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The ignominious end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan dramatically underscored the complexity and volatility of the broader Middle East. Americans may try to console themselves that at last they can turn their backs on this troubled region since the United States is now energy self-sufficient and thus much less dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Washington has learned the hard way not to attempt to remake the region in the United States’ image. And if American leaders are tempted to make war there again, they are likely to find little public support.
Nevertheless, pivoting away from the broader Middle East is easier said than done. If Iran continues to advance its nuclear program to the threshold of developing a weapon, it could trigger an arms race or a preemptive Israeli strike that would drag the United States back into another Middle Eastern war. The region remains important because of its geostrategic centrality, located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Israel and Washington’s Arab allies depend on the United States for their security. Failing states such as Syria and Yemen remain a potential breeding ground for terrorists who can strike the United States and its allies. And although the United States no longer depends on the free flow of oil from the Gulf, a prolonged interruption there could send the global economy into a tailspin. Like it or not, the United States needs to devise a post-Afghanistan strategy for promoting order in the Middle East even as it shifts its focus to other priorities.
In crafting that strategy, there is a precedent that can serve as a useful template. It comes from the experience of Washington’s preeminent strategist, Henry Kissinger. Although he is little remembered for it, during the four years he served as secretary of state to U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger presided over a successful effort to build a stable Middle Eastern order, one that lasted for 30 years. Kissinger managed to achieve that while the United States was withdrawing all its troops from Vietnam and pulling back from Southeast Asia. It was a time, like today, when diplomacy had to substitute for the use of force. It coincided with the Watergate scandal, which plunged the United States into a deep political crisis and forced Nixon from office, creating a potential vacuum in U.S. leadership on the world stage. And yet during this period of American malaise, in the midst of the Cold War, Kissinger’s diplomacy managed to sideline the Soviet Union and lay the foundations for an American-led peace process that effectively ended the conflict between the Arab states and Israel, even though it failed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One of the most important lessons from the Kissinger era is that an equilibrium in the regional balance of power is insufficient for maintaining a stable order. To legitimize that order, Washington needs to find ways to encourage its allies and partners to address the region’s grievances. Although policymakers should be circumspect in their peacemaking efforts, prioritizing stability over end-of-conflict deals, they should also avoid underreaching, because that can destabilize the order, too. While there is little appetite in Washington to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Biden administration should resist the temptation to neglect the issue. As Kissinger learned the hard way, conflicts that appear dormant can erupt into full-blown crises at unexpected moments. Dealing with one of the central conflicts in the Middle East by employing a Kissingerian strategy of incremental steps is the best way to avoid yet another conflagration in this combustible region.
It was order, not peace, that Kissinger pursued, because he believed that peace was neither an achievable nor even a desirable objective in the Middle East. In Kissinger’s view, preserving Middle Eastern order required the maintenance of a stable balance of power. In his doctoral dissertation, which was subsequently published in 1957 as A World Restored, Kissinger demonstrated how the Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich and the Anglo-Irish statesman Lord Castlereagh produced 100 years of relative stability in Europe by artfully tending to the balance of power and skillfully manipulating those who tried to disrupt it.
Kissinger sought to replicate that approach in the Middle East when he had the opportunity. But he understood that an equilibrium in the balance of power was not enough. For the order to be sustainable, it also had to be legitimate, meaning that all the major powers within the system had to adhere to a commonly accepted set of rules. Those rules would be respected only if they provided a sufficient sense of justice to a sufficient number of states. It did not require the satisfaction of all grievances, he wrote, “just an absence of the grievances that would motivate an effort to overthrow the order.” A legitimate order, Kissinger argued, did not eliminate conflict, but it did limit its scope.
This conclusion also came from what he observed during World War II, when the Wilsonian idealism that sought a peace to end all wars had instead led to appeasement and Hitler’s conquest of Europe. As Kissinger noted in his memoirs, “For most people in most periods of history, peace had been a precarious state and not the millennial disappearance of all tension.” Consequently, in his diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, Kissinger would consistently avoid the pursuit of 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: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace. The fact that after years of deep research, he concluded that peace was problematic would have a formative influence on his approach to diplomacy in the Middle East. On the first page of the introduction to A World Restored, Kissinger explains why he came to this conclusion. “The attainment of peace,” he writes, “is not as easy as the desire for it.” Eras like the period he had studied turned out, paradoxically, to be the most peaceful because the statesmen involved were not preoccupied with brokering peace.
Pivoting away from the broader Middle East is easier said than done.
