Wherever a Senator's Question Leads, Kissinger Gamely Follows

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, February 1, 2007

So now it can be told: President Bush has a secret plan to end the war in Iraq.

Henry Kissinger, who as Richard Nixon's secretary of state learned something about secret plans, went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday to argue that Bush, too, has such a proposal.

"I am convinced, but I cannot base it on any necessary evidence right now," Kissinger told the senators, "that the president will want to move toward a bipartisan consensus" to stabilize Iraq through diplomacy.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was suspicious of such assurances. "Is there any place that you're familiar with where the administration has articulated this strategy?" he asked.

"I don't know any place where the administration has articulated this particular strategy," the octogenarian diplomat admitted. But he added: "From my acquaintances with some of the people, I think it is possible that they will come to this strategy."

Obama asked Kissinger if "you are suggesting that they have some secret strategy that we have not been made privy to."

"I would be disappointed and surprised," he reiterated, "if they did not accept some of the elements of what has been discussed here."

For Kissinger, the floating of a phantom plan for Iraq provided a deft way out of a tricky situation. Like James Baker, who went before the committee Tuesday, Kissinger was inclined to defend Bush's Iraq policy. But Bush had left the two men, both former Republican secretaries of state, with little ammunition.

The administration rejected the core recommendation from Kissinger and from Baker's Iraq Study Group: a massive diplomatic offensive involving Syria and Iran. And yet, neither man was prepared to turn against the White House.

Baker, testifying on Tuesday, acted as if Bush had, in fact, supported his ideas. He mentioned the "common elements" between the Bush and Baker plans and the "very important points of similarity." Rubbing his fingers together and making motions with his mouth as if sucking on a hard candy, Baker pleaded: "Look, the president's plan ought to be given a chance. Give it a chance."

Kissinger, the master of nuanced phrases such as "not incompatible," provided few such broad pronouncements yesterday. Indeed, he pronounced very little in his low, German-accented rumble.

"I want to make sure I heard you right, because it's hard to hear you, so tell me if I heard you right," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) directed him.

Kissinger responded with a guttural sound that the transcript labeled "(inaudible)."

It must have been a terrifying hearing for stenographers, who recorded Kissinger's utterances with phrases such as "we should avoid its (inaudible) deployment" and "we should work in the direction that will (inaudible) for maximum stability."

But this hardly mattered. The senators heard in Kissinger's testimony whatever they wanted to hear. On the one hand, Kissinger spoke of "an upheaval that goes across the whole region" and an "explosion of violence." On the other hand, he stated that "I do not believe we can withdraw from Iraq" and he provided a lukewarm endorsement for Bush's proposed increase in troops.

That left each senator in the room with the impression that Kissinger was endorsing the lawmaker's own personal plan. And the venerable diplomat, now stooped and wearing a hearing aid but as shrewd as ever, did not disabuse the senators of these impressions.

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the chairman, pitched his plan for an Iraq split into autonomous regions. "I'm sympathetic to an outcome that permits large regional autonomy," Kissinger concurred.

Sen. Richard Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican, asserted that "we cannot be in a situation in which we say 'We're out of there,' " Lugar pointed out.

"I believe very strongly that we cannot withdraw from the region," Kissinger agreed.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) tried to pull the witness in his direction. "I certainly agree with you that we cannot disengage from the region -- but what about redeployment from Iraq?" he asked.

"Of course significant American forces can be withdrawn," Kissinger obliged.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) tugged Kissinger the other way. "Is it your belief that a precipitous withdrawal . . . would have a greater negative long-term impact?"

"That is my conviction," Kissinger said.

"Would you agree," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) asked, that "every alternative carries with it some rather grave risks?"

"Absolutely," Kissinger complied.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said he hoped Bush's troop buildup would allow for reconciliation and diplomacy. "Am I wrong?"

"The objectives you've stated are compatible with what the president is attempting to do," Kissinger assured him.

The secretary's agreeability had a calming effect. "I think what I'm seeing here is someone testifying and almost everyone on this committee agreeing," observed Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). "It's an interesting thing to watch."

Maybe that's Bush's secret plan to end the war in Iraq.

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