Peacemaker or evil genius? Kissinger’s mixed legacy in the Middle East

Henry Kissinger will be remembered for his controversial legacy in the Middle East


Peacemaker or evil genius?
Kissinger’s mixed legacy in the Middle East

“The opening of a complicated negotiation is like the beginning of an arranged marriage,” wrote Henry Kissinger in his memoirs. “The partners know that the formalities will soon be stripped away as they discover each other’s real attributes.”

That pretty much sums up his experience in the tangled world of Middle East politics and his famous “shuttle diplomacy” with Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat and his Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. Some American historians celebrate him as a great statesman while some Arabs regard him as more of a brilliant manipulator, or who one would call an evil genius.

Far from bringing peace to the region, Kissinger almost single-handedly helped tear it apart by sowing discord between Egypt and Syria, creating unrest in Iraq, and making sure that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Cause remain at arms-length from all Washington discourse and decision-making.

During his tenure as National Security Advisor under President Richard Nixon’s first term, Kissinger played no active role in the Middle East, apart from drumming up support for Jordan during the Black September showdown of September 1970, which led to the expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

“My influence in Middle East policy in Nixon’s first term was far less direct than in other spheres,” he would write later. “I could write memoranda; I could warn, but I exercised no operational control.” Nixon was re-elected for a second term in November 1972 and promised that the Middle East would have a “very high priority” for his administration, but nothing could be done before the upcoming Israeli elections scheduled for 30 October 1973 (they would be postponed until the end of December due to outbreak of the October War).

Kissinger’s main job was to make sure that no major regional event erupts that could wreck those elections. In that regard, he failed, and was taken completely off-guard by the third Arab-Israeli war in 1973.

Read more: Henry Kissinger, US foreign policy titan, dies at 100

Underestimating Anwar al-Sadat

His second misgiving was about Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, who had come to power in 1970 after the death of his predecessor, Gamal Abdul Nasser. Sadat was “little known and vastly underestimated” in Washington, wrote Kissinger.

Many considered him as no more than a weak and interim president who would soon be replaced by the better-known Ali Sabri, secretary-general of the Arab Socialist Party. By May 1971, however, Sabri had been purged and Sadat emerged as the uncontested leader of Egypt, proving Kissinger wrong for the second time.

Far from bringing peace to the region, Kissinger almost single-handedly helped tear it apart by sowing discord between Egypt and Syria, creating unrest in Iraq, and making sure that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Cause remain at arms-length from all Washington discourse and decision-making. 

In early 1972, Sadat began sending messages to the Nixon administration, offering to re-open the Suez Canal, which had been blocked since 1967, in exchange for partial Israeli withdrawal from occupied Egyptian territory. Kissinger rejected his offer, replying through Saudi intelligence chief Kamal Adham that bilateral talks could not move forward so long as Soviet technicians and military experts were still based in Egypt.

On 23 June 1973, Kissinger met with his Soviet counterpart Andrei Gromyko in Sant Clemente, California, where he heard another offer from Sadat: an end to the state of war between Egypt and Israel in exchange for withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. Once again, Kissinger said no, seemingly convinced that Sadat was too weak to deliver.

Getty Images
Sadat and Kissinger in a meeting in 1973.

The basis of Middle East peace talks was UNSCR 242 of 22 November 1967, which mentioned a "just and lasting peace" within "secure and recognized borders." Israel was asking for direct negotiations with the Arabs as a pre-condition for any settlement. In Kissinger's own words: "Israel chased an illusion that it could both acquire territory and achieve peace. Its Arab adversaries perused the opposition illusion: that they could regain territory without offering peace."

Realizing that nothing would come out of Kissinger so long as Soviet troops were stationed in Egypt, Sadat formally asked them to pack up and leave in July 1972, marking a major departure from Nasser's legacy.

Three months later, Nixon and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird sent a memo to President Nixon, urging secret contacts with Sadat as a form of "reward" for expelling the Soviets. Nixon liked the idea of secret talks as a cover for public ones, authorizing Kissinger to establish a backchannel with Sadat's National Security Adviser Hafez Ismail.

Read more: There's a lesson in the 1956 Suez Crisis as Gaza war rages on

Kissinger and Arafat

Months later, Ismail landed in Washington on 23 February 1973. He raised the issue of occupied Egyptian territory, offering security guarantees in return for an Israeli withdrawal. Final peace, he stressed, could not happen unless approved by Arafat and only if it had something for the Palestinians.

Kissinger turned a deaf ear to anything related to the Palestinians. He had no intention of dealing with them, either directly or through proxies, having nothing but disdain for Arafat. Perhaps it was the heavy influence of Israeli leaders, whom he considered personal friends.