The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant was another influence on Kissinger’s Middle East policymaking. Kant believed that peace was inevitable. But what Kissinger took away from the philosopher’s essay “Perpetual Peace” was that conflict between states would lead over time to the exhaustion of their powers. Eventually, they would prefer peace to the misery of war. In other words, peacemaking was a gradual process that could not be rushed. As Kissinger noted, Kant understood that “the root dilemma of our time is that if the quest for peace turns into the sole objective of policy, the fear of war becomes a weapon in the hands of the most ruthless; it produces moral disarmament.”
When Kissinger applied this prism to the Middle East, he assumed that the Arabs were not ready to reconcile with the Jewish state and that Israel was unable to make the territorial concessions they demanded without jeopardizing its existence. So he developed a peace process that provided for Israel to withdraw in small, incremental steps from the Arab territory it had occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War. The legitimizing principle for this approach was enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 242, which provided for an exchange of territory for peace.
Kissinger’s peace process, however, was designed to buy time rather than peace: time for Israel to build its capabilities and reduce its isolation, and time for the Arabs to tire of the conflict and recognize the advantages of working with an increasingly powerful Israeli neighbor. In the meantime, he would pursue Middle East peace with caution, skepticism, and gradualism, which is why he labeled it “step-by-step diplomacy.”
Equilibrium and legitimacy in the pursuit of order and incrementalism in the pursuit of peace were the basic concepts of Kissinger’s strategic approach. He managed to negotiate three interim agreements among Egypt, Syria, and Israel and laid the foundations for the subsequent peace treaties that Israel forged with Egypt and Jordan. His process began to unravel, however, when U.S. President Bill Clinton ignored Kissinger’s emphasis on caution and tried and failed to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And then President George W. Bush launched his ill-fated invasion of Iraq, destabilizing Kissinger’s order by making it possible for revolutionary Iran to challenge U.S. dominance in the Sunni Arab world.
Kissinger’s approach to the Middle East is particularly relevant in the present moment. The United States is pulling back from the region in an obvious parallel to the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia in Kissinger’s time. Then, as now, the aftermath of a botched, long-running war meant there was a strict limit on Washington’s ability to deploy force in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Kissinger knew that a stable equilibrium depended on the United States backing up its diplomacy with the credible threat of military action. He squared this circle by relying on and working with capable regional partners.
For example, in September 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) sought to overthrow King Hussein in Jordan. Three Soviet-backed Syrian armored tank brigades supported the organization’s attempt by occupying the northern Jordanian city of Irbid. Fearing they would advance on Amman, Hussein called on Washington to intervene. The United States, however, could not do so quickly and risked getting stuck there if it did.
So Kissinger, on Hussein’s urging and with Nixon’s eventual support, turned to Israel to deter the Syrians. Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the Israel Defense Forces to mobilize on the Golan Heights and on the Jordanian border adjacent to Irbid. Meanwhile, to deter the Soviets, Kissinger deployed two U.S. carrier battle groups off the Lebanese coast and ordered a third into the Mediterranean. Emboldened by Israeli and American backing, the Jordanian army inflicted heavy losses on the Syrian tank brigades, and the Syrians withdrew. Within days, the crisis was over, without one American boot on the ground.
Washington needs to encourage its allies and partners to address the region’s grievances.
Kissinger also harnessed the support of regional allies in dealing with Egypt’s nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. When Kissinger entered the White House as Nixon’s national security adviser, in 1969, Nasser fit the mold of a revolutionary seeking to disrupt the existing Middle Eastern order in much the way that Napoleon had challenged the European order at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In dealing with Nasser’s Soviet-backed gambit, Kissinger eschewed regime change, a policy pursued by France and the United Kingdom during the 1956 Suez crisis with disastrous results. Instead, he sought to contain Nasser by promoting a balance of power tipped in favor of the regional defenders of the status quo: Israel in the heartland of the Middle East and Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. The détente that Nixon and Kissinger developed with the Soviet Union bolstered that balance because it involved, among other things, a joint commitment by the two superpowers to maintain stability in the region.
Kissinger recognized that Washington had to address the Arab states’ demand for justice in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, in which they lost significant territory to Israel. Neglecting to do so would threaten the legitimacy of the new Middle Eastern order. Nevertheless, he assumed that as long as the superpowers maintained an equilibrium in the regional balance of power, justice could be delayed. He badly miscalculated, as the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War demonstrated.
In the lead-up to that conflict, Kissinger relied on Israeli and U.S. intelligence assessments that Egypt would never risk war because a militarily superior Israel, bolstered by sophisticated U.S. weapons systems, would rapidly defeat it. That analysis led Kissinger to ignore Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, when he warned repeatedly that he would go to war if Egypt’s aspirations to regain the territory it had lost were disregarded. Kissinger brushed aside Sadat’s pronouncements even when they assumed an apocalyptic tone: in one interview, for example, the Egyptian leader declared, “Everything in this country is now being mobilized in earnest for the resumption of the battle, which is now inevitable.”
