A Look at Master of the Game by Martin Indyk

Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy by Martin S. Indyk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Martin Indyk has written a fascinating book on the diplomatic efforts undertaken by Henry Kissinger in the Middle East after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. Indyk comes to this effort with huge credentials of his own, having served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, and President Obama’s special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian talks in 2013-2014. It is quite clear that Indyk has a huge amount of respect for Kissinger but in my view that respect did not prevent him from giving a balanced view of Kissinger’s work on the seemingly impossible problems presented by the outbreak of war between Israel and Egypt and Syria.

Of all the books I read in 2021, a good year for books, this might be the best. That opinion comes not only from the book giving us a great historical look at the monumental diplomatic effort undertaken by Kissinger, but by Indyk’s insights into Kissinger’s true diplomatic objectives, which were not always what they appeared to be. Kissinger’s goals were ambitious, and of course those goals were not always shared with his diplomatic partners. Indyk was afforded access to Kissinger for this book, along with historical documents, so he is in a great position to bring to us some of the less visible objectives of Kissinger.

Kissinger’s diplomacy is often referred to as coming from a “realist” perspective. Realpolitik and Kissinger are mentioned together often, but it is simply an incomplete idea of Kissinger’s underlying philosophy. No work on Kissinger can ignore the influence of Prince Clemens von Metternich, the architect of the Congress of Vienna and a model for Kissinger’s diplomatic ideology. We get a real look at that ideology courtesy of both Indyk and Kissinger:

“As we shall see , he would consistently shy away from aiming for peace treaties, instead seeking agreements that would give all sides a stake in preserving the existing order. As he told me decades later, ‘I never thought there could be a moment of universal reconciliation.’ Kissinger’s skepticism first found expression in the subtitle he chose for A World Restored. It was Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace. The fact that after years of deep research and contemplation he concluded that peace was problematic would have a formative influence on his approach to peacemaking in the Middle East. On the first page of the introduction to A World Restored, Kissinger explains why, ‘[T]he attainment of peace,’ he writes, ‘is not as easy as the desire for it.’ He asserts that eras like the period he had studied turned out, paradoxically, to be most peaceful because the statesmen involved were least in search of peace. In his analysis, peace was abstract and reversible. What mattered more was an absence of war, produced by the combination of ‘legitimacy’ and ‘equilibrium.’ Clemens Von Metternich, the foreign minister of the Austrian Emperor Francis I, was one of his role models in this respect. While Metternich’s Emperor believed that ‘peace, lasting peace is the most desirable goal of any decent man’ what he sought was stability, not the realization of theoretical ideals. And that is what Kissinger would seek too when he had the opportunity.”

Master of the Game Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy. Indyk, Martin p 31-32

Stability, preservation of order, and equilibrium. Those goals, as interpreted by Kissinger, would drive his diplomacy.

The Yom Kippur War caught both the State of Israel, and Henry Kissinger by surprise. That surprise led to initial military success for Egypt and Syria against Israel, and forced President Nixon and Kissinger to order a massive military resupply effort for Israel. The State of Israel turned the military tide, erasing the initial success of Egypt and Syria, going on the military offensive, and springing Kissinger into the shuttle diplomacy that Indyk chronicles so well in this book. We see some of the biggest historical figures in the Middle East, including Golda Meir, Anwar Sadat, Hafez al-Assad, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and so many others. Indyk, while highly respectful of Kissinger, pointed out Kissinger’s initial error in the run-up to the Yom Kippur War. Sadat, after taking over from Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, had given strong signals that the status quo ante was not satisfactory. Kissinger took these signals lightly:

“I thought [Sadat] was a clown… We all used to think sending the Russians out was a dumb thing; he got nothing for it. In the whole context, it was not such a bad strategy.”

Master of the Game Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy. Indyk, Martin p 77

Kissinger’s efforts centered not only around getting the combatants to stop their military operations, but negotiating agreements that got down to maps with very little acreage causing major disagreements with strong willed negotiating partners. As Kissinger began a three year process of shuttle diplomacy he was not only dealing with cease fire issues but using the crisis to marginalize the influence of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. He did this all the while “including” the Soviets in a nominal peace process that was an effective dead end. The real diplomatic activity was centered on Kissinger and what agreements he was able to put together.

