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.
“The way to reshape strategy is to try to establish some central focal point in one of the departments, either in the State Department or in the National Security Council at the White House,” Kissinger advises. Up until now, the former diplomat has been discouraged by the administration’s inability to describe its goals in “any explicit fashion.”
Clarifying the administration’s amorphous foreign policy will not be easy, Kissinger says. Navigating relations with Pakistan, for instance, will be a major hurdle in coming months.
“On the substance,” the discovery of bin Laden in Pakistan “really adds no startlingly new information,” Kissinger says. “We have known that some of the al-Qaeda leaders were in Pakistan, so one had to assume that they knew where they were. What is surprising is that the site was so brazenly close to Islamabad. But, of course, symbolically it brings home the ambivalence, and some people would say duplicity, of some of the levels of government in Pakistan.”
“Pakistan wants Afghanistan as its strategic rear area,” a theater of operations in case of war with India, Kissinger continues. “So they have found it impossible, up until to now, to break with the Taliban completely, because they look at it as a kind of strategic reserve. On the other hand, they also need their friendship with the United States if they are not to be left totally isolated in a hostile environment.”
“I would expect the relationship to become more difficult in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the implication of their complicity in his presence,” Kissinger predicts. “I strongly applaud what we did, but we will be forced at every stage of that relationship to determine where our interests coincide and where they diverge. We should have no illusions about the ambiguity of their thinking.”
Kissinger notes that Obama will also need to think critically about how long the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan. “I hate this notion that we fight a war for an exit strategy,” he says. “I thought that we fight wars to achieve definable objectives.”
Kissinger hopes that Obama will address U.S. aims before considering leaving the embattled region — and then proceed deliberately. “As he develops a strategic design, he should look at the question of withdrawal,” he says. “But one major objective should be that we first bring our actions in line with some national-security objectives. Then we can sort out the question of whether or not we are overcommitted.”
Indeed, Kissinger says, “the question we have to ask ourselves is: What do we mean by the ‘War on Terror’? Terror is not a specific enemy — it is a series of outcomes that we are trying to prevent, and if at all possible, to preempt. Our actions should be designed to meet these imperatives rather than fulfill slogans.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.