Still, in 1973, when Egypt invaded the Sinai Peninsula and Syria attempted to retake the Golan Heights on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, Kissinger sprang into action with the confidence that his study of the nineteenth-century European order had provided. His objective was to adjust the prewar arrangements in a way that the Middle East’s major players would view as more just and equitable. He also wanted to position the United States to play the role of the predominant manipulator of the competing forces in the region.
To back his diplomacy with force, Kissinger encouraged Israeli counteroffensives. When that military pressure helped persuade the Egyptians and the Soviets to accept his cease-fire conditions, he demanded that Israel stop its assault. In particular, he prevented the Israel Defense Forces from destroying the Egyptian Third Army, which it had surrounded at the end of the war. That enabled Sadat to enter peace negotiations with his regime—and his dignity—intact.
Kissinger then seized on the plasticity of the moment to launch his peace process with the aim of keeping Egypt—the largest and militarily most powerful Arab state—from joining any future Arab war coalition. That would render another war between the Jewish state and the Arab countries impossible. An unmistakable parallel exists between Kissinger’s approach to Egypt and the way that Metternich and Castlereagh handled France after Napoleon’s defeat, incorporating it into the new order rather than punishing it—and thereby converting it from a revolutionary, revisionist state into a status quo power.
Today, Kissinger would likely use a similar blueprint in dealing with Iran, the country that most clearly threatens what is left of his U.S.-led Middle Eastern order. He does not advocate the overthrow of the regime. Rather, he would seek to persuade Iran to abandon its quest to export its revolution and instead return to more state-like behavior. In the meantime, Washington should pursue a new equilibrium in which Iran’s revolutionary impulses are contained and balanced by an alliance of Sunni states cooperating with Israel and the United States. Once Iran decides to play by the rules, however, Kissinger believes the United States needs to act as the balancer, positioning itself closer to all the contending Middle Eastern powers than they are to one another. “Pursuing its own strategic objectives,” Kissinger says, “the United States can be a crucial factor—perhaps the crucial factor—in determining whether Iran pursues the path of revolutionary Islam or that of a great nation legitimately and importantly lodged in the Westphalian system of states.”
Because he was operating in an environment of retrenchment, Kissinger was deeply aware of the dangers of overreach. But as he notes in A World Restored, “It is not balance which inspires men but universality, not security but immortality.” And as he detailed in his monumental book Diplomacy, published in 1994, American statesmen rarely understand or respect the rules of the game that his conception of international order requires. Their idealism is often driven by a sense of divine providence, especially when it comes to the Middle East. They imagine that pursuing peace and nation building are not only desirable but achievable and that the only problem is coming up with the right formula. Herein lies the dilemma at the heart of U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. As Kissinger understood, the maintenance of order requires a credible effort to resolve the region’s conflicts, but the scale of the statesman’s ambition can end up destabilizing that order.
Consider how Nixon’s first instinct was to work with the Soviet Union to impose peace on their recalcitrant Middle Eastern clients. In the middle of the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger flew off to Moscow to negotiate the terms of a cease-fire with the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. En route, he received explicit instructions from Nixon to “go all out” to achieve a just settlement “now” and to work with Brezhnev to “bring the necessary pressure on our respective friends.” This threatened to upend Kissinger’s more modest strategy for a cease-fire followed by direct Egyptian-Israeli negotiations. Furious, he ignored the president’s instructions. He was able to do so because Nixon sent this message just as he was ordering the firing of Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor. The ensuing “Saturday Night Massacre”—in which two top officials from the Justice Department resigned rather than carry out Nixon’s order—led congressional leaders to initiate the impeachment of the president. With all attention on U.S. domestic politics, Kissinger was able to pursue his own priorities in the Middle East.
He managed a similar feat under Nixon’s successor, Ford. When negotiations between Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin broke down in February 1975, Ford wanted to convene a conference in Geneva with the Soviet Union to impose a comprehensive peace settlement on Israel and its Arab neighbors. Kissinger headed that initiative off in favor of a return to his shuttle diplomacy, which brought Egypt and Israel closer to their eventual peace deal.
In Kissinger’s view, preserving Middle Eastern order required the maintenance of a stable balance of power.
