The Middle East: Kissinger’s masterpiece?

Review: Veteran diplomat, Martin Indyk charts the twists and turns of Henry Kissinger's missions to the Middle East. Although ever a pragmatist, and often a showman, Kissinger was equally a true sentimentalist.
kissinger and nixon
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a 1973 Washington DC meeting. Credit: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy by Martin Indyk, Penguin Random House, 2021, 688 pages, paperback $35

During the negotiations that followed the Yom Kippur war of October 1973, Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat sent Israel’s prime minister Golda Meir a secret message urging her to accept a goodwill gesture at face value. ‘You must take my word seriously,’ he warned her. ‘When I made my initiative in 1971, I meant it. When I threatened war I meant it. When I talk of peace now, I mean it. We never have had contact before. We now have the services of Dr Kissinger. Let us use him and talk to each other through him.’

Meir worried she was walking into a trap. ‘I keep asking, Why is he doing this?’ she wondered aloud. As Martin Indyk explains in his new book Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy, the ‘fear of giving without getting … is a fundamental part of the Israeli psyche’, summed up by the Hebrew word freier. A freier, he explains, ‘is a sucker, a person whose gullibility, naivete, and weakness are easily exploited.’ In this context, Kissinger was useful. Gingerly she replied, ‘It is indeed fortunate that we have Dr Kissinger whom we both trust and who is prepared to give of his wisdom and talents in the cause of peace.’

Indyk is well-placed to empathise. As the Middle East expert on the National Security Council he was Clinton’s adviser on the Arab-Israeli conflict, twice US ambassador to Israel, and latterly served as Obama’s envoy in a fruitless effort to secure peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority nearly a decade ago. Its failure was the stimulus for this book. ‘In seeking a better understanding of what has gone wrong, I found myself harking back to Kissinger’s successful efforts to advance the peace process.’

It is only fifty years since these events, but piecing together what happened is no easy task. The sources for this complex story are the voluminous public records, reporting by journalists who were willing accomplices in the creation of the Kissinger myth, and a range of later memoirs, including Kissinger’s own. Using these Indyk has produced a blow-by-blow account of Kissinger’s role in provoking the October war, and his strenuous efforts to achieve a settlement that established the United States as the main player in the Middle East afterwards.

Kissinger believed order in the Middle East required the establishment of an equilibrium with legitimacy, which had been absent since Israel’s spectacular gains during the 1967, ‘Six-Day’ war. Although sporadic fighting had continued on the Sinai front, and Israel crucially failed to stop Egypt moving new, Soviet-supplied, surface-to-air missile batteries up to the Suez Canal, the Israelis felt invincible and saw no need to come to terms. Indyk, a kibbutznik at the time, recalls how air-raid shelters in Jerusalem had filled with ‘rancid trash and stagnant water’. They seemed redundant in a country that had just trebled in size.

Emboldened by the way the Russians had caved in to American pressure during the Jordanian crisis in 1970, Kissinger aimed to oust them from the Middle East. Constrained by the influence of the pro-Israel lobby on domestic politics, he planned to do so by a mixture of overt support for Israel and foot-dragging that would eventually force the Jewish state’s frustrated Arab neighbours to turn to him in search of peace. The flaw in this strategy was that it was based on an assessment that Sadat could not, and therefore would not, resort to force. Like everyone else, Kissinger underestimated Nasser’s successor: having ignored Sadat’s hints of openness he then dismissed Egyptian threats as a sign that his infuriating strategy was working. Later he admitted, ‘We didn’t expect the October War.’

When Sadat and Syria’s wily leader Hafez Assad launched a coordinated, two-front offensive on 6 October, Kissinger expected Israel rapidly to reverse the Arab gains. His plan was to call for a ceasefire before Israel could take further territory and limited US support to materiel: bullets, bombs and shells. The plan unravelled when Israel failed to make headway in Sinai. ‘If Israel feels we have let them down and the Arabs think they have done it themselves, we are sunk,’ said Kissinger at this point.

