Kissinger, the Middle East, and contemporary challenges

Nabil Fahmy
Thursday 14 Dec 2023

The passing away of former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, on 29 November 2023, marked the end of a life filled with academic, diplomatic, and eventful endeavors.


Kissinger left an indelible mark on US foreign policies in the 1970s, providing counsel and influence for many years thereafter. He garnered strong support from enthusiastic collaborators, yet faced substantial criticism from political activists and academics who questioned his materialistic approach, often accused of neglecting ethical principles and international humanitarian law in favor of US interests.

Some argue that Kissinger embraced "realpolitik" to serve American interests, considering it a pragmatic and effective philosophy. Conversely, others rejected his approach, contending that his methodology was overly materialistic and detached, disregarding ethical principles and international law, governed solely by broader US interests.

Critics accused Kissinger of prioritizing personal success over long-term national interest, leading to inconsistent positions and extreme duplicity, especially regarding the excessive use of force, notably in Cambodia and Chile, irrespective of the costs or "necessary losses," including lives.

Kissinger's notable achievements include representing President Nixon in the opening to China and his efforts in the Middle East after the October 1973 war. His admiration for Chinese and Egyptian leaders, Mao Zedong and President Anwar El-Sadat, was evident, shaping his political legacy.

Known for his personalization of affairs and a keen interest in the historical legacy he would leave, Kissinger paid close attention to the ceremonial aspects of foreign nations' dealings with him. Records abound with competitive incidents between Kissinger and his Egyptian counterpart Ismail Fahmy during post-war negotiations, highlighting protocol breaches as Kissinger welcomed the Egyptian foreign minister at US airports while expecting reciprocal treatment in Egyptian airports.

I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar, organized by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, just weeks before Kissinger's passing away, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1973 war. Kissinger, as the keynote speaker, spoke eloquently and vividly, showcasing a sharp memory and clarity at over 100 years of age.

During the seminar, key points emerged, including Egypt igniting the war due to international reluctance to take seriously its desire for Arab-Israeli peace through negotiations. The Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal to alter the military-political dynamic between Arabs and Israelis, compelling negotiations.

The discussion also clarified Kissinger's true intentions during the "step-by-step" negotiations, viewed by some as a misinterpretation of his pursuit of "political realism." There was strong disagreement during the seminar, with arguments that Egypt negotiated for the liberation of its territory and sought Arab-Israeli peace. Others asserted that Kissinger aimed to stabilize the region, allowing him to focus on Cold War negotiations with the Soviet Union, prioritizing short-term US interests over broader Middle East peace.

The seminar highlighted Egypt's recognition of US influence on Israel, seeking active American participation in negotiations. However, the challenge was negotiating with Israel while preventing Kissinger from downplaying the October victory, redirecting it towards the less ambitious goal of "stability and pragmatic acceptance."

Kissinger addressed his post-October diplomatic goals candidly during the seminar, emphasizing that his objective was not Arab-Israeli or Egyptian-Israeli peace. Instead, his priority was to secure stability in the Middle East, focusing on negotiations with the Soviet Union within the broader context of the Cold War and relations between the two superpowers.

In this context, the Middle East aimed to avoid further Soviet expansion in the region, especially after President El-Sadat expelled Soviet experts from Egypt in 1972. The lesson drawn from this period is that while nations seek to attract influential players for their capabilities and influence, careful strategic planning is essential, especially for smaller or medium-sized countries. This involves precise goal-setting, strategic choices, and an in-depth analysis of others' interests to invest in what serves national objectives, avoiding pitfalls. This is a lesson Palestinians and Arabs should consider in the face of significant challenges related to Gaza events that could fundamentally alter the political model of the Arab-Israeli conflict, particularly the Palestinian aspect.

*Nabil Fahmy is former foreign minister of Egypt 

*The article is published with permission from the Independent Arabia newspaper.

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