U.S. presidents who came after Nixon and Ford also tended to pursue their idealistic objectives for the Middle East with insufficient concern for maintaining the regional order that Kissinger had established. President Jimmy Carter resurrected the idea of working with the Soviet Union in reconvening the Geneva Conference to impose a comprehensive peace. This time it was Sadat who headed off the American president, with his trip to Jerusalem in November 1977. At Camp David a year later, a chastened Carter pursued a separate Egyptian-Israeli peace deal rather than a comprehensive settlement that would have included a resolution of the Palestinian problem.
More than two decades later, however, Clinton acceded to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s insistence on an attempt to reach a deal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Camp David in July 2000, abandoning the Kissingerian step-by-step process that Rabin had introduced in the Oslo accords. The Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat understood that Barak and Clinton intended to impose a final resolution on the Palestinians, and he refused to go along. It was a short step from there to the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada and the ensuing Israeli crackdown, a violent conflagration that lasted for five years, led to the deaths of thousands, and destroyed all trust between the two parties. Nevertheless, U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump would later both try and fail to produce conflict-ending agreements.
Bush resisted the siren song of comprehensive peacemaking but succumbed to the urge for what Kissinger had long ago dubbed “immortality.” After toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he announced a “freedom agenda” in the Middle East, declaring that promoting democracy across the region “must be a focus of American policy for decades to come.” The result was a disaster, serving mostly to pave the way for an Iranian bid for dominance in Iraq and across the region. Bush also shifted the U.S. objective in Afghanistan from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency and nation building. That decision, too, produced failure and humiliation. Twenty years later, it was left to the nonagenarian Kissinger to point out that “the military objectives [had] been too absolute and unattainable and the political ones too abstract and elusive.”
Unlike the American policymakers who came after him, Kissinger was determined to avoid overreaching in the Middle East. But there were several instances when his caution and skepticism led him to underreach. That is the danger that President Joe Biden also faces in the Middle East now that he has ended the war in Afghanistan.
For Kissinger, the first instance of aiming too low came in July 1972, when Sadat suddenly announced the expulsion of 20,000 Soviet military advisers from Egypt. That was something Kissinger had called for two years earlier. But when it happened, Kissinger felt no need to respond.
Sadat was disappointed. Five days before he announced the expulsion, he had sent a message to Kissinger expressing his desire to dispatch a special envoy to Washington. It would take seven months for Kissinger to arrange a meeting with Hafez Ismail, Sadat’s national security adviser. Ismail’s presentation captured Kissinger’s interest. The Egyptian envoy explained that his country was ready to move quickly, ahead of the other Arab states, and would even countenance an Israeli security presence remaining in Sinai provided that Israel recognized Egyptian sovereignty in the area.
Yet when Kissinger briefed Rabin, who was then Meir’s ambassador in Washington, the Israeli dismissed Ismail’s offer as “nothing new.” Meir also rejected it, and Kissinger quietly dropped the idea. Ismail met Kissinger again in May but came away from the meeting believing that only a crisis would change Kissinger’s calculus. Four months later, Sadat launched the Yom Kippur War.
Kissinger’s approach to the Middle East is particularly relevant in the present moment.
Whether a more active response from Kissinger would have headed off the war is unknowable. What is clear is that he underreached because of his mistaken confidence in the stability of the equilibrium that he had established. He had overlooked in practice something he had recognized in theory: the stability of any international system depended “on the degree to which its components feel secure and the extent to which they agree on the ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ of existing arrangements.” That is why, after the war, he resolved to address the justice deficit by launching direct negotiations to produce Israeli withdrawals from Arab territory.
Justice for the Palestinians, however, was not on Kissinger’s agenda, because they were represented by the PLO, which was then an irredentist nonstate actor deploying terrorist tactics in an effort to overthrow the Hashemite Kingdom in Jordan and replace the Jewish state. He preferred to leave the Palestinian problem to Israel and Jordan. In this case, his caution led him to miss an opportunity that arose in 1974 to promote Jordan’s role in addressing Palestinian claims. That was the last moment when the Palestinian problem might have been tackled in a state-to-state negotiation between Israel and Jordan.
At the time, Jordan had a special relationship with the West Bank Palestinians, who were its citizens. Thanks in part to the British, the Hashemite Kingdom also had functioning government institutions, including a reliable army and an effective intelligence organization. Unlike the PLO, which entered the peace process in 1993 with no government institutions, Jordan could have ensured the implementation of any agreement reached with Israel, as it has done with its own peace treaty obligations. And from there, a confederation between a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom on the East Bank could have evolved.
To achieve that, Kissinger would have had to pursue a disengagement agreement between Israel and Jordan after he concluded the agreements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria. King Hussein was eager to regain a foothold in the West Bank, and the Israelis were willing to engage and even show some flexibility. But Kissinger repeatedly avoided involvement in the effort. He encouraged Hussein to deal directly with the Israelis, which the king did. Kissinger warned the Israelis that if they didn’t respond, they would end up having to deal with the PLO—a prescient prediction. But then, he repeatedly insisted that there would be no pressure from him and “no reason for [the United States] to be an intermediary.”
