To say that Henry Kissinger excites mixed emotions is an understatement. There was a time in the mid-1970s when he was feted for taking bold foreign policy initiatives even as President Nixon struggled with the Watergate scandal and then as the inadvertent successor, Gerald Ford, sought to turn himself into a credible replacement. It was Kissinger, first as the President’s National Security Advisor and then as Secretary of State, who led the negotiations on strategic arms control with the Soviet Union as part of an effort to get a détente between the superpowers, who made a secret journey to Beijing to set up Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972, who found a way to get a peace agreement to the end the Vietnam War (and with it an unlikely Nobel Peace prize), and then forged the agreements between Israel and its enemies after the October 1973 War, Egypt, and Syria, that brought a degree of peace to the Middle East.

By the time he completed his time as Secretary of State at the start of 1977 the record did not appear to be so lustrous. South Vietnam had fallen to the North, the American engagement ending with the spectacular evacuation of personnel from the top of the US Embassy in Saigon. The idea that the détente with the Soviet Union meant the end of the Cold War turned out to be premature. Kissinger’s critics complained that the deals he had agreed had led to no moderation in Soviet behaviour, while, at least according to the hawks, Moscow had been allowed to pull ahead in the arms race. There were still bitter memories of Kissinger’s role in the intervention into Cambodia in 1970 or the overthrow of Allende in Chile in 1973 .

With this mixed record opinion on Kissinger continues to be divided. Kissinger himself wrote massive, exculpatory, books of his own on his years in office, his diplomatic philosophy and his views on world order. One has just come out, written with among others the former chief executive of Google, on the impact of Artificial Intelligence. He is still consulted regularly by senior political figures in the US and elsewhere even as he approaches his centenary. Others dismiss him as a disgrace, representing everything wrong about a cynical, ‘realist’ foreign policy.

These divided opinions are important when it comes to appreciating the importance of Martin Indyk’s account of Kissinger’s Middle Eastern diplomacy. When he first arrived to work for Nixon in 1969 the region was not one of his priorities. It was one of the few areas he was content to leave to Secretary of State William Rogers, who came up with his own peace plan to solve the Arab-Israeli dispute. After the 1967 War, in which Israel had seized the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria, there was a widespread assumption that Israel could be persuaded to return the occupied territories in return for credible guarantees of peace. The two large complications were that while Israel was prepared to hand territory back it did not want to go back to its pre-1967 borders, which were barely defensible, and that Jordan’s claim to the West Bank was also disputed by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Kissinger first got drawn into the complex and violent politics of the region because of the challenge radical Palestinians groups posed to King Hussein of Jordan in September 1970 when it looked as if he might be taken down in a civil war. Kissinger saw how an Israeli intervention might preserve the King in power and got a sceptical Nixon to agree, for want of a better option. In the event the King survived without Israeli help but a special relationship had now been forged that encouraged the Israelis to believe that they were the natural strategic partner of the United States.

Soon, however, it was Israel in trouble. Frustrated by the lack of diplomatic progress in getting their land back, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Hafez al-Assad in Syria launched attacks on Israeli positions at the edge of the Sinai (which involved crossing the Suez Canal) and the Golan, using the holy day of Yom Kippur to catch Israel by surprise. With the myth of its effortless superiority soon dispelled Israel became engaged in a desperate fight for survival. Kissinger immediately saw the situation as an opportunity for the United States to construct a new regional order, in which the US would have close relations with the key local powers at the expense of the Soviet Union, and one that would be less prone to war because Egypt would have been moved out of the Arab fighting coalition.

This required manipulating the course of the war as best he could. As Israeli leaders pressed hard for a major resupply effort Kissinger at first held back to give the United States leverage, although this was complicated as he did not want the Israelis actually to be defeated. He was also able to generate pressure for a cease fire at the United Nations. Unsurprisingly the belligerents’ attitude to this depended on whether they were advancing or retreating. Eventually after taking heavy losses on both fronts the Israelis gained the upper hand. After pushing back against Syrian forces and getting into a position to threaten Damascus, they then manged to get across the Suez Canal, effectively trapping the Egyptian Third Army which was now caught on the Sinai side. As it would not suit his project for Sadat to suffer such a massive loss Kissinger now had to get the Israelis to show restraint.

When the cease-fire came there were no clear lines separating the forces and so there was a need for a disengagement. This is what led to Kissinger’s ‘shuttle diplomacy’. He travelled back and forth to Cairo, Damascus, and Tel Aviv, working on detailed texts, getting to know every aspect of this situation, cajoling, exhorting, bullying, and mollifying his interlocutors to get them to compromise, moving them from their initial positions to one where he could claim success. This all took time. Agreement with Egyptians was reached in September 1973, and with the Syrians in May 1974. The forces disengaged and neither side felt at risk from more surprise attacks. The agreements were fortified with copious amounts of economic assistance to Egypt as well as Israel.

This is the story told by Martin Indyk and he tells it very well, drawing on the records of the meetings and his own interviews with Kissinger. The reader is prepared for tense meetings in this hectic diplomatic round and then sits in on them, observing Kissinger as he uses the force of his personality to extract the most from the leverage provided by US military and economic strength. We can admire his ability to keep things moving, or at least to give an illusion of motion when in practice precious little progress has been made.

Indyk’s story has an added twist because he worked for a number of American presidents including as anAmbassador to Israel. He was actively engaged in efforts to bring peace to the region, and so he knows many of the key characters, has sat in the same rooms, understands the issues and their nuances, and can appreciate as a fellow practitioner what Kissinger was up to. The book is interspersed with recollections of how in his own time he tried to make progress and the difficulties he faced.