During the period July-October 1973, Arafat would send Kissinger four messages, all calling for direct talks with the Americans. Kissinger replied to just two of them, very half-heartedly, sending deputy CIA director Vernon Walters to meet with an Arafat aide in Morocco. Kissinger's instructions were brief: "The United States has no proposals to make." Another meeting would eventually be held in March 1974, which also amounted to nothing.

Clinton stands between Arafat and Rabin as they shake hands for the first time.

Kissinger hoped to push the Palestinian question as far away as possible. To try and pressure him into reconsidering his position on Arafat, Arab leaders came out with a resolution at their summit in Rabat on 20 October 1974, recognizing the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people."

Then came Arafat's historic speech at the UN on 13 November 1974, were he famously said that he was carrying an "green olive branch" and a "freedom fighter's gun."

"Don't drop the green olive branch from my hand," said Arafat. The Arabs, and especially King Faisal, hoped that these words would bring the Palestinians to Kissinger's negotiating table. They were wrong.

The road to October

On 25-26 February 1973, Kissinger met with Hafez Ismail at an elegant private home in the outskirts of New York City. The State Department, he said, was not informed of the meeting until later. Hafez informed him that President Sadat wanted a settlement before the year 1973 came to an end.

It is unclear whether he knew that his boss already had a Plan B in store, in case no settlement came forth, which was to wage a joint war with Syria later that autumn. Sadat's terms were fairly clear: Israel had to return to its 1967 borders, not just with Egypt but all Arab neighbors, with some margin for adjustment, perhaps, on the West Bank. Arab control of East Jerusalem was essential and nonnegotiable, he said.

Read more: US Marine Barrack Bombing in Beirut

Although the two men would meet again near Paris on 20 May 1973, Kissinger's talks with Hafez Ismail were stillborn. Seeing little hope for reaching a deal with Egypt, Kissinger turned to Jordan's King Hussein, whom he admired and had helped save during the Black September events of 1970.

He was also accredited for raising US aid to Jordan, from $30 million in 1970 to $345 million in 1973. Hussein was more specific on peace than Sadat, telling Kissinger during their meeting that February that he was ready to discuss the West Bank directly with Israel. If Jordan sovereignty was restored, said the king, then he could accept Israeli military outpost along the River Jordan. Kissinger stalled – both with Sadat and Hussein – waiting to see how the Israeli elections would play out. He thought that time was on his side.

The opening of a complicated negotiation is like the beginning of an arranged marriage. The partners know that the formalities will soon be stripped away as they discover each other's real attributes.

Henry Kissinger

The October War of 1973

At 6:15 AM on 6 October 1973, Kissinger was awakened at his suit at the Waldorf Towers in New York when Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joseph J. Sisco burst in, saying that Egypt and Syria were going to attack Israel. He was carrying a message from Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, via the US ambassador to Tel Aviv Kenneth Keating.

It said: "We may be in trouble." She asked Kissinger to urgently convey a message to Moscow, Cairo, and Damascus, that Israel had no intention of attacking or going to war. Kissinger immediately got on the phone to do just that: his mission was to keep peace in the Middle East ahead of the October elections in Israel. A new war in the Arab World would be devastating for Israel, especially one launched as the Israeli army was taken off guard on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Effectively, he had 90 minutes to do that before the war began. 

Kissinger rang Soviet Ambassador to Washington Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, conveying Meir's message verbatim and putting the White House switchboard at his disposal to come back with any urgent answer or queries. He then called the Israeli charge d'affairs since their ambassador was traveling, and at 7:00 AM was on the phone with Egyptian foreign minister Mohammad Zayyat who was attending the UN General Assembly in New York. He then tried to reach the Syrian deputy minister of foreign affairs, who was also in New York, to no avail. Syria's UN mission did not answer, or return, any of his calls. And finally, he called King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and King Hussein of Jordan, seeking their mediation. Hussein expressed "concern" while King Faisal spoke to him about Arab solidarity. Both had decided to side with Egypt and Syria.

Getty Images
Nixon and Kissinger at the White House in 1973.

Until then, Kissinger did not believe that the Syrians and Egyptians were ready for war. He sincerely believed that they lacked the military might, or the ability to coordinate a joint offensive. Sadat had been threatening to go to war every year since 1971. Each time he would threaten, mobilize troops, and then retreat and do nothing. Kissinger thought that this was just another Sadat bluff, saying: "Until that moment, I had not taken Sadat seriously. I had dismissed him as more actor than statesman."

