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A Conversation with Henry Kissinger

Henry Kinssinger (darthdowney/Flickr)

Henry Kinssinger (darthdowney/Flickr)

So what do you think the likely outcome is of the present situation?


Is that all you'd like to say?


With respect to Vietnam, you say in Does America Need a Foreign Policy? that, "The resulting debacle was compounded by America's inability to sort out the various strands of its historic approach to foreign policy: how to reconcile universal principles with the practical necessities of a region which permitted only a piecemeal approach to lofty goals; how, in the crucible of battle, to relate moral maxims, which are absolute, to their implementation by means of power, which depends on circumstances." How much of this could be applied to the situation now unfolding in Iraq?

Well, we have a generic problem in the sense that we state our objectives in sweeping, idealistic and universal terms. But there are situations in which the local conditions are paramount. In Europe, in the Marshall Plan period, there were certain general principles that were (a) compatible with our own history, and (b) with the reality of the European domestic situation, which the European nations shared. So a somewhat generalized approach worked. In Southeast Asia, in South Vietnam we faced a society that had never been a state in its present borders, that had to construct a governmental legitimacy in the middle of first a civil war and then what, in effect, was an international war. And that presented huge difficulties. Now in Iraq we face an additional problem: South Vietnam was at least culturally homogeneous but Iraq is, in effect, three nations or three ethnic or religious groups. Therefore how to get a common policy is even more difficult in Iraq than it was in Vietnam. In Vietnam, when the program of Vietnamization was carried out, there was a government to which these armed forces were loyal. In Iraq the forces are mostly loyal to various factions and not yet to the government. So the task of political reconstruction is even more difficult in Iraq than it was in Vietnam.

The period of your service in government coincided with the period of the Cold War. A number of people have suggested that with the end of the Cold War, Islam has replaced Communism as the great threat to American interests. How do you respond to this claim?

Well, first of all, I would not say Islam, I would say radical Islam represents a threat. I would say it is true but I would also say that it is a totally different kind of threat than the Cold War threat. The Cold War threat had an ideological justification but it was fundamentally the struggle between two great powers who thought they were superpowers but it turned out only one of them really was.

The Islamic jihad is a religious, ideological movement that has no organized military force and no specific political address with which you could negotiate. So the nature of the challenge is more elusive and the extent of the challenge is more insidious.

In a recent interview, you argued that a military option should not be ruled out with respect to Iran. What are the alternatives to military intervention? What do you think the consequences of military intervention would be, should it come to that?

Just in an academic setting of course it is very nice to say that we should use diplomacy. And that then creates the impression, again, that the evil people want to use power and that the good people really want to use diplomacy! And really, there is the option. The question is, rather, what combination of benefits and penalties will move Iran to give up its nuclear military capacity. What are the options? I will grant, and I would far prefer, a diplomatic solution. But you could also argue that if you rule out a political solution you also reduce the incentive for a diplomatic solution because the Iranians then have nothing to fear.