Remembering Henry Kissinger

Remembering Henry Kissinger

The late Dr. Kissinger's gift consisted of first understanding the needs and goals of foreign nations, then reflecting on the long-term goals of his own, and then—and this was the brilliant part—developing a compromise that would unfold over time that would benefit both nations.


When I first met Henry Kissinger in 2009 as the Chairman of a group of international Councillors at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and later as Honorary Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Center for National Interest, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

On paper, we were worlds apart. Dr. Kissinger had been a secretary of state and national security adviser to two U.S. presidents while I was worrying about final exams; he was a Jewish German who watched his nation descend into Nazi barbarism and had to flee in 1938, while I was a Muslim Moroccan who witnessed the transformation of my homeland into a prosperous, multi-party constitutional monarchy.


Yet respect and shared values bridged the divide. He listened carefully and then responded in his singular soft voice, laying out chains of organized ideas and observations. His method was first to understand the needs and goals of foreign nations, then to reflect on the long-term goals of his own, and then—and this was the brilliant part—to develop a compromise that would unfold over time that would benefit both nations. Over the next decade and a half, I grew to understand the depth of his character, his greatness, and his role as a world leader.

Understanding America, he realized, was not simple. Democracies, especially continent-spanning ones, have many crosscurrents of opinions and interests. Sometimes, the federal government, a galaxy in itself, has its own turbulent internal dynamics. He repeated a phrase to me that would take me years to fully appreciate: “In a modern state, the government machine is so enormous that we often spend more time operating it than defining its role.” 

Henry Kissinger will continue to be considered one of the defining figures in the history of American foreign policy not only because of his achievements in successive American administrations but because of his strong relationships with the powerful of this world and his role as a back channel with world leaders, and thanks to the various controversies which accompanied his positions and decisions while he was in power.

As his fans remind us, Kissinger negotiated the first large-scale nuclear disarmament treaties and pushed for the de-escalation of several regional conflicts, thereby avoiding nuclear exchanges and continued high-intensity bloodshed.

In 1973, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching an agreement with Hanoi to end the Vietnam War. This did not prevent South Vietnam from being crushed by the Soviet-backed Vietminh in 1975. However, if the U.S. Congress had not cut off funding for ammunition and spare parts of South Vietnam’s military in 1974, the result might have been different.

A year earlier, Kissinger recorded two major successes. He organized President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in February 1972, sealing the rapprochement with Beijing. Moreover, he reached “détente” with Moscow during Nixon’s visit to the Russian capital in May 1972.

He finally succeeded in defusing the conflict resulting from the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, thanks to the withdrawal of Egyptian and Israeli forces along the Suez Canal.

His most severe detractors accuse him of having violated international law by authorizing the secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969-70. Its goal was to eliminate pro-communist Viet Cong forces operating from bases across the Cambodian border.

He is credited as the architect of the Nixon administration’s efforts to overthrow Chile’s democratically-elected socialist president, Salvador Allende. This view ignores that Chile’s inflation, corruption, and joblessness had reached crisis levels; Allende would likely have been toppled without any involvement from Kissinger.

These are debates for future historians. What Kissinger can teach us now is how to resolve today’s problems with his doctrine of “many small steps.” This approach is not minimalist but pragmatic. The more complex issues can only be resolved through a process of building trust to reach consensus.

Jared Kushner, the former Special Advisor to the Former President of The United States, managed to do just this with the Abraham Accords, starting with normalization between Israel and four Arab countries to build a viable Palestinian economy and institutions. In their unique way, it is what Anthony Blinken and Jake Sullivan are trying to accomplish today.

An independent Palestinian state will follow a growing economy and strong institutions. The goal should be a durable peace between two independent neighboring States. A two-state solution is the only way to halt continued marches to war for both Palestinians and Israelis.

But states require public trust. Public trust emerges gradually from a daily experience of competence: safe streets, clean public areas, schools that instill marketable skills, and jobs that provide a livable wage. Only when the Palestinian public enjoys these benefits will it trust the creation of a nation-state. Trust is earned bottom-up, not top-down. It cannot be commanded into existence. 

The United States must articulate a clear vision for a new future. Part of that vision needs to be a renewal of the Palestinian Authority, both in Gaza and in the West Bank. At the same time, Israel needs a new moderate government that will focus on restoring Israel’s traditional approach of seeking bipartisan American support and encouraging deeper trust between Israelis and Palestinians. The road is long and takes patience, courage, and vision.

To accomplish that, Israel and its Arab neighbors must commit to investments in the Palestinian territories to develop trustworthy public institutions. 

Without a vision, the Palestinian people are lost, and so are the Israelis. 

Let us remember what Kissinger said: “When you don’t know where you’re going, all roads lead to nowhere.”

About the Author

Ahmed Charai is the Publisher of Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. He is on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council, the International Crisis Group, the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the Center for the National Interest. He’s an International Councillor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a member of the International Advisory Council at the United States Institute of Peace.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.