The Egyptian president reached out to the US on the second day of the war, via Hafez Ismail. His terms for a ceasefire were identical to those conveyed during Ismail's February visit to Washington: Israel had to withdraw from all territory occupied in 1967. According to Kissinger, Sadat's end objective was "psychological and diplomatic, much more than military." He had triggered an international crisis so great in magnitude that it would bring down psychological barriers on all sides and eventually succeed in bringing all stakeholders to the negotiating table. "Sadat fought a war not to quire territory but to restore Egypt's self-respect and thereby increase its diplomatic flexibility," wrote Kissinger. Syria on the other had "fought for more conventional and literal objectives: It simply wanted to regain occupied territory and at minimum to inflict casualties on Israel."

Sadat fought a war not to quire territory but to restore Egypt's self-respect and thereby increase its diplomatic flexibility.

Henry Kissinger

Post-war Shuttle Diplomacy

During the war, Kissinger called for $3 billion USD to pay for the US airlift to Israel—33,000 tons of weapons and equipment—which was eventually slashed to $2.2 billion. After the ceasefire went into effect, an Egyptian and an Israeli general met at a tent under UN auspices at a point known as Kilometer 101 on the Cairo-Suez road, on 16 November 1973. They made some progress, discussing the withdrawal of Egyptian tanks from the Sinai in exchange for Israel pulling back to the east of the Sinai passes. Henry Kissinger was furious. The talks had taken place without his approval, and threatened to destroy everything he had in store for the region: a UN-sponsored Middle East peace conference to be conveyed in Geneva, to be chaired by him before the end of 1973.

He telephoned Sadat and asked him to "slow-down," advising that he drops all future mention of the Sinai passes, which eventually killed the talks and brought them to a abrupt halt. Sadat was already halfway out of the Soviet orbit. Kissinger wanted him to withdraw completely into the American one, while simultaneously, driving a wedge between him and his wartime ally, Hafez al-Assad. If Israel agreed to a large-scale disengagement in Sinai before the Geneva Conference, Syria would demand something similar on the Golan.

Getty Images
Golda Meir at a press conference in 1973.

To prevent that from happening, and guarantee long-term Egyptian-Israeli progress, Kissinger pressured all sides to "wait until Geneva" so that any regional deal would come with international guarantees.

On 24 November 1973, Assad arrived in Cairo to meet Sadat at the Tahra Palace in the Hadaek al-Qubba district. It was at this meeting that the word "disengagement" was first mentioned to Assad – making him furious. Nothing about disengagement had been mentioned in pre-war planning. On 10 December the two presidents met again, this time at the al-Qubba Palace, to discuss the Geneva Conference. Sadat told his Syrian counterpart that he would not attend unless Kissinger promised substantial Israeli withdrawals on both the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. 

Kissinger in Damascus

Five days later Kissinger arrived to Damascus for his first meeting with Assad at the Presidential Palace in the upscale neighborhood of al-Rawda. Assad's biographer Patrick Seale would later say that Kissinger showed up for this meeting "with neither goodwill not good intentions." A few hours before Kissinger's arrival, Sadat had sent his trusted aid Ashraf Marwan to Damascus, saying that the US Secretary had promised him disengagement on both the Sinai and the Golan before the Geneva Conference, not after. It was also a bluff, coordinated closely between Sadat and Kissinger.

Kissinger tried swaying Assad, holding him by the arm and speaking of a new dawn in US-American relations. "There can be no friendship between us" said Assad, "so long as you have taken sides." He then had Kissinger seated in a Mosaic-inlaid sofa facing a painting of Saladin, the great Muslim leader who defeated the Crusades, chosen no doubt for its symbolism. The following is Assad's recollection of the exchange:

Assad: What did you agree with Sadat?

Kissinger: We agreed about the Geneva conference.

Assad: Is that all? I was in Cairo just a few days ago and Sadat assured me he would reach an agreement with you about disengagement before we went to Geneva.

Kissinger: Nothing of the sort took place.

Assad: But just hours ago Ashraf Marwan was here to say that you and Sadat agreed on that.

Kissinger: Well…we did briefly discuss the Egyptian front, but we did not discuss the Syrian front at all. And we did not link progress on disengagement to the Geneva conference.

After a brief pause, the Syrian president said: "Nobody is going." Kissinger pretended astonishment: "What do you mean: nobody is going?" Deep inside, however, he was extremely pleased that Syria was boycotting the Geneva Conference. He wanted Egypt – and Sadat – alone and defenseless. A few days later, he reported to Nixon: "The Syrian non-participation is very satisfactory for us—a blessing in disguise. As I look ahead, I believe there is a real chance of an Egyptian-Israeli agreement on disengagement."

Getty Images
 Hafez Assad and Anwar Sadat.

Geneva and Sinai I

A week later, Kissinger opened the Geneva Conference at the Palais des Nations on 21 December 1973. Co-chairing it with him was his Soviet counterpart Andrei Gromyoko, who was given symbolic standing so that he doesn't ruin the event. In attendance were the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. Syria was represented with a nameplate and empty chair.  From there, he embarked on what has now become hallmark of his era—shuttle diplomacy—where over the course of seven days, he traveled back and forth between Tel Aviv and Aswan on the Upper Nile, where Sadat was staying that winter. On 18 January 1974, the agreement was signed, known as Sinai I.

