Master of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy 
by Martin Indyk.
Knopf, 677 pp., £28, October 2021, 978 1 101 94754 8
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Time​ magazine called him ‘Henry of Arabia’ and featured him on a cover in 1974. The headline read ‘Mideast Miracle’. Newsweek depicted him that same day as ‘Super K’ in a fluttering blue cape. The New York Times, Washington Post and the television networks piled on their own encomia. Henry Kissinger, already a media darling, had become the Middle East’s saviour, whose ‘shuttle diplomacy’, then a neologism, had ended the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973.

Nixon had appointed him secretary of state a month before the war broke out. Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger, the German-Jewish Harvard professor didn’t fit the State Department stereotype: all 55 of his predecessors were native-born WASPs. His Dr Strangelove accent remained a lifelong reminder of his émigré status. (Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, told him that her foreign minister spoke better English than he did.) Yet after becoming a naturalised American at the age of twenty he liked to describe himself in terms of his adopted country’s folklore. He told a reporter that he was ‘a cowboy who rides alone into town with his horse and nothing else’. He also resembled another American frontier archetype: the pedlar whose wagonload of patent medicines promised to cure every ailment. By the time the rubes realised that his bottles contained snake oil, he had left town. ‘He’ll have ye smilin’,’ an old Irish saying goes, ‘while he takes the gold out of your teeth.’

In Master of the Game, Martin Indyk shows Kissinger at work before, during and after the October War, and highlights his most acclaimed achievements in its aftermath: persuading Israel to cede small patches of occupied territory and convincing Egypt and Syria to recognise the ‘Zionist entity’, at least de facto, by negotiating with it through him. Indyk’s account, while adding little to the historical record, makes exciting reading. And despite his veneration for Kissinger, Indyk acknowledges that the elaborate diplomatic manoeuvring was an exercise in damage control. After all, if it hadn’t been for Kissinger, there would have been no October War.

The Middle East was terra incognita to Kissinger in January 1969, when he became Nixon’s national security adviser. Great Power machinations rather than the Arab-Israeli backwater preoccupied him as he forged detente with the Soviet Union and ‘Red’ China in the hope of extricating the US from its war against Vietnam. The Middle East file fell by default to the then secretary of state, William Rogers, a conventional WASP public servant, Second World War veteran, lawyer and former attorney general. To the annoyance of Kissinger, who loathed him, Rogers took the job seriously. The Rogers Plan of December 1969 delivered a ceasefire in the costly War of Attrition on Israel’s Syrian and Egyptian fronts and promised mediation that would lead to a comprehensive peace.

President Nasser accepted Rogers’s plan in order to end Israel’s air raids on the Cairo suburbs and its attacks on cities near the Suez Canal that had left nearly two million Egyptians homeless. After Rogers stopped the bloodletting, Kissinger blocked further negotiations. As even his hagiographers concede, his motive was to deny Rogers credit for negotiating a peace settlement. He then replaced his rival, becoming secretary of state in Nixon’s second term while also clinging to his post as national security adviser post lest anyone undercut him as he had Rogers.

Nasser died in September 1970. His successor, Anwar Sadat, offered recognition of Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from Sinai. Egypt was desperate. Israel’s occupation deprived it of three major sources of income: tourism, fees from the Suez Canal and the oil that Israel was extracting from Sinai. Sadat sent emissaries to Washington, conveyed messages through intermediaries including the child star turned ambassador Shirley Temple, discussed peace with the CIA station chief in Cairo, and – to demonstrate his allegiance to the American camp – expelled fifteen thousand Soviet military personnel from the country. War with Israel, he said, would be a last resort. Kissinger snubbed him. He also ignored those, including King Hussein of Jordan, who warned that an Arab offensive to recover the territories lost in 1967 might be imminent. And he dismissed the CIA’s predictions of an Arab oil embargo against the US in the event of war.

Early on the morning of 6 October 1973, the assistant secretary of state, Joe Sisco, woke Kissinger at his suite in New York’s Waldorf Astoria to tell him that the Egyptian army had breached Israel’s ‘impregnable’ Bar Lev Line, penetrating the east bank of the canal, and that Syrian tanks were advancing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Having failed to foresee the war, Kissinger persuaded himself that the Israel Defence Forces would hurl the Arab armies back within two days. Wrong again.

