Kissinger's Comeback Tour

Politics and policy.
June 11 1999 3:30 AM

Kissinger's Comeback Tour

Old foreign policy advisers don't even fade away.

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Years of Renewal
By Henry Kissinger
Simon & Schuster; 1,151 pages; $35

Henry Kissinger, like an aging rock star who keeps squeezing one more year out of the same old hits, has embarked on yet another comeback tour. The former secretary of state has just released Years of Renewal, a 1,079-page behemoth about his service to President Ford. Meanwhile, Robert D. Kaplan has lionized Kissinger in this month's Atlantic. This tribute--a bow from the great pessimist of the '90s to the great pessimist of the '70s--revisits Kissinger's 1954 doctoral dissertation and finds it "brave," a persuasive account of why realism keeps the peace better than idealism. And Kissinger is popping up on TV screens with alarming frequency, delivering his gloomy assessments of the Kosovo bombing and the frost in U.S.-China relations.

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Kissinger, of course, has never gone entirely out of fashion. His press savvy, charm, and resolute courtship of the rich and powerful have ensured that he always remains plenty visible. Like Richard Nixon--to whom he is eternally yoked--Kissinger has spent his years out of power spinning, endlessly spinning, his record (and revising it when necessary). Like Nixon, Kissinger has been trying to escape a black mark on his career (Vietnam rather than Watergate). And as with Nixon, this spinning occasionally produces vindication, as it has for the past few months. Kissinger is back in vogue not because he is saying anything new. He's only saying what he has been saying for 45 years. He's back in vogue because his doleful realism frames the debate for Republicans who oppose Clinton's foreign policy, especially Clinton's China and Kosovo policies.

(Kissinger's vindication isn't complete, because the current talk is silent on Vietnam. But Vietnam vindication could be just around the corner. Click for more.)

Much of the current fascination with Kissinger grows out of the journalistic debate over Years of Renewal. Years of Renewal, it must be said, does not seem a promising start for any kind of debate. The third and final (thank God) volume of Kissinger's memoirs, it drones on about an entirely forgettable period in American history. The Mayaguez Incident. Quick, can you tell me what that was about? Or "Basket III"? I didn't think so.

But beneath the welter of details about Cyprus and Angola, Kissinger makes a surprising claim, arguing that his tough-but-accommodating policy toward the Soviets in the mid-'70s led directly to the confrontational Reagan tactics that won the Cold War in the '80s. According to Kissinger, the breathing space created by détente gave the United States time to recover from Vietnam without retreating into isolationism, thus setting the table for Reagan.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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M any commentators, including Kaplan, have embraced Kissinger's interpretation. But others, especially Robert Kagan in the New Republic, have savaged Years of Renewal for its self-serving revisionism. Now that the U.S.S.R. has collapsed, they say, Kissinger is pretending that he was much tougher on the Soviets than he ever was. In the most telling example, Kagan slams Kissinger for taking credit for the 1975 Helsinki human rights provisions. (That's "Basket III.") These provisions became a key weapon of Soviet-bloc dissidents in the '80s. In fact, Kagan says, Kissinger was skeptical of Basket III and had virtually nothing to do with it.

The fight over whether détente helped win the Cold War is not simply academic. It especially matters for current U.S.-China relations. If Kissingerian détente helped break the Soviets, then presumably Kissingerian détente could help tame today's Chinese. In the '70s, Kissinger downplayed ideological conflict with Soviet Communists in favor of soothed relations, just as Sino-apologists (including Kissinger) today ignore China's Communist authoritarianism, human rights violations, and suppression of democracy. Idealistic conservatives such as Reagan despised Kissinger's accommodationist policies during the '70s: The U.S.S.R. was an evil empire, not simply a dance partner in the great geopolitical waltz. Likewise, today's idealistic conservatives still despise Kissinger and detect in Years of Renewal's détente argument an excuse to coddle China. It is no coincidence that Kagan, the sharpest critic of Years of Renewal, is also the strongest China hawk around, author of many anti-Beijing articles for the Weekly Standard.

The Kissinger comeback wouldn't be possible without the spectacle of Republican foreign policy confusion. Since the end of the Cold War, the GOP has divided itself into Wilsonian idealists, such as the folks at the Standard, who believe the United States should be the global crusader for justice, and the rest of the party, which isn't sure what it believes but loathes Clinton. Kosovo, where the idealists favored intervention and other Republicans didn't, has deepened this divide.

Kissinger seems an unlikely guide for the lost Republicans. After all, he backed the Kosovo bombing on the grounds that NATO, having started fighting, must win to preserve its credibility. But beneath Kissinger's reluctant support was a larger principle: The United States has no vital interest in Kosovo, so the United States never should have involved itself there at all. U.S. interests, not U.S. ideals, should ultimately determine our foreign policy.

It is this gloomy but coherent vision that has made Kissinger a favorite of floundering anti-Kosovo Republicans. (It is this same vision that Kaplan so admires.) Kissinger offers them a stiff foreign policy framework, a set of principles sharply contrasted to Clinton's ad hocism. He gives the Republicans intellectual window dressing to what would otherwise be just more incoherent anti-Clintonism. This is not as glorious as another stint as secretary of state, but the 1999 Kissinger will happily accept the assignment.

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