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Thinking About Peace
Is dreaming of lasting solutions to intractable problems a useless pursuit?
One of the best books I’ve read in recent memory is Martin Indyk’s Master of the Game, which details Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic efforts during and after the Yom Kippur War.
There’s plenty to debate about Kissinger’s legacy in the Middle East. I know from cursory discussions with Shadi that he has a dim view of the period. Even though he worked for years with Indyk at Brookings and considered him a close colleague and mentor, he has real reservations about the book’s thrust (even though I think he hasn’t read it yet).
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The book’s core argument is that no matter what you think of the moral substance of Kissinger’s approach, his diplomatic efforts substantively shaped the lasting contours of the region for generations to come. Here’s Indyk in the preface:
Kissinger’s efforts were not just, or even primarily, about making peace between the Arabs and Israel. Rather, the gradual, step-by-step peace process that he developed became his primary mechanism for creating a new regional order in the Middle East that sidelined the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War and stabilized a turbulent region.
For Kissinger, promoting peace and creating order were symbiotic enterprises, two sides of the same coin. Most of the time his pursuit of peace disguised his preference for order. But there was no confusion in his mind. What might look on the face of it like diplomatic daring was informed by an innate conservatism. His experience fleeing the Holocaust had generated in him a relentless quest for order in his own life and in international affairs, and that in turn spawned his design for an American-led order in the Middle East. For him, peacemaking was a process designed to ameliorate conflicts between competing powers, not to end them.
As we shall see, he would prove mightily resistant to more ambitious efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict because he feared that pursuing peace as an idealistic end state would jeopardize the stability that his order was designed to generate. Peace for Kissinger was a problem, not a solution. The desire for it needed to be manipulated to produce something more reliable, a stable order in a highly volatile part of the world. That Kissingerian Middle Eastern order would last for almost thirty years.
In this regard, he modeled his strategy and tactics after the European statesmen—Metternich, Castlereagh, and later Bismarck—who shaped and maintained the order in Europe for a century after the Napoleonic Wars until it came crashing down in 1914. Like the European leaders who came after Bismarck, most of the American policymakers who came after Kissinger knew neither Metternich nor the basic precepts of Kissinger’s Middle Eastern order and would therefore often ignore them in favor of quixotic and grandiose efforts to end the region’s conflicts, promote democracy, or overthrow regimes. As a consequence, Kissinger’s order unraveled, causing immense human suffering and diminishing America’s ability to influence events there.
Shadi has often challenged me to express why I am compelled to deeply engage with foreign policy if I am not committed to advocating for a lasting positive vision for the world — or worse, if am so convinced that a lasting positive vision for the world is impossible. Indyk’s case study of Kissinger comes closest to articulating some of my core beliefs.
I tend to believe that the world is tragic and hopelessly predisposed to chaos and destruction, and that the transcendent pursuit of universal ideals such as “peace” is a quixotic, and indeed dangerous, diversion. The best that can be hoped for is a decades’ long respite.
But Indyk’s account is not a simple celebration of Kissinger. Indeed, it is as much catalogue of the things Kissinger missed.
Towards the end of the book, Indyk is exploring the fraught second round of negotiations between Israel and Egypt after the war. The end result of those tussles is the Sinai Interim Agreement, which saw Kissinger set the stage for the Camp David Accords three years later later (where Egypt finally recognized Israel in exchange for the return of the Sinai Peninsula).
Indyk gently suggests that Kissinger’s prodigious efforts, though ultimately yielding a breakthrough, fell short of what was possible. There is a tension in his account between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s desire to get Egypt’s full recognition right away, and Kissinger’s belief that the symbolism of recognition as such was not worth pursuing.
Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, who emerges in Indyk’s tale as a visionary statesman, is consistently signaling that he might be willing to go further than most would expect. Though cagey, he clearly wants to get to a meaningful agreement with the Israelis at the price of American guarantees. And Rabin, an obstinate negotiator, is pushing Kissinger from the other side, refusing to yield on minor issues in expectation that a lasting peace could be achieved. Kissinger has none of it, and forces Rabin to accept less than he wanted. Indyk observes:
For Kissinger peace was the absence of war, so Sadat’s offer of a non-resort to use of force was a meaningful concession. For Rabin an absence of war had little worth compared to a political commitment to end the state of war and make peace.
The question that lingers in Indyk’s telling is whether Kissinger left something on the table. Was his jaundiced view of the human condition, shaped by his experiences of the Holocaust, an impediment to securing a more meaningful agreement three years earlier? Does a lack of idealism cripple us cynics?
Watching the tragedy unfold in Israel and Palestine has sometimes felt like reading [Aesychlus’] Oresteia backwards. […] Part of the process by which humans civilize themselves and learn to live with the tragedy of their condition is, [Aesychlus] suggests, in forging the distinction between vengeance and justice. Justice brings us into the sphere of politics and allows for the possibility of reasoned change and redemption.
Regular readers (and listeners) will know I don’t have much patience for claims from “justice”. I readily admit that justice is something human beings regularly talk about and aspire to, even if its contours are always impossible to delineate. But like Kissinger with “peace,” I see its pursuit as a distraction. At best, we can hope to find an arrangement where opposing sides are temporarily satisfied, their ultimate claims set aside. An absence of violence that lasts a few decades is a victory, even if violence can never be fully vanquished.
But Malik’s point gnaws at me:
The irony today is that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians seems to be moving in the opposite direction, into a world defined more by the Furies than by Athena. A world in which the erosion of political solutions to the conflict has led to the pursuit of vengeance dominating the search for justice.
Maybe what I’m missing in my own jaundiced view is that too fully embracing a world without redemption only hastens total destruction. It may well be true that the dreamer’s honest aspirations for a more perfect world are indeed foolish. But it may also be true that without dreamers, a talented architect such as Kissinger has nothing to work with.