Israel pleaded for US tanks and aircraft to replace the hundreds it lost in the early days of fighting. The CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia warned, however, that a massive and overt resupply would lead to an Arab embargo on petroleum exports. Kissinger disregarded this intelligence too, leading Nixon to ask Congress on 20 October to authorise $2.2 billion in military aid for Israel. The oil embargo went into effect the next day. Prices rose, with long queues forming at petrol stations throughout the US and Europe. Pressure mounted to end the war before Western economies collapsed.

In October 1973, Martin Indyk and I were both living in the Middle East. We were young expatriates doing graduate studies on opposite sides of the Lebanese-Israeli border. He was Australian, Jewish and Zionist, living part of the time in a kibbutz near the occupied Gaza Strip. I was American with maternal grandparents of Lebanese origin, studying philosophy at the American University of Beirut and learning how people in Lebanon and its Palestinian refugee camps were coping with defeat in the Six-Day War of June 1967. The events of October 1973 would prove decisive for the region, and for each of us. Indyk went on to become an American citizen and diplomat, while I drifted into journalism: this was the first story I covered. Our instruction in American diplomacy began that month as, from conflicting perspectives, each of us observed Kissinger’s use and abuse of power.

Indyk’s book utilises masses of declassified documents to good effect. But he also relies on lengthy interviews with his subject, allowing the now 99-year-old Kissinger to explain himself. The result is a defence of Kissinger that excuses his errors and omits unflattering aspects of his character and behaviour. Alistair Horne’s 2009 book Kissinger’s Year: 1973, a panegyric like Indyk’s, quotes conversations from White House tape recordings that Indyk omits. These depict Kissinger more as Nixon’s yes-man than as the arbiter of the fate of the Middle East. Kissinger repeatedly assures his antisemitic benefactor that ‘I agree with you completely, Mr President’ or ‘I couldn’t agree more.’ On 15 October, Ariel Sharon, the general in charge of the IDF’s Southern Command, ordered his troops to cross to the west bank of the Suez Canal. To Nixon’s ludicrous observation that the event was ‘not that big … I think it’s a stalemate, I really do,’ Kissinger replied: ‘I do too.’ But Sharon’s gambit was a game changer, saving Israel from defeat.

With Israeli forces on the road to Cairo, Sadat asked the US and the Soviet Union to guarantee and monitor a ceasefire. Brezhnev favoured the idea, as did Nixon, who, referring to himself in the third person, told Kissinger: ‘Brezhnev and Nixon will settle this damn thing. That ought to be done. You know that.’ Kissinger’s response was: ‘Exactly. Exactly right.’ He was dissembling, however. The last thing he wanted was Soviet troops, even working jointly with the US as peacekeepers, returning to the Middle East. Nixon instructed him to press for the US and USSR to force their respective clients to accept an all-out settlement ‘now’. Kissinger, Indyk writes, disobeyed. He flew to Moscow on 20 October and with Brezhnev worked out a limited ceasefire agreement that would become UN Security Council Resolution 338. Hostilities were to end at 6.52 p.m. Tel Aviv time on 22 October. On his arrival in Israel, just as the ceasefire was about to take effect, Kissinger immediately undermined the agreement by telling Meir that the IDF could ignore it for 24 hours. Indyk calls this ‘a triumph for Kissinger’s diplomacy’.

By the time Kissinger returned to Washington, Sharon had used his grace period to surround Egypt’s Third Army, beginning its slow starvation, to besiege the civilians of Suez City and to double the area Israel controlled on the canal’s west bank. Egypt, which had observed the ceasefire, demanded an emergency session of the UN Security Council to denounce Israel’s violations. Brezhnev, furious at Kissinger’s duplicity, prepared to send troops to Egypt to enforce the ceasefire. Kissinger convened the Washington Special Actions Group of top officials in the White House while Nixon, drinking heavily due to his Watergate woes, slept upstairs. In Nixon’s name, Kissinger declared DefCon 3, a full nuclear alert, bringing the US and USSR to the brink of nuclear war.

Sadat, in Indyk’s view, ‘saved Kissinger’s bacon’ by rescinding his request for Soviet and US troops. The Soviets stood down. Nixon ordered an end to DefCon 36 hours later. Although World War Three had come perilously close, Indyk absolves Kissinger: Soviet actions were ‘yet again characterised by an ultimate timidity in the face of American resolve’. ‘Resolve’ is one way of describing the risk of nuclear Armageddon. Another is ‘recklessness’.