Large losses led the Israelis to switch their attention to their northern front: they started to advance towards Damascus. Sadat, who had told Kissinger via an envoy that his war aims were strictly limited, changed his mind. The ease with which he had defeated the Israelis on the east bank of the Suez Canal, combined with a determination not to be blamed for the success of the Israelis’ Syrian push, led him to launch a further offensive. This took him, fatefully, beyond the umbrella of the Russian SAMs. The Egyptian attack was a disaster.

Unlike the Russians, the Americans lacked real-time intelligence from the battlefield. By the time they realised that the Israelis had dealt the Egyptians a stunning blow it was too late. In Washington, where the Watergate scandal was reaching its denouement, a beleaguered Nixon sought to claw back some respect domestically by ordering a massive airlift of US arms to Tel Aviv. ‘Just go gung-ho,’ he said, despite the reaction he knew this would cause in the Arab world. Kissinger initially thought nothing would happen. ‘Did you see the Saudi Foreign Minister come out like a good little boy and say they had very fruitful talks with us?’ he joked to colleagues on 17 October. That same day the Arabs announced they would cut production drastically and unilaterally imposed new prices. By New Year’s Eve the price of crude oil had risen fourfold.

Kissinger went to Moscow to arrange a ceasefire. He flew from there direct to Tel Aviv. Always alive to the optics of diplomacy (he once made a thirty minute meeting drag on for three hours, to give the impression the concessions he had extracted had been hard-won) and having had to involve the Soviets again, his aim was to telegraph to the Arab world that it was he alone who could make Israel comply. Once there, however, he was vulnerable to emotional pressure. Seeking to make amends for the situation he had created, he told the Israelis to ignore the ceasefire and improve their position while he was in the air, incommunicado, en route for home. After the Israelis then cut off the Egyptian Third Army in Suez city, Sadat asked the Russians to intervene. Kissinger escalated, signalling that he was making plans with Israel for an all-out war. When directly asked by Indyk why he had done so, he responded, ‘You know, we were determined; this was not the Obama administration.’ His approach was vindicated when the Russians then blinked first.

Most of the book covers the shuttle diplomacy that followed the war. On the front-line Israeli and Egyptian generals quickly agreed to the terms of disengagement that Kissinger would later take credit for. In three encounters, over six weeks, Kissinger managed to reach secret understandings with Meir, Sadat and the Saudi king, Faisal: in these he presented a partial Israeli withdrawal to Meir as a way to delay a full withdrawal, to Sadat as a precursor of a better deal, and to Faisal as an excuse to lift the oil blockade which was causing chaos across the western world. Turning his attention to Assad in the next few months, he stopped the Syrian leader torpedoing this arrangement by brokering a deal over the control of the Golan that lasted until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.

Indyk tells the story as it happened, interspersed with some of his own experiences, to illustrate the central prerequisite of a successful negotiation: the slow but necessary building of confidence and trust. The to-and-fro entailed in this approach threatens to obscure his interesting portrait of Kissinger, which is warm, but nuanced. A grasp of strategy and the detail, combined with a shameless quick-wittedness enabled Kissinger to exploit the unexpected and to bounce back from his own mistakes. These arose because ‘he was not just an unfeeling practitioner of realpolitik, especially when it came to dealing with Israel. He was at heart a sentimentalist’. While that is certainly true, perhaps the most astonishing detail in the book is the fact that Sadat persuaded Assad to hand over a list of Israeli POWs in Syrian hands, by telling him that if he did, Kissinger would ask the shah of Iran to attack Iraq to draw Iraqi troops away from the Syrian frontier. When Kissinger handed over the list, Meir clasped it to her bosom and broke into tears. Kissinger said he cried as well. This unsettling demonstration of Kissinger’s reach unlocked the Golan negotiation: it also led to clashes on the Iran-Iraq frontier in which over one hundred people were killed. Diplomats and negotiators will enjoy this book; others may find following every twist and turn overwhelming.

James Barr

James Barr is author of several books on Middle Eastern history including 'A Line In The Sand' (2011) and 'Lords of the Desert' (2018) and a visiting fellow at King's College London.

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