Comparing Obama to Kissinger

Neocons and other war hawks criticized President Obama for not launching a military assault on Syria, but his decision to apply coercive diplomacy instead fits with many other U.S. precedents and showed a much defter touch than heavy-handed tactics used by Henry Kissinger, writes ex-CIA analyst Melvin A. Goodman.

By Melvin A. Goodman

President Barack Obama’s deployment of a naval task force to the Mediterranean appears to be working as part of the coercive diplomacy aimed at removing chemical weapons from Syria. He has demonstrated caution and restraint in the crisis that are consistent with his approach to ending the U.S. presence in Iraq; reducing the U.S. presence in Afghanistan; and “leading from behind” in Libya two years ago.

His actions are very different from those of Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger four decades ago. Kissinger jeopardized Soviet-American detente and antagonized our European allies in NATO by his reckless actions during the October War of 1973.

Henry Kissinger, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State.

One of the riskiest actions Kissinger took was the unnecessary declaration of a high military and nuclear alert Defense Condition III that could have worsened the Arab-Israeli War and provoked a Soviet-American confrontation. In view of our reliance on Russian forbearance in the current flash-point situation in the Middle East, it is important to recognize that Moscow’s restraint also was important to diplomatic success in the end game of the October War in 1973.

The National Security Council (NSC) meeting of Oct. 24, 1973, that created Defense Condition III was a particularly unusual, perhaps unprecedented, event. The National Security Act of 1947 that created the NSC stipulates that only the president or the vice president can run an NSC meeting.

The meeting took place just before midnight, and President Richard Nixon’s military aide, General Alexander Haig, refused to awaken the President. Both Kissinger and Haig believed that the President, preoccupied with impeachment, was too distraught to participate in high-stakes foreign policy decision-making. A new vice president had been named Gerald Ford but he had not been confirmed and therefore could not attend the meeting.

If neither the president nor the vice president is available, the 1947 Act stipulates that the president has to authorize in writing who will be in charge. There is no record of such a letter in 1973. Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Kissinger ran the meeting, and the participants were Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, CIA Director William Colby, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Thomas Moorer.  Kissinger was the only one present who believed the Soviets were prepared to intervene in the Middle East.

In his memoirs, Kissinger contends that he needed to send a significant military signal to the Soviet Union because of a threatening note that Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had sent to the White House as well as intelligence information that was available to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Brezhnev’s note was neither a threat nor an ultimatum. The Brezhnev note in 1973 was similar to his note to the United States during the Six-Day War of 1967. Without consulting the President, Kissinger put into play DefCon III for the first time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The fact that the Strategic Air Command was put on alert was particularly ominous because of the signal this sent to the Soviets.

The intelligence, moreover, did not indicate that the Soviets were preparing to intervene in the Middle East. In fact, the Soviet airlift to Egypt had stopped early on Oct. 24. The evidence of nuclear materials on Soviet naval ships coming through the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean Sea had been available on Oct. 15, ten days before the declaration of DefCon III, and it was based on an erratic naval collection system that typically and inaccurately recorded radiation from most Soviet ships.

The seven Soviet airborne divisions were not prepared to enter the Middle East and were not put on alert. In fact, the Soviets had never introduced their airborne forces into noncontiguous areas. This did not stop Kissinger from telling China and our NATO allies in Europe that the Soviets had alerted their airborne divisions and were prepared to intervene in the Middle East.

The Soviets did have several AN-22 transport aircraft on alert, as was typical in times of crisis, but the key indicators did not point to a possible intervention. There were no supplies on the runway and the airborne forces were not palletized. Soviet tactical aircraft had limited range, and Soviet fighters lacked aerial refueling capability.

Kissinger’s reckless use of a nuclear alert during a crisis in the Middle East was typical of his diplomatic jujitsu in other Third World imbroglios. In 1970, when the Nixon administration was faced with a real threat about the Soviet construction of a submarine repair facility in Cuba, Kissinger wanted to send a strong military signal to the Soviets.  Nixon wisely said, “I think we can resolve this with diplomacy.” Nixon was right.

