In 2016, I got to spend a couple of days with Henry Kissinger in the Bahamas. I took a selfie of us sitting together on the beach as proof that our get-together had really happened. I am smiling broadly – and Kissinger, who claimed he had not done a selfie before – is looking somewhat puzzled.
The origins of this encounter dated back to a panel a couple of years before. Kissinger had donated his papers to Yale and each year Yale hosted a conference in his honor. I was put on a panel to discuss the role of the military and diplomacy in foreign relations with the former CENTCOM commander General Jim Mattis, the former national security adviser Steve Hadley, and ambassador Ryan Crocker. General Stan McChrystal moderated the discussion. Kissinger, who was seated near the front, obviously knew the other speakers on the panel but was probably wondering who on earth I was. Referring to Iraq, Hadley claimed we had given the Iraqis the chance for democracy. I countered by saying the outcome of the Iraq war was the breakdown of regional order established post World War I, the resurgence of Iran, and a regional power struggle playing out to horrible effect inside Syria. Kissinger, who appeared to be asleep, suddenly came awake and in his gravelly voice and German accent said: “I agree with her.”
All attention was now focused on me. Not quite knowing how to respond, I looked directly at him and said pointedly: “When I was a student, Dr Kissinger, I was not a big fan of yours!” I paused, choosing my words carefully. “I thought you were a very naughty man!” The former US secretary of state and national security adviser was used to being called a lot worse due to the policies he had promoted in south-east Asia. He chuckled at the admonition, rocking back and forth, seemingly enjoying being scolded.
A few months later, I received a letter from Kissinger, asking me whether I would comment on the Middle East chapter of the new book he was writing. The draft arrived by FedEx. I read it. And wrote him an 11-page response explaining why I disagreed strongly with much of what he had said.
I heard nothing back from him until the day his book World Order was published, when a signed copy arrived in my mailbox inscribed “with much appreciation and high regard.” When I read through the chapter that I had commented on, I noted that he had addressed some of my criticisms.
A year or so after this encounter, when I had a book of my own out, I was invited to the Bahamas to speak at an event – thanks to Dr Kissinger.
“You were supposed to have dinner with me last night,” he said as we sat together at a table on the beach in the Bahamas, at the back of the house he was staying at.
I apologised for being a day late, explaining that I had thought the Bahamas was part of the US and that I could fly there from New York without a passport. I had had to go back to New Haven to collect my British passport.
“What’s the point of being an empire if you don’t own islands?” I asked, trying to mask my embarrassment. Kissinger thought this very funny and laughed out loud.
“You are looking very well, Dr K,” I said. He was in his 90s, but his mind was sharp as ever.
“Fat,” he responded. “I look fat. I had lost weight but now I am just getting fatter.”
“Do you have a sweet tooth? What are you eating? Perhaps it is because you are not able to get as much exercise as before?”
“It doesn’t matter what I eat. I just seem to get fat easily.”
A young Bahamian man arrived at that moment with a tray full of cakes.
“I have been baking all morning,” Kissinger said with a straight face.
I looked at him for a second and then we both broke out laughing. We tucked into the cakes and drank our mint tea.
“I read your Iraq book, The Unraveling. Twice, in fact. I skimmed it the first time. But I read it through properly the second time. It is very moving. Made me very sad.”
Henry Kissinger looked me in the eye. “I felt sorry for you. All that effort. It was never going to work!”
“It’s beyond human capacity to import democracy like this,” Kissinger asserted. “Europe took hundreds of years to develop democracy.”
The conversation went on for a couple of hours. Kissinger told me that some of his best friends were “liberals”. He obviously enjoyed discussions with people with different views. He wanted to discuss the counter-factual: what would have happened had we not invaded Iraq.
“Saddam was old, in his seventies.”
“So you think I am past it,” Kissinger interrupted me.
“I think you’ve got a good few years left in you!” I responded that Saddam would probably have handed over power to his son, Qusay. Change might have come through a military coup. But the country would have been ruled by those who had stayed in Iraq all along, whether Sunni or Shia – not the exiles that we put in power, who were Islamists, aligned with Iran and had fought on Iran’s side during the Iran-Iraq war. And if we had not invaded Iraq, we would not have been blamed and held responsible for the chaos in the region and the rise of ISIS.
After my years of witnessing anarchy in Iraq, I had come to better appreciate his fixation on order. As a German Jew, he had been shaped by his experience of fleeing the country of his birth as a child to the US, then returning as a US soldier during the Second World War to liberate the concentration camp of Ahlem.
Our conversation then turned to the conflict in Syria – and what should be done. There were no simple solutions. The longer it went on, the more complex it became.
When I asked him about his own career, Kissinger told me that his greatest achievement had been helping to move Egypt from the Soviet to the US camp – although it was the US opening to China that received all the attention.
Kissinger spoke about his close relationship with Egyptian President Sadat, the greatest statesman he had ever known.
“A statesman is ….at the mercy of events that he cannot fully control. His problems are imposed on him, and he’s got to deal with many of them simultaneously. And he cannot change his mind. He is, above all, responsible for the consequences of his actions. A statesman has to take
his society from where it is to where it has never been. And that is a lonely task. I mention all of these qualities because I met no other leader… who exemplified them better than Anwar Sadat.”
Kissinger also spoke of his love for Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “You know he was a terrible speaker. Not articulate at all. But after he signed the Oslo Accords, he became so eloquent.”
Kissinger had been invited for lunch on the day of the signing of the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. He had sat next to Arafat’s deputy who had told him that, with this agreement, he was being asked to accept Palestine as the West Bank and Gaza when his home was actually in Jaffa, inside what was being called Israel. If that was this Palestinian’s view at the most optimistic time of the peace process, was there ever really any hope he wondered?
“Israel,” he groaned, “is a tragedy.”
Sadat and Rabin had both paid with their lives for pushing forward peace.
Kissinger, who had spent his life studying global dynamics, developing grand strategies, and using American power to shape the world, seemed to infer there were some conundrums that defied resolution.
Emma Sky is director of Yale’s International Leadership Center and author of The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq and In a Time of Monsters: Travels Through a Middle East in Revolt