The first negotiations​ on disengaging Egyptian and Israeli forces began without Kissinger, when generals from the two armies met in a tent at Kilo 101 on the Suez-Cairo road on Saturday, 27 October. Journalists (including me) who covered those talks, which involved frequent trips by bus across the desert, noted the seriousness with which the officers on both sides approached the task. They haggled, but came to terms on prisoner exchanges, the supply of Egypt’s Third Army and the numbers of troops each side would maintain on the banks of the canal. Egypt was particularly flexible, agreeing to only a symbolic force in Sinai. Kissinger was affronted that he played no role in the six-point agreement that Generals Yariv and Gamasy signed on 11 November, but it became the basis for the Sinai disengagement he claimed as his own three months later.

Kissinger left Andrews Air Base on 5 November and spent the next months commuting between Tel Aviv and Arab capitals to end both the war and the oil embargo. One of the diplomats travelling with him was L. Paul ‘Jerry’ Bremer, whose name, thirty years later, would become associated with America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq. Kissinger was also accompanied by the State Department press corps, derisively known as his ‘trained seals’. Indyk writes that Kissinger ‘would dazzle them with his analytical insights and his historical analogies while feeding them the stories that suited his purposes’. No examples of these ‘analytical insights’ appear in the book. When he got to Cairo, Kissinger found Sadat anxious to please the US. Hafez al-Assad in Damascus proved the tougher negotiator, testing Kissinger’s patience as much as the Israelis did.

Israel’s leaders upbraided Kissinger when he proposed they sacrifice some of the territory they had occupied, until he explained to Meir that ‘if we can get Egypt out of [the conflict], Syria is isolated, and we can just delay and delay.’ Israel, which illegally annexed the Golan in 1981, is still delaying. Assad agreed to return Israeli prisoners of war and to disengage in return for a few yards of Golan territory, on the understanding that more negotiations would lead to Syria’s recovery of the rest of Golan and to full peace. Syria has yet to recover another inch of land. The removal of Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world, gave Israel a free hand to colonise the West Bank, imprison Gaza and invade Lebanon. Israel owes all that, for good or ill, to Kissinger.

Kissinger achieved his prime objective: not comprehensive peace, but the removal of the Soviet Union from the region. ‘Kissinger’s diplomacy ushered in the era of Pax Americana in the Middle East … and stabilised a turbulent region,’ Indyk writes. If the Lebanese civil war, three Israeli invasions of Lebanon, the Iranian Revolution, the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, America’s invasion of Iraq and civil wars in Syria and Yemen constitute stability, the region’s peoples can be forgiven for preferring chaos.

During the Arab-Israeli negotiations in 1974, Kissinger spared time for Iraq, which had sent troops to support Syria in the October War. According to Kissinger and Indyk, Assad wanted them out. Kissinger had another motive: to support the shah’s claims to both banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which divides Iraq from Iran. Kissinger, with Israeli help, armed a Kurdish rebellion. Saddam’s troops returned to Iraq to fight the Kurds, and he was forced to sign a border treaty ceding the waterway to Iran, whereupon Kissinger pulled the plug on the Kurdish operation and permitted Saddam to slaughter its forces. When Iran’s revolution appeared to leave the country vulnerable in 1980, Saddam invaded to reverse the terms of that treaty. Anywhere between half a million and a million people died, not perhaps as many as Kissinger was responsible for in South-East Asia, but impressive nonetheless. Kissinger’s policy in 1974 is the background to America’s disastrous intervention in Iraq in 2003.

In June 1974, Nixon was rapturously received on a tour of the Middle East, acclaim denied him at home, where the Watergate revelations made his position untenable. We reported on the crowds, who cheered what they believed was the president’s ‘even-handed’ policy in Cairo, Amman and Damascus. Nixon told Assad on 16 June that he favoured Israeli withdrawal from all of the Golan. Back in Washington, he made aid to Israel conditional on the full return of the Golan and Sinai. He resigned the next day, 8 August. Kissinger persuaded the new president, Gerald Ford, who was as ignorant of foreign policy as Nixon was knowledgeable, to reverse the order four days later.

How can any credible observer celebrate Kissinger for bringing peace to the Middle East? I was on the ground in Cairo and Damascus each time Kissinger’s plane landed. His rare press briefings to those of us not travelling with him were evasive at best, mendacious at worst. I believed him then. My excuse is that I was a 22-year-old product of American education. I learned better. Indyk didn’t.

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