Beyond  /  Obituary

Kissinger Revisited

The former secretary of state is responsible for virtually every American geopolitical disaster of the past half-century.

Some of the Kissinger obits were scathing, others obsequious. But with only one partial exception, none scooped what I wanted to say, and the most important thing to know about the man: that his every major geostrategic initiative was a failure on his own terms, each failure seeding a separate epochal ordeal for American foreign policy, lasting us into the present.

Take the Iranian Revolution. The revolutionaries, shrewd political semioticians, pursued it by borrowing an Islamic custom: mourning periods lasting 40 days. Every 40 days following September 8, 1978, they would stage a violent uprising, weaponizing the memories of the massacre that September day of dozens of protesters in Jaleh Square in Tehran, supervised directly by the Shah, sitting up above in a helicopter. By the fourth 40-day marker, the revolutionaries had won.

February 17 marked 80 days since Henry’s passing. Call this essay a memorial to that.

The Shah’s rule, you’ll surely know, was a joint British-American creation brought into being in a 1953 coup staged by the CIA. Iran was a key American client state in the Cold War because of its roughly 1,000-mile border with the Soviet Union, soon dotted with American radar and signal-monitoring devices. Some 19 years later, the commitment of hundreds of thousands of American troops to Vietnam had proved a debacle the American people would not allow to be repeated. So Nixon and Kissinger decided to shower proxies with weapons and cash, to do the work of checking the Reds on our behalf, instead. It was known as the “Nixon Doctrine”—more accurately, the Nixon-Kissinger Doctrine.

Iran was the keystone. The two men traveled there together in 1972, winning the Shah’s agreement to serve as America’s “protector” in the Persian Gulf—in exchange for all the American weapons he liked. Forthwith, the Shah “began spending money on U.S. armaments,” I wrote in Reaganland, “like a kid in a candy store.”

Except popular anger at an American puppet exploded in Iran. That brought ever greater repression. Leaders in both American political parties looked the other way. The dynamic reached an apotheosis with the toast President Jimmy Carter delivered on New Year’s Eve 1977 on a state visit to Tehran, in which he described Iran as “an island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.”

“Stability” is a key Kissingerian term of art. Mark it well as our story continues.