Kissinger’s brilliance is often times, in my opinion, a problem for him. He came to have an understanding of minutiae involved in the government to government negotiations, including the mapping so critical to the disengagement negotiations. His construct of where he wanted all parties to end up diplomatically was solid, and based on outstanding understanding of all the issues involved. But in order to get to the desired spot all parties had to swallow some bitter medicine, which they were all reluctant to do. In those instances Kissinger deployed tactics that were tough, including some pretty rough treatment of the Israeli leadership. He brought the parties to where he wanted them to go, and maybe to where it was in their interests to be, but their trust in him was often times bruised by the necessities of diplomacy, including Kissinger’s subterfuges.

As mentioned above it was never Kissinger’s goal to achieve a “comprehensive” solution to the difficult problems of the Middle East. He sought to, and achieved, measures that set boundaries, political and military, that restored stability, equilibrium, and order, giving all parties involved a stake in continuing to avoid war, and to respect the established boundaries. Kissinger’s achievements here are not without fault, but on balance they were significant, and advanced the interests of the United States, and protected the State of Israel from potential disaster. It must be pointed out that Kissinger undertook the Middle Eastern diplomatic effort while serving a President, Richard Nixon, who was becoming engulfed in a political scandal that would consume his Presidency, and create a desire by Nixon to get political mileage out of Kissinger’s efforts, undercutting Kissinger at some key times. He was engaged in a political turf war with Nixon’s Secretary of State William Rodgers, with whom Kissinger had major disagreements with on the direction of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Kissinger carefully had to calibrate how tough he could be with the Israeli leadership, who were not afraid to turn up domestic political heat on Nixon and Kissinger when the going got especially difficult. He was dealing with the final negotiations on the Vietnam war, as well as a multitude of other serious crisis in the world. His success in the Middle East is a testament to not only his skills as a diplomat, but his unrivaled willingness to work around the clock.

Issuing praise of Kissinger, even today, can be a difficult thing. After many years he remains a figure reviled in many quarters. The review of this book in the New York Times by Jeremy Suri gives an indication of how hard praise is. Kissinger’s construction of a new Middle Eastern order out of the chaos of the Yom Kippur War is acknowledged, but Suri casts doubt on the positive benefits to the United States “in the long run.” Many of the breakdowns in the Middle East that occurred after Kissinger left are indirectly laid at his feet. That criticism, in my view, is nonsensical. It might be said that the Presidents that succeeded Nixon had less diplomatic success than Kissinger in the Middle East, but that cannot be laid at his feet. Like those that blame the Nixon/Kissinger opening to China for the rise of China as a major competitor to the United States that criticism seems based on misunderstanding the fundamental basis for both policies.

Indyk does offer criticism that to me seems to resonate. Kissinger’s fundamental misreading of the initial diplomatic thrust of Anwar Sadat before he launched the Yom Kippur War is detailed. A longer term impact criticism is Kissinger’s ignoring the potential for a Palestinian settlement with Israel that would have Palestinian aspirations met by a confederation with Jordan.

“Jordan and the PLO were relegated to minor roles in Kissinger’s design because their limited power denied them the ability to disrupt the new order. Therefore, by his calculation, their grievances did not need to be satisfied. Jordan was already in the American camp when Kissinger began to engage in Middle Eastern diplomacy, and King Hussein was effectively dependent for his regime’s survival on the United States and Israel. That was demonstrated in the 1970 Jordan crisis when they acted effectively together to pressure Syria to end its intervention there. Because of that assessment, Kissinger missed the role Jordan might have played in containing and eventually resolving the Palestinian problem in the framework of an existing, functioning state. “

Master of the Game Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy. Indyk, Martin p 554

Indyk has presented a fantastic book that recognizes the massive effort, and largely successful diplomatic effort of Henry Kissinger in the Middle East. Kissinger badly outplayed the Soviets in this effort, and that success provided a tangible, and immediate, victory for the interests of the United States (and Israel.) This book offers really great detail, and is sourced impeccably, and does bring a greater understanding of the intricacies of Middle Eastern diplomacy. Highly recommended.


Immanuel Kant: Perpetual Peace



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