The following year, during the Indian-Pakistan War of 1971, we learned from the White House tapes that Kissinger told President Nixon that the Soviets might take the opportunity to “move against” the Chinese and that if “we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished.” President Nixon wanted to know if Kissinger meant that we should “start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?” Kissinger made it clear that he meant just that, referring to it as the “final showdown.”

The White House tapes reveal Nixon and Kissinger at their worst. In addition to Nixon’s typical vulgarity, the President told Kissinger that the Indians needed a “mass famine.”  Kissinger sneered at people who “bleed” for the Bengalis of East Pakistan. Nevertheless, Nixon backed off from “Armageddon,” as he called it, although he did agree with Kissinger’s gratuitous decision to deploy an aircraft carrier in the Bay of Bengal, which caused a great deal of nervousness in the Pentagon.

In 1972, Kissinger resorted to the unnecessary Christmas bombing of North Vietnam although the United States had every intention of pursuing a diplomatic solution to end the war. Just as Kissinger designed Def Con III in 1973 to convince the Israelis that we were serious about dominating the diplomatic process in the Middle East, the bombing of North Vietnam was designed to convince the South Vietnamese that they could trust the Nixon administration.

In 1975, not long after the confirmation of President Gerald Ford, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge hijacked a U.S. merchant marine ship, the Mayaguez, and held its crew hostage. Kissinger convinced President Ford to conduct a rescue operation of the crew of the Mayaguez, although the crew had already been released. Forty-one Marines died in the operation, more Marines than there were crew members on the Mayaguez.

Even when Kissinger received information that the crew was about to be released, Kissinger went ahead with the Marine operation, presumably to enhance the new president’s credibility. Kissinger wanted to demonstrate that the United States would not be pushed around, notwithstanding the fall of South Vietnam, and that Washington would not hesitate to use its military power.

Kissinger’s machinations as secretary of state and as national security advisor point to the dangers of relying on the use of military signals in diplomatic confrontations. In the case of Def Con III in 1973, we were fortunate that the Soviet Politburo had no interest in deploying military power to the Middle East and had far too much interest in detente to worsen relations with the United States.

We are also fortunate in the current Russian-American diplomatic contretemps in the Middle East over Syria that President Barack Obama recognizes the limits of coercive diplomacy and that President Vladimir Putin seems to be genuinely interested in removing chemical weapons from Syria. As a result, President Bashar al-Assad has admitted he has chemical weapons, and Syria has agreed to bring its chemical weapons program under the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Nineteen inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are already on the scene in Damascus, and the Syrian government is cooperating with the inspection. The prospect of a cease-fire is still remote, but President Obama’s hesitation in the use of military force meant that the United States could successfully avoid the use of military power in another Arab country.

Melvin A. Goodman, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University.  He is the author of the recently published National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism (City Lights Publishers) and the forthcoming The Path to Dissent: The Story of a CIA Whistleblower (City Lights Publisher). Goodman is a former CIA analyst and a professor of international relations at the National War College. [This article previously appeared at Counterpunch.]

12 comments for “Comparing Obama to Kissinger

  1. B Caracciolo
    October 8, 2013 at 19:12

    Perhaps the fat little toad has reaped all the rewards he needs in this life?

  2. Hillary
    October 6, 2013 at 10:55

    Was Secretary of State/National Security Advisor Kissinger the first neocon ?
    How frightening that he as “interim “President” threatened the final showdown more than once.
    Kissinger had no care about loss of life while talking peace and continuing to bomb N.Vietnam .

    neocons in Israel repeat this “peace negotiations” technique in Lebanon and Palestine

  3. Hillary
    October 6, 2013 at 10:18

    “Kissinger convinced President Ford to conduct a rescue operation of the crew of the Mayaguez, although the crew had already been released. Forty-one Marines died in the operation, more Marines than there were crew members on the Mayaguez.”
    Yet another US intelligence failure ?

    • B Caracciolo
      October 8, 2013 at 19:11

      Yes Hillary, you got it!

