21 NOVEMBER 1992, Page 54

The scholar who wielded power

Lawrence Freedman

KISSINGER: A BIOGRAPHY by Walter Isaacson Faber, f25, pp. 893 Henry Kissinger has prompted a vast literature, unmatched by any other living western statesman. There is something irresistible about the story of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany returning to his homeland as part of an army of occup- tion, then a precocious scholar advancing to a starring role in two Republican administrations and credited with extra- ordinary achievements in foreign policy. Even now, over 15 years since he last occu- pied centre stage, he remains a charismatic figure in the wings.

Psychoanalysts, investigative journalists as well as diplomatic historians have all been drawn to the subject. Much has been contributed by Dr Kissinger himself and he has set impressive standards for length. One of the enduring consequences of his undergraduate thesis, modestly entitled The Meaning of History, was that it led Harvard to set a 150-page limit for the future. The examiners had been stunned by 350 pages of dense Kissingerian prose. His two volumes of memoirs total 2,804 pages, more than a page for every day in office until Nixon's resignation in 1974. Not surprisingly, he seems to have had little energy for a third volume.

Those fascinated by Kissinger have found him sharing their enthusiasm. He talks freely to those writing profiles and, if anything, is most anxious to make contact with those he suspects to be most critical. The deepest critics prompt lengthy rebuttals. Because he is the source of so much written about him, and because he tends to be not so much economical as profligate with the truth, this is a case where brevity and biography just do not mix. The first critical analysis of Kissinger's period in office by the New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh ran to 698 pages. Walter Isaacson thus sticks with established practice by weighing in with a full biogra- phy at just under 900 pages.

Isaacson has produced a compelling por- trait which is neither apologia nor indict- ment. Here is a man of charm, wit and stunning intellect often turning to decep- tion, secrecy and bullying as his preferred weapons. His skills in bureaucratic politics, developed at Harvard, were the basis of his rise to power. Previous National Security Advisors had acquired considerable influ- ence but not to the extent of first ensuring that the Secretary of State was excluded from all key decisions and negotiations, and then succeeding him. He became famed for his mastery of the press and his unlikely reputation as a swinger. 'Power', he observed, 'is the great aphrodisiac', though Isaacson cites one of his dates as observing that power appeared to be the climax as well.

His power was sustained through secrecy and back-channels which kept other players ignorant and out of touch. He jealously guarded his access to the President, pacing outside the door, worrying about any conversations on foreign affairs outside his control. Perfectly straightforward negotia- tions — for example on strategic arms were turned into furtive exercises. This led to the frequent observation that Kissinger was uncomfortable with the constraints of democratic life and found it much easier to deal with totalitarian governments able to deliver on any deals.

Inevitably his obsessive secrecy led to paranoia about leaks and this in turn created a climate in which wire-tapping of aides seemed almost natural. While Kissinger's direct links with Watergate were slight, he helped to reinforce some of the worst instincts of the Nixon White House.

In the end Kissinger suffered too. As a solo performer he was soon isolated when things went wrong. When his detente policies drew fire from the Republican right President Ford had to withdraw support. Kissinger also showed an extraordinary lack of subtlety in believing that he could flatter two opposing sides in an argument or be snide behind someone's back without this becoming common

The Winter Ward

Snow the nurse Is turning down the city sheets with a hospital frown.

Not far, my love, not far to go, only another block or so.

Night the doctor is walking the dark with living daylights in his heart.

Not far, my love to the winter ward, to the surgeon's knife in the House of the Lord.

Michael Hulse

knowledge. This was one reason why this central figure in the Republican adminis- trations of the 1970s was kept on the side- lines under Reagan and Bush, even though the latter has made good use of two of his close associates — Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger. Egotism and bad temper were balanced by 'brilliance', a word used frequently by Isaacson. There is no doubting Kissinger's intellectual dexterity or his readiness to listen to others. Indeed, a large part of his intellectual strength both as an academic and a statesman can be traced not so much to his originality but to his ability to create a coherent synthesis from the ideas and insights swirling around him. It is a shame that Isaacson does not spend more time on Kissinger the academic, because his books reveal his susceptibility to the fashions of the moment in the strategic studies community. This approach gained vigour by being integrated into a rather gloomy world view that remained constant throughout Kissinger's career.

The origins of this lay in the young Kissinger's experience in Nazi Germany, about which Isaacson is extremely percep- tive. He eschewed vindictiveness against Germany and instead developed a yearning for order which he judged could only be realised in very traditional balance of power terms. His conservative pragmatism, though highly vulnerable to surges of classical American idealism around him, was suited to the opportunities opened up by the Sino-Soviet split and to a time when the United States, disillusioned by Viet- nam, was ready to move away from over- commitment and confrontation and come to terms with old adversaries.

The opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union, the end of the Vietnam war and shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East were impressive fruits of his grasp of the shifting international environment. Less impressive were his role in the Cambodian catastrophe, his ignorance of economics and his tendency to see a Soviet hand behind all international trouble, which often led to misunderstanding of the local factors in play. It has been striking since 1976 just how wrong Kissinger has been on so many issues, even though his judgments are always delivered with the most persua- sive gravitas.

Isaacson charts Kissinger's career critically but fairly and with telling anecdotes. Despite the length of the book there are still gaps. European affairs are barely mentioned. They did not provide the great dramas of the Nixon years, yet in retrospect this was a time when great changes were set in motion. It remains ironic that someone who had such a European approach to diplomacy should consistently misread European politics. This is an important addition to the Kissinger bookshelf: one doubts that it will be the last.