While he was in town for a Jon Kyl fund- raiser, I was able to have a discussion with Henry Kissinger about the role of the United States in the world.
Kissinger doesn't have a comfortable place in the domestic political realm. The left dislikes him because of his association with Nixon and Vietnam. The right distrusted his overtures to the Soviet Union and China.
In fact, it is an element of the creed in some conservative circles that the Soviet Union fell in part because Ronald Reagan's optimistic confrontationalism replaced Kissinger's pessimistic accommodationism.
The proximate cause of the Soviet Union's demise, however, was Mikhail Gorbachev's inability to control domestic reforms he felt were necessary to keep up with the developed West, particularly the United States. And the seeds of that awareness can be traced to the broadening engagement of Kissinger's diplomacy.
In any event, as national security adviser and secretary of State, Kissinger certainly engaged in a highly active and direct diplomacy in the 1970s, attempting to defuse hot spots and manage relationships with troublesome states. This led to d?tente with the Soviet Union, the opening to China, and shuttle diplomacy to manage the end of the 1973 Middle East war and shape its aftermath. Kissinger even negotiated directly with the North Vietnamese while we were involved in a shooting war with them.
The Bush administration, of course, takes a more standoffish attitude toward troublesome states. It declines to negotiate directly with Iran over the variety of critical issues - its nuclear ambitions, support for Shia terrorism and Iraqi militias - that divide us. The administration has Syria in the deep freeze and refuses to deal with the elected Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority. It also won't negotiate with North Korea except within the context of multiparty talks.
Kissinger is still too much a diplomat, and perhaps a politician, to directly criticize the Bush administration and, in particular, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom he says he holds in high regard.
Nevertheless, he manages to convey that he believes that his approach of active, direct diplomacy is better.
Such an approach, according to Kissinger, helps to rally your own people, enables you to better define the issues, and if you need to "get tough," makes it easier to explain why.
This doesn't involve just jumping on a plane and flying to Tehran to talk things out. Kissinger doesn't believe that negotiations necessarily create their own momentum. However, he certainly believes that direct engagement has more benefits than risks.
In his memoir, Years of Upheaval, Kissinger describes his negotiations with Syria's Hafez al-Asad, the father of the current Syrian leader, in the aftermath of the 1973 war.
Kissinger would meet privately with Asad and engage in protracted negotiations. Asad would then bring in his senior advisers, and the discussion would be largely replayed.
Kissinger came to understand that Asad needed him to play a role to create domestic buy-in, so it did not appear that Asad was simply caving to U.S. pressure or positions. That's the sort of thing you just don't learn if you keep your distance.
In his 1994 book, Diplomacy, Kissinger postulated a U.S. role in a post-Cold War world. The world would still need ballast, which only the United States could provide. So, Kissinger envisioned developing a structure of alliances, some based on shared values, some on shared security concerns, some on economic ties.
This was premised on "the absence of both an overriding ideological or strategic threat." Islamic terrorism has, of course, become that threat.
Kissinger, however, seems to believe the threat can be managed through such an alliance, involving the United States, Europe, and moderate Arab states to contain and control "state-like organizations that use terrorism," such as Hezbollah.
Exactly what such an alliance would do, or how it would circumnavigate the Sunni-Shia divide, isn't clear. However, Kissinger clearly believes that there is some tension between the Bush administration's freedom-and-democracy agenda and what needs to be done practically in the region to manage the terrorist threat.
Kissinger has always understood that there was also at least a potential tension between the American temperament and the global role he thinks the United States should play. However, even today, he underestimates, in my view, how much of a constraint that practically imposes.
Kissinger continues to believe that it was elites that undermined domestic political support for the Vietnam War, and there is considerable justification for that view. However, in American politics, intensity counts. And in the end, the intensity of war opponents greatly exceeded that of war supporters.
A similar phenomenon is occurring today with the Iraq war. The American political system simply won't support a protracted military engagement in which a direct, vital and immediate security threat is not broadly perceived.
At 83, Kissinger remains a commanding interlocutor, to use one of his favorite words.
The United States should be cautious about taking on troubles, but Kissinger's views about the practical benefits of direct diplomacy with troublesome states is wise counsel.