When Henry Kissinger Opines

No. 229 - March 15, 2008

When Henry Kissinger opines in an op-ed in the Washington Post, it behooves us all to pay attention. There is a message there. Kissinger has always presented himself as the supreme “realist” proponent on U.S. imperial policy. But he has also always taken care not to distance himself too far from the conservative political Establishment.

Hence, when he opines, he is both telling us where policy is moving and pushing it slightly in a “realist” path, in conjunction with allies inside the administration. He is thus preparing us for a shift in policy. He has now written about Pakistan. What is he telling us?

First of all, he notes the stakes for the United States in Pakistan. It is a nuclear power that is incapable of maintaining control at home and therefore one that could “turn into the wildcard of international diplomacy.” Everyone knows this, he says, but “the remedy has proved elusive.” Recent U.S. policy has been to favor a coalition of Musharraf and the civilian parties – a “laudable goal” but not a “practical” one. Elections in a country that does not have a civil society “sharpen” rather than solve crises. Elections, it seems, too often result in electing the wrong people.

For Kissinger, there are nothing but “feudal” forces at play in Pakistan – large landholders in Sindh province (Bhutto’s party), commercial classes in the Punjab (Sharif’s party), and the military. The struggle among them is like that of the Italian city-states during the Renaissance – shifting alliances and no sense of the “general good.” The military are the arbiters in the end. Ergo what? Any attempt by the United States to “manipulate” the political process is likely to “backfire.” The “evolution of the immediate political process is beyond our reach.”

Yes, Musharraf has been a loyal ally and the United States cannot afford to dissociate itself from him, for it would send a bad message to other loyal allies. But at the same time, it is Musharraf’s task – “not ours” – to deal with the results of the election. In short, he is on his own. The United States should not worry about Pakistan politics, only about so-called “national security questions” – control of the nuclear weapons and resistance to terrorists (Islamic radicals).

Realism, it seems, is not much of a detailed guide to action. It instructs us as to the limits of what the United States can do. Democratic evolution – an “important objective” – is on a “different time scale” from national security. So, put it off. Rather, the United States should make a deal with whoever comes out on top – if it can.

Kissinger’s op-ed was published in the same week that Admiral Fallon resigned from command of U.S. forces in the entire Middle East region. It seems he has said, too often and too loudly, that military action by the United States in Iran is not possible, as a “practical” possibility. Another “realist”? It seems also that Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been saying the same thing, if more discreetly. And it seems that Mullen’s predecessor, General Pace, also said the same thing.

Bush and Cheney wish to insist publicly that the military option is on the table, even if it is really off the table. They seem to think this will frighten the Iranians and appease the Israelis. The trouble is that no one believes Bush and Cheney any more, even about what they say they might do, and probably really want to do.

Macho militarism isn’t working for the United States these days. Realism as an imperial alternative seems pretty close to a desperate ploy. But are there any other ploys left for the United States in the Middle East?