Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2005 / 18 Kislev, 5766
Talking power to truth
Henry Kissinger is so much easier to take when he is safely removed from power. His was an almost kindly presence as he rose to speak at the annual meeting, luncheon and pep talk of Little Rock's chamber of commerce. He was here doubtless at the behest of his business partner Mack (the Nice) McLarty, who's as Southern Proper as Herr Doktor Kissinger is teutonically didactic.
Richard Nixon's secretary of state and Bill Clinton's former chief of staff make an odd couple, their styles are so different. Yet they go together perfectly like a bowl of steaming borscht topped off with a dollop of sour cream. One is the perfect complement for the other.
Even at a mellow 82, Dr. Kissinger probably couldn't say Good Morning without provoking a memorable disputation over foreign policy, while the collected public utterances of Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty III wouldn't reveal a single memorable line, let alone a provocative one. The only thing they seem to share is a scent for power that would make a bloodhound seem olfactorily challenged.
It's good to hear Dr. Kissinger's orotund tones again after all these years. No longer able to betray whole peoples with a single power play (just ask the Kurds) he now seems more professorial than powerful.
If power corrupts, its absence may redeem. Surely it's just my imagination, combined with a fatal temptation to think the best of my fellow man, but in his comments now I almost detect a hint of pity here and there for those trapped in history's jaws.
Not that our visitor seems different in any basic way from the Henry Kissinger of the 1970s. That was back in the late Pleistocene age of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and the Soviet Union. He was our own Metternich at the time, working out not just a Concert of Europe but of the world, as much at ease with power as he was uneasy in the presence of idealism.
Dr. Kissinger's great failure of perception was his concept of Detente, with its assumption that co-existence with evil was the best the West could hope for. In the end it wasn't a rival intellectual but a B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan, armed with little more than an evangelical faith in America, who gave Detente's underpinnings a slight shove and the whole evil empire collapsed of its own weight. Or so it seems from this deceptive distance.
There are times when Realpolitik can prove unrealistic. For how fashion a foreign policy for a nation without taking into account the national character? And this nation, to quote a president who had to master both moral and practical politics or see the Union dissolve, was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Not even the most sophisticated power player can long separate the Republic from its founding ideas, which have a magnetic power of their own. As has been observed before, Dr. Kissinger's far-seeing policies had one blind spot. He tended to confuse Realpolitik, realistic politics, with Machtpolitik, which is only power politics.
Back then Henry Kissinger was always speaking power to truth, which may explain his kind words for our own J. William Fulbright. The late senator from Arkansas "may have lacerated us from time to time," to quote Dr. Kissinger, but they shared the same unsentimental Weltanschauung.
They were two of a kind whatever their transient disagreements; it was scarcely their fault that the world would surprise them by revealing an unexpected capacity for hope and justice from time to liberating time.
Henry Kissinger's views still fascinate, perhaps because the old boy, like any boy, always has his eye on the future. His lecture today is refreshingly free of all but a few "when I was in office" references. He's still thinking ahead, as he did in his and Richard Nixon's opening to China, which was their great co-triumph.
Just as Dr. Kissinger foresaw then that the bipolar world was becoming multi-polar, so today he recognizes that the world is becoming ever more fluid. The threat to our security, and the world's, has taken a new form that demands a new response.
The world of nation-states in which many of us grew up is fast dissolving, its borders becoming ever more porous. Today's great threat arises from an amorphous ideology rather than one based in some particular country. Or as Dr. Kissinger says of the strange new enemies now striking at the West from the shadows, "It is not possible to deter them because they have nothing to defend. It is not possible to negotiate with them because we don't know what their programs are."
Osama bin Laden's dream of restoring a 7th Century Caliphate isn't a program so much as a polemic, specifically a revenge fantasy. "Why do they hate us?" oh-so-rational Westerners ask in all innocence, unaware that they hate us precisely because we can ask such a question, with its assumption that hatred requires a reason. For millions the sheer, murderous hatred of the Other is satisfaction enough.
Dr. Kissinger understands that it is more important to defeat such an enemy than try to appease its unappeasable fantasies. Not that there aren't plenty of Westerners with fantasies of their own, like the old isolationist assumption that the world would leave us in peace if only we withdrew from it. Preferably immediately.
Henry Kissinger isn't buying it. The man has always had a healthy respect for the ruder realities. "To argue that a collapse of the United States in Iraq would not have consequences," he warns, "is simply living in a dream world."
There are times when a voice from the past can serve as a wake-up call in the present. Thank you. Dr. Kissinger. We needed that.
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