"Kissinger said we don't have friends/American only has interests..." (with all apologies to Tom Waits)

This was an interesting thought piece on Henry Kissinger and his role in shaping the modern middle east.

So how critical is one man in shaping the world today? Is it glossing over the complexity of agency of the leaders and citizens of countries in the middle east/part of SE Asia? Or does it reflect the geo-political reality of America as the dominant force in the world since the end of the second world war?

More importantly, was there alternatives to what we lived during the Cold War and how it created the modern world today, that seems to be ever more spiraling out of control? And how should history regard proposed alternatives of the day, such as the plans made by leaders within the French Empire at the end of the second world war?

Anyway… enjoy these two interesting articles. I’d love to hear some thoughts on them.


Couldn’t you also say that a large number of the issues in the middle east are a result of post war divisions by European powers? I seem to recall that the British Empire and other European powers intentionally created borders post WWI with the idea that they would divide groups like the Kurds up and foster internal sectarian conflict, making the countries of the region easer to dominate politically.


Sure, but Kissinger was certainly building off of that dynamic and using it as a means of securing American national interests, which are often not incompatible with European interests (see for example, the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, where the US took their cues literally from the British government who were pissed about the nationalizing of Iranian oil fields). The two often go hand in glove, yeah? To say it’s all about Europe ignores how much the US came to dominate the second half of the 20th century and attempted to harness the dynamic already built by European empires in the first half of the century.

Incidentally, the second story I linked to dealt directly with the use of the nation-state in building the modern world and how there were attempts to build something else by those in the global south, as both Cesaire and Senghor saw how the nation-state, as constructed by European nations, meant a continued unequal relationship between the global north and south.


Agreed. There’s a long history of Western powers fucking up the middle east and then rolling their eyes decades later when shit goes wrong. And sorry for not having picked up on the second story’s nation-state building stuff. I have to admit, I read the first one but hadn’t gotten to the second yet.


“We don’t have friends; we have interests” is a simple distillation of the realist view in foreign policy. It seems a sensible way of looking at the world, if one keeps hold of that long term perspective. Arming the Shah of Iran had the long term effect of arming an ideological enemy…


Oh, no worries… I had just read them both this morning and began to think about how they are sort of tangentially related. I do think that Salon piece, as interesting as it is, sort of downplays the agency of states such as Saudi Arabia, who have clearly benefited from American defense largess, but they made that choice, and in some ways manipulated the US for their own ends, too. I think the second article does question the ability of the west to dictate everything and probably helps explain some of the choices people like Kissinger made over the years, regarding his real politics.

Except for all the very real destruction and violence of human lives its caused. Playing the long game, and discounting the safety and well-being of human beings as incompatible with American interests is basically a sociopath mode of looking at the world.

I think the point is that we created that ideological enemy by arming the Shah… not the other way around. What if we had told the British to suck it up when Mossadegh nationalized the oil fields? What if we had been dealing with a democratic Iran all ths time, instead of overthrowing it? What if we hadn’t backed Pinochet? What about all those lives that might have been spared?

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Senghor and Césaire’s plan looks interesting (And very, very French. The idea of the overseas departments as being as “French” as the Hexagon, is deeply ingrained in French political thought, and is central to the nation’s view of itself in the 20th century. During the second world war, some overseas departments fought on, so France as a whole was never conquered.), but the plan failed when it did because it was out of touch with the realities of its time. The demands for independence and self determination from colonised nations were irresistible in the post 1945 world. Peoples who had been conquered and colonised for centuries had been promised self determination as a reward for their participation in the great wars, and they were always going to look on any other proposed solution as the continuation of colonialism by another name. Also, given the desire of the elites in the colonial powers to hold on to the dream of empire, their suspicions would have been well justified.

As for today, I think the foundations of a post-imperial, post nationalist world are already in the making. The EU, for all its flaws begins to show us the way towards the future of the nation state. The large, imperial nation state of the 20th century, like the USA or the USSR, or the French empire is not the way forward. even in a more democratised form. When I look at the nations that are successful, peaceful and happy, I cannot help but think that the future belongs to small, democratic nations who come together in a variety of trans-national organisations to solve their common problems. Regionalism and autonomism are the stepping stones towards post-nationalism, where states will be small enough so that the power is close to the people, and not large enough to be a threat to one another.

As for Kissinger, he’s a convenient figure to hang the US’s policy failures on, given his reputation as a Machiavellian master of the dark arts of Realpolitik, but the reality is that US foreign policy has been confused, unprincipled and blowback prone for decades. Their Iran troubles can be traced back at least to the overthrow of Mosaddegh, where ready access to the regions resources were thought more important than Democracy or stability. The undermining of secular nationalism to keep the middle east on side is another long standing policy- one that has seen people turn to fundamentalism as a response to the failure of secularism and modernity to deliver. Even in Vietnam, the US’s troubles can be traced to earlier missteps. Their decision to support the continuation of French Imperial control, rather than accept the proposed friendship of a new nation that had helped to overthrow the Japanese, could be said to have lost them the Vietnam war before they recognised they were in it.

