Kissinger a pal of anti-Kosovo camp of the GOP

July 16, 1999|By David Plotz

HENRY Kissinger, like an aging rock star who keeps squeezing one more year out of the same old hits, has embarked on yet another comeback tour.

The former secretary of state recently released "Years of Renewal," a 1,100-page behemoth about his service to President Ford. Meanwhile, Robert D. Kaplan recently lionized Mr. Kissinger in Atlantic magazine. And Mr. Kissinger is popping up on TV screens with alarming frequency.

Mr. Kissinger, of course, has never gone entirely out of fashion. His press savvy, charm and resolute courtship of the rich and powerful have ensured that he always remains plenty visible. Like Richard Nixon -- to whom he is eternally yoked -- Mr. Kissinger has spent his years out of power endlessly spinning his record (and revising it when necessary).

He's back in vogue because his doleful realism frames the debate for Republicans who oppose Mr. Clinton's foreign policy, especially regarding China and Kosovo.

Much of the current fascination with Mr. Kissinger grows out of the journalistic debate over "Years of Renewal" -- the third and final (thank God) volume of Mr. Kissinger's memoirs, which drones on about an entirely forgettable period in U.S. history. The Mayaguez Incident. Quick, can you tell me what that was about? Or "Basket III"? I didn't think so.

But beneath the welter of details about Cyprus and Angola, Mr. Kissinger makes a surprising claim, arguing that his tough-but-accommodating policy toward the Soviets in the mid-'70s led directly to Ronald Reagan's confrontational tactics that won the Cold War in the '80s.

Many commentators, including Mr. Kaplan, have embraced Mr. Kissinger's interpretation. But others, especially Robert Kagan in the New Republic, have savaged "Years of Renewal" for its self-serving revisionism.

Now that the Soviet Union has collapsed, they say, Mr. Kissinger is pretending that he was much tougher on the Soviets than he ever was. In the most telling example, Mr. Kagan slams Mr. Kissinger for taking credit for the 1975 Helsinki human rights provisions. (That's "Basket III.")

The fight over whether detente helped win the Cold War is not simply academic. It especially matters for current U.S.-China relations. If Kissingerian detente helped break the Soviets, then presumably Kissingerian detente could help tame today's Chinese.

Idealistic conservatives despised Mr. Kissinger's accommodationist policies during the '70s: The USSR was an evil empire, not simply a dance partner in the great geopolitical waltz.

Today's idealistic conservatives still despise Mr. Kissinger and detect in the "Years of Renewal" detente argument an excuse to coddle China.

The Kissinger comeback wouldn't be possible without the spectacle of Republican foreign policy confusion. Since the end of the Cold War, the GOP has divided itself into Wilsonian idealists who believe the United States should be the global crusader for justice, and the rest of the party, which isn't sure what it believes but loathes Mr. Clinton.

Kosovo, where the idealists favored intervention and other Republicans didn't, has deepened this divide.

Mr. Kissinger seems an unlikely guide for the lost Republicans. After all, he backed the Kosovo bombing on the grounds that NATO, having started fighting, must win to preserve its credibility.

But beneath Mr. Kissinger's reluctant support was a larger principle: The United States has no vital interest in Kosovo, so the nation never should have gotten involved there. U.S. interests, not U.S. ideals, should ultimately determine our foreign policy.

It is this gloomy but coherent vision that has made Mr. Kissinger a favorite of floundering anti-Kosovo Republicans.

Mr. Kissinger offers them a stiff foreign policy framework, a set of principles sharply contrasted to Mr. Clinton's ad hocism. He gives the Republicans intellectual window dressing to what would otherwise be just more incoherent anti-Clintonism.

This is not as glorious as another stint as secretary of state, but Mr. Kissinger would happily accept the assignment.

David Plotz is a senior writer for Slate magazine.

Pub Date: 7/16/99

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