As the title suggests Indyk sees much in Kissinger to admire but this is no hagiography. Many of his criticisms get to the heart of the limitations of Kissinger’s approach to foreign policy. Nonetheless he reminds us of its strengths as well. It is important to start with them because they carry important lessons for what we can learn from this book about the diplomatic art, something that has become rather undervalued in recent years.

There are two big points. The first is that the objective of a major diplomatic effort may not be the resolution of all the issues in dispute but to avoid war. Taking the sting out of a conflict rather than bringing it to a close may involve a narrow definition of peace but in foreign policy it has advantages. This sort of peace depends on a stable order, underpinned to a degree by formal agreements but also by threats along with promises, deterrence and partnerships, and sufficient mutual understanding to ensure that not every action and statement is interpreted in the worst possible light. There may be hope that over time the dispute will lose it salience and relations may become more positive but there can be no guarantee.

This is a standard realist approach, concentrating on the interests and power of the parties rather than relying on respect for international law and treaty obligations, prioritising preventing a situation getting worse rather than – to use a term that later came into vogue with Middle Eastern diplomacy – setting down a ‘roadmap’ to an eventual peace. It drew, as was appropriate for a student of Metternich, on classical concepts of a balance of power that saw agreements gain legitimacy through durability.

The second point flows from the first. Kissinger’s approach was inherently incremental and gradual. Such an approach involves a series of small steps to get the parties into a better place rather than a grand bargain that addresses all the hard issues simultaneously. The parties still need to be convinced that small moves can make a big difference, and that their concessions will be matched by the other side. This was where Kissinger excelled. Indyk considers him a ‘master of the game’ because he could move political leaders to places they were reluctant to go. This required energy, perseverance, cleverness, occasional trickery, and a grasp of power politics.

The first caution in assessing Kissinger’s performance is that it was made possible by the uniqueness of the circumstances – a region stumbling out of a vicious war, possibilities opening up that had hitherto appeared closed, the US having advantages that the Soviets could not match because they were on decent terms with both sides. In addition in the mid-1970s Kissinger was personally in a unique position. He was not at the end of a distant inter-agency process in Washington, waiting for instructions, because he controlled that process. He might have checked on occasion with Nixon and Ford, but their weakness meant that he had enormous latitude which he exploited to the full. Where necessary he could make policy up as he went along. It is hard to imagine another individual having both the power and audacity to pull this off now, especially at a time when social media provides intensive running commentaries on every move. These days it is hard to achieve the secrecy Kissinger felt as being essential to his work. The main constraint was Israel’s many supporters in Congress who set limits on the pressure he could exert. That would still be present.

We can cut a lot of slack to diplomats if they use intrigue and deceit if that means they avoid war, but it is not always an edifying spectacle – hence the frequent employment of the term ‘Machiavellian’ when describing how Kissinger operated. This still depends on getting results. Even an incremental approach requires some vision, however limited. He could claim that he laid the groundwork for what followed – the Camp David agreement brokered by President Jimmy Carter between Sadat and the truculent Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin – which led to a peace treaty which last to this day, despite being put under enormous strain at times. If Carter had not come to power in 1977 and Ford stayed President and Kissinger Secretary of State it is hard to imagine that he would have let Ford be so directly involved in the negotiations and in such a conspicuous venue. Indyk notes that by 1976 Kissinger had become more cautious about the possibilities for the future than either Rabin or Assad. His next step would have been some sort of non-belligerency agreement.

Despite the achievement of Camp David it was still problematic and in a way that followed the agreements brokered by Kissinger. He had not addressed the issues on the West Bank because he had not needed to, and despite having worked closely with King Hussein in 1970, he left him out of this process. Whether or not there could have been a deal with the Palestinians during the1970s may be debatable because of the divisions among the disparate groups and their national sponsors as well as their demands for the elimination of Israel, but it was never even tried. For a man who had managed to establish ‘back channels’ to engage with long standing adversaries, whether Moscow, Beijing, or Hanoi, the lack of any conversations with the PLO leadership is noticeable, especially when this became the issue that drove regional conflict thereafter.

At a time when Cold War rivalries meant that the US would have found it difficult to leave the region to the Soviet Union, Kissinger does not really appear to have asked whether it was wise for the United States to become so invested in the region. In the 1950s and 1960s it had not been such a high priority for the US. Now it became a major destination for American economic and military assistance and diplomatic effort. The United States would get blamed for whatever was going wrong in the region and then felt obliged to try to put it right.

About the Author

Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman is Emeritus Professor of War Studies, King’s College London. He was Professor of War Studies from 1982 to 2014 and Vice-Principal from 2003 to 2013. He was educated at Whitley Bay Grammar School and the Universities of Manchester, York and Oxford. Before joining King’s he held research appointments at Nuffield College Oxford, the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995 and awarded the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in 1996, he was appointed Official Historian of the Falklands Campaign in 1997. In 2003, he was awarded the KCMG (Knight Commander of St Michael and St George). In June 2009 he was appointed to serve as a member of the official inquiry into Britain and the 2003 Iraq War.

He has written on international history, strategic theory and nuclear weapons issues, as well as commenting on current security issues. Among his recent books are Strategy: A History (2013), the Future of War: A History (2017), Ukraine and the Art of Strategy (2019) and, with Jeff Michaels, the 4th edition of The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (2019). He is currently working on a book on the Politics of Command.