Whatever one might think of Henry Kissinger's view of the world, not to mention his contribution to international debate during the past six decades, one thing is certain: He has his own matrix for measuring right and wrong in policy terms.
That matrix is balance of power, a European concept developed during the medieval times that reached canon status with the so-called Westphalian treaties to organize relations among emerging nations in Europe. Call him a "one trick pony" if you like, but you will also have to admire Kissinger's consistency in promoting foreign policy as a means of stabilizing the status quo regardless of moral -- let alone ideological -- considerations. In his version of Realpolitik, the aim should be to freeze rather than try to change the world, something fraught with dangerous risks.
Henry Kissinger in 2008. (Image source: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons)
Kissinger's neo-Westphalian view of international relations produced détente which, in turn, arguably prolonged the Soviet Union's existence by a couple of decades. His shuttle-diplomacy froze the post-1967 status quo in the Israel-Palestine conflict, postponing a genuine settlement for God knows how many more decades. The same approach put the seal of approval on the annexation of South Vietnam by the Communist North, despite the latter's defeat on the battleground.
The good doctor's latest contribution concerns the campaign against ISIS. Kissinger warns that destroying ISIS could lead to an "Iranian radical empire".
In other words, we must leave ISIS, which is a clear and active threat to large chunks of the Middle East and Europe, intact, for fear of seeing it replaced by an arguably bigger threat represented by a "radical Iranian empire."
As usual, there are many problems with Kissinger's attempt at using medieval European concepts to analyze situations in other parts of the world.
To start with, he seems to think that the Khomeinist regime in Tehran and the so-called ISIS "caliphate" in Raqqa belong to two different categories. The truth, however, is that they are two versions of the same ugly reality, peddling the same ideology, using the same methods, and helping bestow legitimacy on one another.
What is the difference between Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming "supreme leadership of all Muslims throughout the world" as "Imam" and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's similar claim as "Caliph"? And aren't both regimes claiming to have the only true version of Islam with a mission to conquer the entire world in its name? One may even argue that without Khomeinism in Iran, there would not have been ISIS and ISIS-like groups, not to mention the Taliban, in our part of the world -- at least at this time.
That ISIS and the Khomeinist regime feed on each other is also illustrated by Tehran's current line of propaganda, which is telling the Iranians they must tolerate brutal oppression as the price for protection against ISIS.
Kissinger's second error is to think that it's not possible to fight against two versions of evil without favoring one.
In fighting two evils, one may have to operate in separate time sequels. In 1939, it was imperative to defeat Nazi Germany, despite the fact that such an outcome might have strengthened the USSR, which at the time was an ally of Hitler. But once the first evil was eliminated, the fight to defeat the second one could start in the shape of the Cold War.
Kissinger's third error is him forgetting the contribution of the Obama administration to strengthening the Khomeinist regime, not to say allowing it to survive. Obama looked the other way as the mullahs crushed a popular uprising in Iran in 2009. He then rushed to give them legitimacy by engaging them in a diplomatic charade, one effect of which was to help the cash-starved regime escape the worst consequences of its own failed economic policies.
After almost four decades, the Khomeinists have failed to build the institutions of state, something without which no credible empire-building could be launched.
Contrary to what Kissinger seems to think, the choice is not between helping the Khomeinist regime and going to full-scale war against it. The least that Western democracies could do is not to help the Khomeinists out of the holes they constantly dig for themselves.
Kissinger's next error, sadly shared by several pundits and analysts across the globe, is to vastly overestimate the solidity and power of the present regime in Tehran. True, the Khomeinist regime has enough power to cause a great deal of trouble in the region, and is doing so. But this doesn't mean it is capable of building an empire, something that requires a strong home-base -- which the present Iranian regime no longer has, if it ever did. The Khomeinists have difficulty recruiting Iranians to become martyrs in foreign wars, and are forced to hire Lebanese, Afghans, Pakistanis, and, more recently, European passport-holding mercenaries. Without cash-injections by the US and allies, the Khomeinists will also be hard put to pay salaries, let alone finance empire building projects.
Finally, Kissinger's biggest error, perhaps, is the assumption that the only choice the Middle East has, at least in Syria and Iraq, is between the "caliphate" in Raqqa and the "imamate" in Tehran.
Anyone familiar with the situation on the ground would know that this is certainly not the case. An overwhelming majority of Syrians, including even followers of Bashar al-Assad, do not cherish the prospect of a future under tutelage from Tehran. Given a choice, they would certainly look at other options. In Iraq, too, even such figures as Nuri al-Maliki have realized the difficulty of marketing Iranian domination as a recipe for the future; this is why the former premier is now trying to get at least a nod and a wink from Moscow.
Neither the Raqqa "caliphate" not the Tehran "imamate" are capable of providing the stability which the region needs and which Kissinger sees as the ultimate goal of foreign policy. Since both are the twin causes of the current tragedy in the region, bequeathing both to oblivion is the only Realpolitik worthy of consideration. The order in which that happens is a matter for another debate.
The creative chaos marketed by the George W. Bush administration gave birth to dangers which, in turn, have produced new opportunities that Kissinger's quest for an elusive balance of power would miss.
Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran's premier newspaper, Kayhan, before the Iranian revolution of 1979, is a prominent author based on Europe. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article first appeared in a slightly different form in Asharq Al Awsat and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.