As an interesting aside, during the cold war period, I see the diplomatic strategies of the USA and the USSR as very much informed by a typical game played in each country:

The USA is poker. Each diplomatic incident is a completely separate game, and the aim is to win each encounter, using bluff, misdirection and playing your strongest cards. You might have to fold occasionally, when you look weak, but once you go all in, you have to win.

The USSR was chess. It’s a game that can be played slowly, and a skilled player can wear down an opponent over time. It’s vital to make sure that your opponent doesn’t end up with a large lead of materiel over you, but occasional sacrifices are absolutely necessary, and part of the game plan. However, once a piece is taken, it stays taken.

Both approaches were wrong.


I probably obtain more new about Ukraine from the new york times and slate than what is healthy, but one of the more persistent refrains is that Russia strategically manages conflicts in order to restrain the independence of its neighbors.

“Behave, or I’ll start a civil war in your country.”

I think it can be fairly said that war is a destructive force that causes human misery for those caught up in it. At a very basic level, one cannot plan for the future when war threatens to destroy all that you have lived for.

Trouble is, “behaving” means subjugating your sovereignty to someone who really doesn’t care about your vision for the future.

“I don’t care that you want to be a free and prosperous society-- your role is to prevent Tanks from threatening Russia.”

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Sure, and obviously, the drumbeat during the Cold War of countering the Soviets, which as @purplecat noted above, were sort of playing a different game then we were (although I’m not sure how Kissinger wasn’t playing chess, too, as opposed to poker, since his entire intellectual life he’s been attempting to look at the interconnections of the globe and act in a way that would win the CW itself), and we can probably see that as part of the strategey now… but there were other ways of going about it than just consistently undermining democracy. If the debate was that the US was more democratic (at least publicly) and wanted more democracy, we sure as hell didn’t act like that. The connection between policy and violence visited upon countries around the world during the cold war were not, I think, just an unfortunately byproduct we couldn’t help, they were THE PRODUCT of our policies. Same could be said of the Soviets and should be said.

Honestly, the sooner we get out of this trap of who was worse during the Cold War the better. We need to see how the Cold War itself was destructive and helped to underwrite the American century to some extent.


Absolutely agree. But is there even any other way for such entities to behave?

I agree that he is such a figure but he is the figure that chose to do things the way he did and is ultimately responsible for the particular actions he took. However, he is also merely an exemplar of the strategist wielding the power contained in the overall strategy of powerful nation-states. If not him, then somebody else would have occupied the position demanded by the environment of confusion and blow back he inhabited.
The confusion, lack of principle and blow back are surely a feature, not a bug.

The unbalancing act is what the military-industrial complexes of dominators require in order to thrive. So long as those complexes are promoted and strengthened as a central projector of power, almost no destabilisation, if properly instigated and then handled by the masters of said dark-arts, is distasteful to such a nation state. The resulting chaos is fortifying precisely because of the form that projection takes. The harnessing of that chaos is the maxim around which all such interference and opportunism is built.

I often wonder if it is possible for the game to be played in any other way. Are humans intelligent enough to act, on the level of nations wielding powerful military forces, without such psychopathy? Is it even sensible to ask such a question when the reality of the situation seems to exclude any other course of action? Excluding, of course, the option of choosing to forfeit such a game.

Private economic actors, unaccountable international agencies, and technocratic experts have superseded state and democratic sovereignties. The failed promises of national self-determination and universal human rights are underscored by Fortress Europe’s handling of the Mediterranean refugee crisis, or the Greek debt crisis.

Maybe the corporations, in their war of business, will usher in a less violent and damaging environment. :wink:

Perhaps, though, they contain the model of artificial, agglomerated-intelligence which the internet can eventually promote through interconnection between individuals. I’m not holding my breath. Distributed, interconnected intelligence of any form, IMO, probably won’t win the day until some form of super-intelligence is available to all of the participants.

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Yes, they can put people first.


But can they function effectively in the current international environment with that prerogative?

eta: effectively

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Like, before money? Why?


Sad that I have to put that sartalics indicator there.


I bet Chomsky and Vidal would both condemn bloody Kissinger, and those guys should know the score.

Side note: I wonder how much of the Jewish-American hawkishness is a legacy of the holocaust…

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Probably about the same amount that Israeli hawkishness is informed by the holocaust, so quite a bit, at least during the Cold War.

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I don’t buy it. How do you explain American support for Israel in realpolitik terms?

Hmm. That’s a tough one.

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy, And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”



“First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” --Vladimir Putin

nestles in quite comfortably with

Some still celebrate the decisions of Carter and Reagan for their role in pulling Moscow into its own Vietnam-style quagmire and so hastening the demise of the Soviet Union. “What is most important to the history of the world?” Brzezinski infamously asked. --Greg Grandin


Israel can act as a safeguard for American interests in the region. Whether they do or not is an entirely a different matter. As much as people attempt to spin realpolitik as dealing with reality, I don’t think it does. When people like Kissinger say American interests, what they mean is the interests of a certain class of people. They ignore that a peaceful world would be of interests to all of us.