Today's date:
Winter 2007

Back to Realism

Henry Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State, has been a frequent outside adviser to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney over the past two years. He was interviewed for NPQ by Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau chief Doyle McManus in New York in November. Extracts follow:

Advice on Iraq | Any foreign policy must have three components. You must begin with an analysis of the situation as it is. You cannot invent an ideal situation. Secondly, it must have a strategic objective. What are your plans? Where are you planning to wind up? Third, what are the measures you need to get from where you are to where you want to be?

You cannot sit in a vacuum and say it would be nice not to be in Iraq. So you are constrained to some extent by the objective environment. Of course, people may differ about the objective environment. Journalists and professors can concentrate on the best outcome. Policymakers are responsible also for the worst outcome. So there are some experiments they cannot try, not because the aim is not desirable, but because the consequences of failure would be too dramatic.

That is the framework within which, in my view, policy has to be considered. Clearly, we need a bipartisan approach.

We are in an extremely difficult situation because we are fighting an insurrection in the middle of a civil war. Undoubtedly, significant mistakes were made, but it doesn’t help us now to concentrate on that. So what we have to avoid is the emergence of a Taliban-like portion of Iraq or the emergence of a fundamentalist jihadist regime, even if it isn’t a Taliban-type regime, even if it isn’t an Iranian type.

We must also avoid a situation in which we are the only element in the country that’s putting out fires without getting at the source of the conflagration. That’s a very tough job.

We need to put Iraq into an international context. I’ve urged for two years for the creation of an international contact group. I still think that is one of the elements of an approach that will force people to state their objectives and to see whether it is possible to crystallize around this. That includes Iran and Syria.

But also we should invite countries like India and Pakistan, of course Russia. That by itself, that creates a framework to internationalize it to some extent. It will not solve the problem by itself, but it will assist in defining it.

On democracy and stability | We are at a point where the administration has to consider scaling back some of its ambitions for Iraq and has to make a choice between democracy and stability. It was appropriate for America to stand for democracy. America cannot go into a region and say all we want is stability. But the timescale within which objectives are achievable and the degree to which America can be directly involved in every phase of it have to be adjusted to experience and to conditions.

Iraq is not a nation in the historic sense. Iraq was put together from three regions of the Ottoman Empire and had never been governed as a unit. So, therefore, the Iraqi nation is a different phenomenon from the nations we are familiar with from our experience.

So, as a result, an election process in a country like Iraq—where the most significant experience of the population is sectarian violence and where all but the Sunnis look at the state as an instrument of repression—is bound to produce sectarian parties continuing the struggles that they have conducted historically. It is therefore a mistake to think that you can gain legitimacy primarily through the electoral process. And with the best intentions in the world, the emphasis on elections, as we can see in retrospect now, magnifies the sectarian conflict. It’s not fair to ask a government that emerged out of such a process to behave like a national government that we know.

The evolution of democracy, even in the West, usually went through a phase in which a nation is born. By attempting to skip that process, our valid goals were distorted into what we are now seeing.

Iraq is not germany or japan | The occupation of Germany and Japan are not the models they were thought to be. In both of those places, the administration was substantially unchanged but for maybe the top 10 percent—in Japan, not even that much. There was no internal security problem in either Germany or Japan. So it’s far from an ideal model for this situation.

I want to make clear that I supported going in. I’m basically supporting the administration. And these are the criticisms of a friend of the administration who thinks well of the president.

Some are now trying to cast me as having been really quiet all along. I have been a friend who has disagreed with some tactical decisions while agreeing with the objectives.

the ultimate outcome | I think the outcome is a confederal state with very limited power, with substantial autonomy. That’s the probable outcome.

The reason I favor an international conference is that many countries have an interest in avoiding a turmoil that could easily spread—though their motives may well differ. Iran doesn’t want a Taliban in Iraq. Turkey fears an independent Kurdish state. Nobody wants totally independent states. The question is, how do you manage all that? That’s not an exercise in political science. That’s something that has to reflect some balance of forces and some balance of interests. The likely outcome is a weak confederation of largely autonomous units.

The present situation in the streets of Baghdad is untenable. John McCain’s idea of expanding the American troop presence is unpalatable, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

We have to do a number of things. We have to avoid the situation where the moderate states panic, and we have to create a balance. We can’t avoid it. You can’t get a balance within Iraq if you don’t have a balance regionally.

does bush get it? | I have been comfortable talking to the president about my ideas. Of course, as long as one thought we were winning, and as long as he was told he was winning, he had every reason to pursue the recommended strategy. I’m convinced that the president will do what is best for the nation.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that what we’re seeing now would be an odd appearance for a victory.

The idea that you could train Iraqi forces sufficiently rapidly, not just to be trained technically but to form a national army to overcome all the problems, which was a plausible idea, is clearly not happening in the timeframe that was envisioned.

a return to realism | The objectives the president stated in his second inaugural are valid. America can take pride in its president’s stated national objectives. Can they be accomplished in one presidential term? I would say no. The direction can be set, but the implementation requires a longer historical period.

I have never accepted this distinction between realism and idealism. A realistic American foreign policy must have an idealistic component. America is not capable of conducting a straight balance-of-power policy. And indeed, when you study the historical figures like Bismarck, who was a classic balance-of-power politician, you see he based his strategy on the principle of Prussian uniqueness. So there’s always an element of faith, and the American faith is that our democratic ideals have universal validity. That’s an article of faith. That’s not a historic fact. Not necessarily, if you look at human history. But it’s an article of faith inseparable from our identity.

So the greatest presidents have all had this component in them. But once you have that, then as a statesman you have to implement it over a period of time.

I wrote an article once in which I said the difference here is, do you conduct foreign policy as a prophet or as a statesman? As a prophet, you say an ideal is universally valid, therefore it must be implemented now. As a statesman, when you say an idea is valid, it has to evolve in terms of existing circumstances. The trouble with prophets is that they can cause enormous dislocation and disasters. The trouble with statesmen is that they can produce stagnation. How to balance between these two courses—that is the trick.