It was one climbdown after another for Sadat. He had hoped that Israel would withdraw east of the Sinai passes but they were kept in Israel's hands. He had hoped that they would give him control of two divisions and 200 tanks on the east bank of the Canal but Kissinger gave him no more than a symbolic 7,000 men and 30 tanks. Kissinger also banned both Egypt and Israel from SAMs and long-range artillery in a 30-km zone on each side of the front lines.

Egypt had to withdraw its anti-aircraft defenses not just from the Sinai bank of the Canal but from the west bank as well. The Bab al-Mandeb Straits were to be opened to Israeli shipping. So would the Suez Canal. General Abdul Ghani al-Gamasy, then-director of operations of the Egyptian Armed Forces, could barely what he was hearing. According to Egyptian historian and journalist Mohammad Hasanein Haykal, he asked Kissinger how Egypt could accept thirty tanks only. Kissinger replied that the president was willing to withdraw them as well, because "we are preparing for peace."

There can be no friendship between us, so long as you have taken sides.

Hafez Aassad addressing Kissinger

Gamasy was visibly shaken, to the extent that he moved towards the hotel window overlooking the Nile and took out a handkerchief from his pocket. It was clear to all those present that this disciplined soldier could not hold back his tears. 'Is anything the matter, General?' asked Kissinger. Gamasy's reply reflects once again the feelings of a disciplined soldier who knew nothing of the secret dealings taking place behind his back. He replied: 'Nothing Mr. Secretary. If these are the orders, then they will be carried out. For us, orders are orders.'  

The Syrian Track

Next, it was time for Kissinger to get something similar from the Syrians. He knew that Golda Meir was unwilling to surrender an inch of territory in the Golan Heights but also believed that in order to protect both Egypt and Sadat, he needed something substantial on the Syrian front. For the Egyptian-Israeli agreement to live, there needed to be one with Syria as well. Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy with Syria was similar to the one with Egypt.

It would last for an entire month, from 29 April to 29 March 1974. A total of 130 hours of face-to-face talks were conducted with the Syrian president, yielding a three-way disengagement scheme: one a buffer area controlled by the UN, flanked by the Syrian and Israeli zones of restricted forces and weapons.

agreed to give up the destroyed town of al-Qunaytra, in exchange for an expanded UN force of 1,250 men and maintaining its control of the Mount Hermon observation post as well as the hills west of al-Qunaytra. Kissinger then put the final touches on his Syrian part of the deal: the two countries would limit forces and armaments within 20-kms of the frontlines.

The Syrian agreement was signed in Geneva on 31 May 1974. Immediately, Kissinger set out on the next stage of his talks with Egypt, which led to the signing of Sinai II, also in Geneva, on 4 September 1974.

The final wedge

But Kissinger's schemes did not end there. Iraq was starting to look like a credible ally for Damascus, despite their historic differences, now that relations had hit rock bottom wit Anwar al-Sadat. To prevent the Iraqis from giving anything substantial to the Syrians, Kissinger began to stir the flames of Kurdish nationalism, in collusion with the shah of Iran and of course, the Israelis. By arming and helping Iraqi Kurdish separatists, he hoped to prevent the Iraqi Army from any "adventurism" with Syria.

This affair would soon emerge in the Watergate investigations, conducted by New York Congressman Otis Pike. Completed in early 1976, the Pike Report revealed how Kissinger admitted to arming the Kurds to keep the Iraqi Army occupied. "Our clines (the Kurds) who were encouraged to fight, were not told of this policy. Iran was our ally and was keeping Iraq's armed forces occupied on its eastern frontier, far away from Syria."

Kurdish fighters near a picture of Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani

The Kurds were never intended to win, only to distract Iraq and isolate Syria. Kissinger sold them one big lie after another, and so charmed was their leader Mullah Mustapha Barzani that he sent his wife a gold and pearl necklace on the occasion of their wedding in March 1974. But when the Kurds outlived their usefulness, Kissinger abandoned them too, sealing Iran's borders to them and leading to their massacre at the hands of the Iraqi Army.

Like Arabs, the Kurds too were naïve when they believed Henry Kissinger. He strove for nothing good for either of them, and his only objective was to bring them all to the United States, or more specifically, to him personally, so that he could map out the region's future, as he pleased. Kissinger laid the ground for much of the titanic events of the region, starting with Sadat's 1977 visit to Jerusalem, onto the present war in Gaza, which ironically came to a close just days before his passing at the age of 100 on 30 November 2023.

font change

Related Articles