The not-so-special Superstar: Henry Kissinger has survived for years as an elder statesman, largely on the strength of a myth, says Godfrey Hodgson

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The Independent Online
The age of chivalry is dead, said Edmund Burke after the execution of Marie Antoinette; the age of sophisters, calculators and economists had succeeded. But what is happening in America now is that the age of Kissinger is dead, and the age of economists has taken over.

Twenty years ago this summer, the fuse was burning that led to the Watergate explosion and, two years later, to President Richard Nixon's resignation. Nixon - a little like George Bush today - hoped his successes on the international stage would save him from disaster at home.

But the Watergate scandal exposed the climate of secretiveness in the White House that had made Nixon's diplomacy possible. The man who was equally responsible with the president for that climate, Dr Henry Kissinger, survived Watergate with his reputation unscathed.

Although he felt obliged to defend himself against his critics in two vast tomes of autobiography, Dr Kissinger got away miraculously lightly. Today, according to a biography published this month in the US, he enjoys the warrior's rest, New York style.

His consultancy firm, Kissinger Associates, brings him an income of some dollars 7.5m a year for lecturing, writing and advising corporate clients about world affairs. The firm certainly enjoys excellent access. One of Kissinger's former partners, General Brent Scowcroft, is President Bush's national security adviser, the same job that was Dr Kissinger's power base until he became Secretary of State. Another former national security adviser, Lawrence Eagleburger, has just taken over as acting Secretary of State.

There has been a little gentle mockery of the fact that, even for multi-national clients typically paying dollars 200,000 a year as a retainer, plus dollars 100,000 a month for specific services, Dr Kissinger is unwilling to put anything on paper; an oral briefing has to do. And there have been more serious criticisms of the conflict of interest between Kissinger's role as a media pundit and his business interests. When he argued on ABC television, or in his Washington Post/Los Angeles Times column, against imposing sanctions on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, he did not disclose how close a relationship he had with the Peking government. Only six months before Tiananmen he became chairman, chief executive, as well as a partner in a firm called China Ventures. Although it never got off the ground, it was intended to allow major US corporations to invest millions in China.

Dr Kissinger shrugged such criticisms off, as he shrugged off criticism of his bombing of Cambodia or his role in the destabilisation of Chile. To be fair, nobody really believes that he took pro- China positions because of his financial interests: as congressman Steven Solarz put it: 'Henry has always defended oppressive dictatorships, whether or not he had a financial stake in them.'

The Kissingers now live, one might say, immodestly, dividing their time between a 50-acre estate in Connecticut and an apartment in the smartest corner of Manhattan's Upper East Side. There, they entertain princes and potentates in lavish style. But their chosen favourites are 'the Women's Wear Daily crowd', such as the designer Oscar de la Renta and his wife. That preference led one Washington hostess to say, with a sniff that could be heard from the Potomac to the Hudson, that Nancy Kissinger 'likes to dine with her dressmakers'.

Whatever anyone thinks of his lifestyle, there is no getting away from the fact that, in the terms that matter in New York, Kissinger has made it. Not only the stars of the media, but their bosses are among their friends. And in a world where fame can last a quarter of an hour, Dr Kissinger will soon have been famous for a quarter of a century.

There is, in a word, a myth. At a time when the Republicans are floundering because they have paid too much attention to foreign policy and because the foreign policy they have pursued no longer seems to fit the world's realities, it is opportune to take a look at the basis for the myth, and at its prospects.

Dr Kissinger was known to specialists in foreign policy by the late Fifties for his theoretical pronouncements. He wrote admiring studies of those two 19th-century conservative manipulators, Metternich and Bismarck. And he wrote what he himself quipped was the most unread bestseller of the day, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. It was a plea for 'limited' nuclear war. Strategic experts pointed out that Kissinger did not satisfactorily explain how nuclear wars were to be limited, but a public weary of the 'bigger bang for a buck' doctrine of the Eisenhower era was hungry for new thought about the unthinkable.

Yet, perhaps because he was a professor, Dr Kissinger was at first thought to be liberal. He hoped for a job in the Kennedy administration, but had to be content with a consultancy that soon turned into a brush-off. But he had a close relationship with the liberal Republican governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, who was dumbfounded when Kissinger swapped horses and agreed to work for Nixon. Perhaps because he was a refugee from Nazi persecution, all too well acquainted with the penalties of powerlessness, Dr Kissinger cultivated power.

