When America Had A Grand Strategist


By Henry Kissinger

Simon & Schuster 1,151pp $35

Maybe Henry Kissinger should have been Secretary of Defense. For in the third and final installment of his memoirs, Years of Renewal, he repeatedly defends himself against salvos from both the left and right flanks, and he retaliates in kind.

But while this book settles lots of scores, it has a far broader purpose: elevating in the eyes of history the achievements of the Ford Administration and, in particular, Gerald R. Ford himself. The former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State makes a strong case for the ex-President, whose judgment, calm self-confidence, and willingness to pay a political price for doing the right thing let him begin the healing process after Watergate and Vietnam. Ford's decision to press for majority rule in southern Africa, for example, allowed Ronald Reagan to savage him in the GOP primaries, weakening Ford for the general election. His principles may have cost him reelection.

Moreover, Kissinger has provided an excellent handbook on diplomatic philosophy and the intricate juggling of interests during negotiations. It will become required reading for students of international relations, history buffs, and lovers of inside-the-Beltway intrigue.

There is some overlap with the author's previous efforts: The first 170 pages describe the Nixon years and policy achievements such as the opening to China. Here, Kissinger demonstrates that in diplomacy, nothing is what it seems. The goal of the new China policy, for example, was not simply to align Washington and Beijing against Moscow. The objective, he says, was to be closer to both Moscow and Beijing than they were to each other. That would maximize U.S. flexibility.

No arena was more complex than Lebanon. When fighting broke out there between radical Palestinians and the Christian militia in 1975, Syria, which normally supported Palestinians, backed the Christians. Damascus had no stomach for a radical government next door. That, strangely enough, put Syria on the same side as Israel. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wanted to thwart Syria. Thus, he supported the Palestinians, enhancing his standing in the Arab world at little cost. So it went, as Kissinger wound his way through the Middle East's political minefield.

Much of the book is a defense of the author's theory of foreign policy. While his tactics were derided by some as amoral, he believes that focusing on the national interest, rather than on lofty principle, is the only viable approach. Wilsonian moralists--such as the Democratic Party's liberal wing--he says, fail to see that patient, incremental progress can achieve moral ends. Nevertheless, he admits that his strongest argument for the U.S. position in Vietnam was a moralistic one--while critics asserted that U.S. involvement there did not serve the national interest. Kissinger acknowledges the irony.

The author attacks neoconservatives, too, over their desire for confrontation with Moscow. Rightists trained their fire on detente, which "in their view, compounded bad policy with French terminology." They didn't see that their approach could backfire: Witness Russia's tightening up on Jewish emigration after the adoption of the Jackson-Vanik amendment--legislation whose threat of sanctions against Moscow was intended to have the opposite effect. Kissinger skewers some of his enemies with a velvet stiletto. He calls Richard Perle, then an aide to Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash.), "far too intelligent not to have realized that some of the charges he was making were more cynical than substantive."

Almost everyone mentioned in the book--and the roster of miniprofiles includes everyone from Mao Zedong to Tanzanian President Julius K. Nyerere--gets a zinger. One exception is Ford. It is hard to understate Kissinger's adulation for the former President. One reason for this may be the affable, direct way Ford dealt with people in general--and with Kissinger in particular. Ford's almost offhand request that Kissinger stay on as Richard M. Nixon was about to leave office quickly ended any lingering uncertainty about Kissinger's status.

And Kissinger says his first conversation with Ford after Nixon's decision to resign left an indelible impression: "For the first time since I came to the White House, I left the Presidential presence without afterthoughts, confident that there was no more to the conversation than what I had heard." He contrasts that to meetings with Nixon. "Since one could never be certain that Nixon might not undo what he appeared to have just decided, wariness occasionally verging on paranoia prevailed among his entourage." The change in environment provided unimaginable relief for the White House and for the nation.

Kissinger trumpets the Ford Administration's deeds, from the Helsinki accord, which contributed to the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, to the creation of the Group of Seven summits. It almost makes one wistful for the days when a grand strategist directed foreign policy. But Kissinger's effort is also a reminder of defeats in Vietnam and Cambodia, of rocky relations with Russia, failed shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East--and the poison and passion from Watergate and Vietnam that coursed through the body politic. True, a smart guy like Kissinger may have been at the helm. But were the old days really all that great?

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