When dealing with Job, God showed a lively interest in how much a fellow could take. Henry Kissinger, whose re-awakened critics box the ideological compass, probably identifies with him (with Job, not God--not yet . . . ).
Some critics have made minor vocations of discovering the obvious. Yes, Kissinger was devious and ruthless when dealing with some international and bureaucratic adversaries. Say it 10 times: "The secretary of state was devious." About the sixth time it begins to sound like Mark Anthony's funeral oration: Yes, Caesar was called ambitious. Now tell us something interesting.
Journalism, like television, has gone into summer reruns: or perhaps it is journalistic ecology, recycling scarce resources. In any case, because Kissinger's new assignment concerns Latin America, there is renewed talk about how he overthrew Chile's Salvador Allende. A Senate committee eager to find evidence of U.S. complicity in the coup found, it said, "no evidence." Say, could 350 percent inflation, and Marxist preparations for civil war, have caused the coup?
Kissinger's liberal critics are mistaken about the world; his conservative critics are mistaken about domestic realities. His liberal critics believe foreign policy should be the New Deal carried on by other means--that economic reform can tranquilize political conflicts. His conservative critics believe Americans would have supported more strenuous foreign and defense policies between 1969 and 1976. But Kissinger, too, was mistaken about the meshing of policy and public opinion.
Critics on the left and right join in charging that pessimism or cynicism or some other un-American trait caused him to distrust the American public, and hence to pursue defeatist policies with devious methods. Actually, he trusted too much in the public's readiness to maintain the sinews of national strength amid the atmospherics of d,etente.
If he was naive it was not, as conservative critics charge, about the Soviet system. Rather, it was about public opinion, the subtlety of which he overestimated. A flaw in his d,etente policy was misplaced confidence in the constancy of a public condemned to live with ambiguities.
The domestic divisions occasioned by Vietnam, combined with the collapse of executive authority during Watergate, may have made a d,etente policy mandatory, and may have made the failure of the policy inevitable. But--and Kissinger is more open to this argument than he once was--a d,etente policy may inevitably destroy its prerequisite.
Its prerequisite is a national sense of purpose and danger. That sense enables a public to maintain strong foreign and defense policies even while searching for accommodations. D,etente can never be a way of managing superpower competition if it always diminishes the public belief that competition is necessary or serious.
Today the administration's Central American policy requires little material sacrifice, but that little may not be forthcoming. In the 22 years since President Kennedy summoned Americans to a "long twilight struggle," they have grown disillusioned (about their country's capabilities) and complacent (about their enemies' intentions).
Kissinger says that, "In a democracy, the prerequisite for effective prolonged struggle is a continued demonstration of the willingness to end it." But what Kissinger knows, our enemies know. So they offer only a choice between slightly disguised surrender ("power sharing" in El Salvador) and endless conflict.
After the 1970s--after Vietnam, Ethiopia, Angola, Yemen, Afghanistan--it became clear that in the 1980s (in Kissinger's words) someone armed by us must beat someone armed by them. Yet weariness and wariness born of Vietnam have made Americans reluctant even to arm our enemy's enemies.
Professor Kissinger has remained a teacher, attempting to make Americans comfortable with a European idea, the "balance of power." But Americans have never liked the language of power in diplomacy, preferring (naturally, in a nation that thinks of itself as "dedicated to a proposition") the language of ideals, such as human rights. And the idea of balance, which suggests endless adjustments of equilibrium, does not satisfy the American thirst for finality--for "unconditional" surrender of forces that interfere with making the world "safe" for democracy or for the four (not three, not five) freedoms, or whatever.
Kissinger now returns to the game of nations in the role of relief pitcher. Such pitchers often are summoned late in the game when the going is rough. But the analogy is limited. A relief pitcher can be credited with a "save." No commission will save Central America. At most it can dampen the public's anxieties enough to enable the administration to act on this fact: a war is raging and one side or the other will prevail, on the ground..