Whatever the reason, for all his facility at spinning cloudy conceptual schemes, Kissinger's foreign policy began with an all too concrete problem. That explains many of its bizarre contradictions and disastrous consequences. The problem was the Vietnam war and how to end it.

Nixon and Kissinger came to the conclusion that the war could not be won. But they also believed that the American people would punish anyone who told them it had been lost. They therefore adopted a strategy that depended for its success on secrecy and deceit. They would hand over the prosecution of the war to the South Vietnamese. And they would buy time to delay the North Vietnamese victory by bombing and invading South Vietnam's neighbour, Cambodia.

It was Dr Kissinger's paranoid reaction to leaks in the New York Times about the secret bombing of Cambodia that led directly to the administration's first serious break with the law, the unconstitutional phone tapping of suspect leakers, including several of Kissinger's friends and colleagues. From that action, the road led to Watergate. Secret diplomacy depended on secretiveness in government, which went against the American grain.

There was another dimension to Dr Kissinger's strategy for ending the war without being seen to lose it. That was his superpower diplomacy - to be turned into public relations spectaculars when the time was ripe - with both the Soviet Union and China. Kissinger was to pull off other diplomatic achievements before he was through, notably his famous 'shuttle diplomacy' between Israel and its Arab neighbours in 1973-75. But it is on his trilateral superpower diplomacy that his reputation for strategic theory and for tactical cunning rests.

Dr Kissinger has unquestionably made it into a unique niche as Manhattan's favourite elder statesman, but how solid have his diplomatic achievements proved? Not very. The Vietnam peace agreement, reached at such a cost in time, blood and political alienation, lasted only from 1973 to 1975, when the ally it was supposed to protect collapsed. The strategic arms limitation agreements he negotiated turned out to increase, rather than decrease, the number of warheads the Soviet Union was allowed to deploy. He disastrously misjudged both the character and the political prospects of the Shah of Iran. As for his, and Nixon's, infatuation with China, it has given the world one excellent opera, John Adams's Nixon in China, but in other respects, it has hardly lived up to the stellar billing Dr Kissinger claimed for it at the time.

Indeed, there is no more striking example of Dr Kissinger's strange misunderstanding of the world he sought to manipulate - not even his remark that Archbishop Makarios was 'the Castro of the Eastern Mediterranean' - than his conviction that it was only a matter of time before China joined the democratic family, while the Soviet Union would remain a citadel of Communist tyranny to the end. As late as 1988, Dr Kissinger was saying: 'I am not swept away by the Gorbachev euphoria.' As late as 1989 he was proposing a second Yalta agreement to create a 'framework of accommodation' in which the United States would agree not to exploit change in Eastern Europe, for example by seeking to dismantle the Warsaw Pact. As one State Department expert commented: 'Why buy what history is giving you for free?' The answer can only be: because you are taking a commission, in terms of reputation and influence, on the deal.

For 20 years, foreign policy ruled supreme in Washington. As long as the Soviet Union could start a third world war, and the Israeli ambassador could stampede the Congress, any president's national security adviser was the most powerful man in his administration. Now the Soviet Union is no more, and the Israeli ambassador hopes for Washington's alms. Unobserved by Dr Kissinger, the economic rise of Europe and then Japan have altered the international landscape.

Last week, when James Baker turned his attention from the State Department to domestic politics, he took almost his whole top team with him. It was another sign of a decline in importance for foreign policy - like the one President Bush missed last autumn when his Attorney- General, Dick Thornburgh, shocked the President by losing an election in Pennsylvania to a candidate who said the American people had had enough of foreign


However important the role that smoke and mirrors - not to mention his masterly management of the media - played in Dr Kissinger's diplomacy, we may yet come to look back on his age with regret. For, whoever wins the presidential election, it looks as if a new period of isolationism is on its way. That will not exclude military intervention, such as this week's excursion in southern Iraq. But it will not allow for classic diplomacy of the kind that made Super-K a Superstar.

'Kissinger: A Biography' by Walter Isaacson, will be published here by Faber & Faber ( pounds 25) on 21 September.

(Photograph omitted)