  4. Eudoro A. Olguín, P.E.
    October 5, 2013 at 22:16

    That fat and ugly pig of Kissinger is a war criminal, in spite of being a Jew with the memories of the “holocaust” or maybe is because of them he does criminal acts.
    He should be already dead and buried and his name nor memory should never be mentioned,
    Eudoro A. Olguin, P.E.

    • B Caracciolo
      October 8, 2013 at 19:10

      No! Yet another interference by the narcissist Henry A. Kissinger.

  5. F. G. Sanford
    October 5, 2013 at 14:05

    I couldn’t agree more. This is a bizarre article from the standpoint of choosing a bona fide war criminal to extol the virtues of restraint and detachment by dubious comparison. Our presence in Afghanistan was INCREASED before it was decreased; we only left when the COIN doctrine proved itself to be an utter failure. We left Iraq because the leadership refused to ratify the Status of Forces Agreement – this after contract mercenaries had murdered civilians and the Iraqis expressed interest in prosecuting them under local law. The disaster in Libya speaks for itself. John Kerry’s off-hand remark provided the Russians with the fodder to cobble together a diplomatic escape hatch allowing both powers a face-saving way out. Rather than being grateful, our side tried to turn it into a propaganda bonanza implying that the administration had been playing “three dimensional chess” on the diplomatic front. That slap of ingratitude is probably what inspired Putin’s editorial about “American Exceptionalism”. Having suffered through many a university blue-book exam in which I had to regurgitate essays for the likes of Professor Goodman, I must recount a tale. One of my Professors had a red ink pad and a stamp that said “BULLSHIT”. He graded blue-book exams by stamping paragraphs, then counting the stamps and subtracting ten points for each one. I did very well. I simply wrote down what he wanted to hear. You see, what goes around comes around. This is my chance to grade the Professor’s paper. And I sure learned a thing or two about bullshit.

    • B Caracciolo
      October 8, 2013 at 19:08

      Was it Bob Komer?

      • B Caracciolo
        October 8, 2013 at 19:09

        Hear , hear!

  6. dave
    October 5, 2013 at 12:31

    Firstly, he didn’t decide to not bomb.
    He was ALL FOR IT, and said he’d do it with or without Congressional approval.
    Not to mention, the Russians held us at checkmate, quite different than “recognizes the limits of coercive diplomacy”.
    And the People stood up and told DC “don’t even think about it”, 80/20%.
    This article is missing a few key elements and seems to give Barry a pass on his own war mongering.
    I do however love this website.

    • Yaj
      October 5, 2013 at 18:38

      Right, Obama was going to order the missiles launched to back Islamic extremists, well at least until the British Parliament voted “no” and the government there nearly fell. (Then Obama found a way out through seeking a UN resolution–of course Obama forgot to tell John Kerry.)

      And oddly for this website, Goodman seems to forget that Syrian Army use of chemical weapons is in no way proven.

    • B Caracciolo
      October 8, 2013 at 19:07

      Henry A. Kissinger has taken far more dangerous steps- and probably illegal ones in the big picture, given HIS status- in the name of the United States of America and risked the safety and security of this nation numerous times. He has NEVER been elected by the people of this country. Matter of fact, he is a dual Israeli-American citizen who lives mostly in Berlin, Germany. To whom do you believe his loyalty is given? He interfered with the Paris Peace talks and caused great grief and needless further deaths on both sides, because of this interference. Notwithstanding those actions mentioned herein- most of which can be corroborated by numerous sources- he also, as Secy of State in 1970- unilaterally “returned” 7 Aleutian Islands to the Russians.He actually signed the papers! Islands known to be rich in various natural resources. The fact is- whether one agrees with the current President’s handling (or mishandling) of diplomacy or the avoidance (or not) of war…Henry A. Kissinger is STILL in the White House as an advisor. I give President Obama a lot of credit for not listening to him, as he is also the point man for AIPAC-the unregistered, tax exempt Israeli foreign lobby.

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