Without American engagement, the Israelis and the Jordanians were unable to reach an agreement. And in October 1974, at its summit in Rabat, Morocco, the Arab League declared the PLO “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” thereby putting an end to the chance of resolving the Palestinian problem in a Jordanian context. Subsequently, Kissinger candidly admitted he had made “a big mistake.”
He had his reasons. Although he liked the king, he didn’t view Jordan as a major player in the Middle East, and he thought that meant he did not need to make diplomatic exertions on its behalf. Instead, he devoted himself to a second Egyptian-Israeli agreement, because removing Egypt from the conflict with Israel was his overriding strategic objective. Pursuing a Jordanian option would have interfered with that endeavor, would have possibly provoked conflict between Jordan and the PLO, and would have brought up the question of who would control Jerusalem, an extremely contentious issue that he sought to avoid at all costs. Kissinger’s belief in a hierarchy of power helped him establish priorities, but it also meant that he paid too little attention to the way less powerful states and even nonstate actors could disrupt his hard-won order if the system he helped coax into place could not provide them with at least a modicum of justice.
Kissinger’s missteps and achievements can provide valuable lessons for Biden as he deals with the Middle East in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. As Biden shifts his attention to more pressing priorities elsewhere, the goal of his Middle East diplomacy should be to shape an American-supported regional order in which the United States is no longer the dominant player, even as it remains the most influential. At its core, that order will need a balance of power maintained through U.S. support for its regional allies, namely Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
But Biden will also need to work with actors willing to play constructive roles in stabilizing the Middle Eastern order. That will make for some strange and uncomfortable bedfellows, as it will involve cooperating with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Gaza, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Syria, with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Gulf, and with all of them to contain Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and advancing nuclear program.
Few of these allies and partners will comport themselves according to U.S. values. Nevertheless, as Kissinger’s experience in the Middle East demonstrates, the United States will need to promote a sufficient sense of justice and fairness to legitimize the emerging order. Across the region, people are crying out for accountable governments. The United States cannot hope to meet those demands. That would be to overreach again. But it cannot ignore them, either.
Kissinger’s missteps and achievements can provide valuable lessons for Biden.
Similarly, promoting a peace process that ameliorates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be important in addressing the region’s grievances. That is far down on Biden’s list of priorities. In 2014, as vice president, he witnessed firsthand the unwillingness of Israeli and Palestinian leaders alike to take reasonable risks for peace, and he does not imagine that he will find immortality by trying to force them to do so. He accepts Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s argument that Israel’s left-right coalition government could not survive a peace process requiring the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Like Kissinger in 1973, Biden assumes that the status quo is stable. And like Kissinger in 1974, he sees the Palestinian problem as Israel’s to deal with and will tend to brush aside any pressure to try to resolve it.
But the warning signs are there. The Palestinian Authority is near collapse: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has lost all credibility among the Palestinian people, whereas Hamas—with its doctrine of violent resistance—is gaining popularity. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan will boost Hamas’s argument that its strategy is the only way to liberate Palestinian territory. Moreover, Palestinian deaths from confrontations with the Israeli army are rising at an alarming rate, and for the first time, the Israeli government is permitting Jewish prayer on what is known as the Temple Mount to Jews and Haram al-Sharif to Muslims—a highly inflammatory move. The tinder is so dry that even a simple jailbreak by six Palestinian prisoners in September risked sparking another uprising.
For years, American policymakers have warned that the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is unsustainable—and yet it seems to sustain itself. Experts cautioned against moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but when Trump did it, nothing happened. It feels just like the 1970s, when, for years, Sadat threatened war, and nothing happened—until one day it did. To minimize the potential for an explosion of violence, Biden will need to encourage an incremental Israeli-Palestinian peace process to rebuild trust and promote practical coexistence, just as Kissinger did in his efforts to remove Egypt from the conflict with Israel. Bennett has proposed economic changes, such as permitting more Palestinians to work in Israel, as an initial step. Moves such as that alone, however, will be insufficient to give credibility to a process that has been so denigrated by past failures. The effort requires a political process, too, albeit a modest and realistic one that could include a long-term cease-fire in Gaza and the transfer of some more territory in stages to full Palestinian control in the West Bank.
In the aftermath of the pullout from Afghanistan, Biden is unlikely to overreach in the Middle East. But as Kissinger could tell him, it would also be a mistake for him to turn his back on it.