would not give him what he wanted, namely a peace treaty with Israel, Kissinger no longer cared. As far as he was concerned, Lebanon was just a weak state to which whatever happened would happen. It wasn't his problem,” Stocker said.

A Kissinger plan?

In Lebanon, this elusive legacy is still haunting people’s minds. Many remain convinced of the existence of a “Kissinger plan.”

For some, it was historically aimed at partitioning Lebanon into several community entities, in line with an old project of the founding fathers of the Hebrew state, led by Ben Gurion, as was unveiled by Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett in 1954.

For others, the plot’s aim was to de-Christianize the country by settling Palestinian refugees.

“One of the leading figures in Lebanese politics, Raymond Eddé, believed in this partition theory for a long time. However, as he was viscerally attached to Lebanese unity, he never ceased to denounce this supposed Kissinger initiative,” Bitar said.

“But the archives that were subsequently declassified showed that the US, France and the Vatican were keen to maintain the country’s territorial unity,” he added.

The Christian question, on the other hand, is less clear-cut. According to former Lebanese president Sleiman Frangieh, who died in 1992, Kissinger told him of his decision to settle the Palestinians in Lebanon for good, even if it meant driving out the Christians, in order to relieve Israel.

“We know that at the time, American diplomats spoke condescendingly to the Lebanese. It's possible that he told him that if the Christians wanted to leave, they could get some help. But that doesn’t mean that there was a very clear plan,” Bitar said.

Relations between Kissinger and Israel were checkered. But he was certainly pro-Israel. He never skimped on arms sales and always put Tel Aviv’s interests at the heart of his strategy.

According to former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, Israel is perhaps the only geopolitical issue that arouses any emotion in Kissinger’s cold calculation.

“After the 1973 war, he tried to steer his policy in such a way as to enable Israel to consolidate some of its military gains so as to be in a strong position to negotiate with the Arab countries,” Stocker said.

But Kissinger was not Tel Aviv’s henchman, despite popular belief. He often found himself in conflict with the Israeli leadership, fearing, among other things, that in Washington he was thought to be guided in his duties by his Jewishness.

When Golda Meir urged him to make Israel his priority, he replied disparagingly in a meeting that has gone down in history: “I must inform you that I am first of all an American citizen, then Secretary of State, and finally a Jew.” Meir retorted that in Israel, people read from right to left.

Evon though nearly half a century has passed since he officially left office, Kissinger is still a source of tension.

His name often comes up, both on café terraces and in intellectual and political circles, as if to prove the validity of a conviction: the belief in a fatality, in an Arab renaissance that from Sykes-Picot to the present day, has been secretly prevented by the Western powers.

This belief, which goes beyond Kissinger’s actions but is fueled by them, merges with a vision of history that perceives the people of the Middle East as constantly being on the losing side or facing out of control challenges.

“In the Middle East there is a gap between myth and reality, the signifier and the signified. You only lend to the rich, and Kissinger was a rich man. As a result, many Lebanese believe that he is responsible for all their ills,” Bitar said.

“American policy contributed to the destabilization of the country and the region, but to blame it all on a supposed Kissinger plan is to find extenuating circumstances and to diminish the very heavy responsibility of the Lebanese players who lacked strategic perspective and multiplied risky alliances, sometimes with Israel, sometimes with Syria, sometimes with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq,” he added.

The celebration surrounding Henry Kissinger's centenary in Western diplomatic, media, and political spheres stands in stark contrast to the sentiments of those who have directly witnessed the ramifications of his disregard for morality. This contrast is further accentuated by the current elevation of his reputation as a symbol of wisdom and discernment.

From Washington to Paris, many invoke the legacy of ‘Super K’ to defend a vision of the world where only the reason of the State exists. Where the “strong” have — because they are strong — the right to crush the “weak.”

The “Kissinger spirit” is what accounts for the inclination of some individuals, in the name of Realpolitik, to urge Ukraine* to make compromises today in order to halt a war that it did not instigate but rather has fallen victim to.

This same spirit demanded silent submission from the Lebanese under Syrian dominance. It is this very spirit that now asks the Palestinians to relinquish their struggle, accept defeat, and abandon their aspirations for independence. The enduring memory of the Kissinger era also contributes to shaping anti-US sentiments worldwide, often in favor of Moscow.

Undoubtedly, pragmatism is a valuable trait. However, appreciating its impact may be easier within the corridors of the US State Department than on the streets of Jenin, Hama, Santiago, Nicosia, or Beirut.

*It is worth noting that while Kissinger had previously supported a “neutral” Ukraine, he is now advocating for Kyiv's inclusion in NATO.

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

What do modern Turkey, Warner Bros, and Henry Kissinger have in common? They were all born in 1923.The former US Secretary of State was an infant during Hitler’s failed coup in his native Bavaria. He also witnessed the Führer’s rise to power in 1933, as well as his defeat in 1945. He was 41 when racial segregation was abolished in the US.He lived through major global events which include...