Kissinger on Obama,
Osama, and Af-Pak

The question is not exit strategy, but war aims.


Robert Costa

As the champagne is shelved and the United States confronts a post–bin Laden world, Henry Kissinger foresees challenges for President Obama.

The looming question, Kissinger says in an interview with National Review Online, is whether the president can articulate broad foreign-policy objectives. Taking out the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, he says, is impressive, but it is not the finish line.

“As a general proposition, the administration has lacked a strategic design, or a discernible strategic design,” Kissinger says. “It has operated more on the tactical than on the strategic level. But with its standing having been improved by the operation against bin Laden, they may have an opportunity to rectify this, to some extent.”

Kissinger, who served as the chief foreign-policy architect for presidents Nixon and Ford, applauds the president for deciding to withhold the photos of bin Laden. “I agreed with that,” Kissinger says. “The issue if the photos are released isn’t so much fear of retaliation — those who want to retaliate don’t need much additional incentive. But it is not in our interests to create, by a deliberate governmental policy, a picture that can be used for martyrdom around the Islamic world.”

Kissinger would like to see Obama continue in this vein, reasserting U.S. aims and sidestepping minor political scuffles. “Relations of the United States with the Islamic world will depend on the general perception that we are conducting policies that show that we are master of events,” he says. “To the extent that the killing of Osama bin Laden reflects this, it may create opportunity. On the whole, I think that it has been an extremely positive development.”

At first blush, Kissinger points out that the end of bin Laden means little in terms of snuffing out al-Qaeda. Instead, he argues, the windfall from the successful mission will be a renewed sense of American influence in a region where U.S. policy has at times come up short.

“Operationally, the general view seems to be that bin Laden was not in active operational control anymore. But symbolically, as the head of the movement, his death has a blighting effect,” Kissinger observes. In the Arab world, “the anti-American outburst that one could have expected has not taken place. That, too, is a very positive result.”

This does not mean that Obama should coast on the initial goodwill. The president, he says, must use his political capital to sharpen his administration’s policy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.