If we rated world statesmen the way we rate professional football players, the scouting report on Henry Kissinger would surely note "blinding speed" and "good moves." But it would have to add: "injury prone -- plays hurt."
The other day in this space I made fleeting reference to Kissinger's Vietnam "peace is at hand" pronouncement on the eve of the 1972 election as an example, along with John Kennedy's "missile gap" and Lyndon Johnson's Tonkin Gulf Resolution, of the way presidential candidates play fast and loose with foreign policy. It was a glancing blow -- no penalty flags were thrown.
But the rush for balm and liniment was instantaneous.Had I but read his memoirs ("White House Years"), Kissinger wrote me in obvious pain, I would have found that the famous forecast had everything to do with diplomatic maneuver "and nothing to do with the political situation." It was done "contrary to all political advice."
Well, maybe. But Richard Nixon did have a way of renouncing "the easy, political thing" even as he was doing it. Nor was Nixon one to confess base political motives to anyone outside the Haldeman-Ehrlichman inner ring. What's more, Kissinger himself concedes that Nixon knew in a general way what Kissinger was going to say that day. And presidential politics were not all that far from Nixon's mind; he even urged Kissinger to take a passing swipe at Democratic candidate George McGovern's recommended peace terms.
But so far as his own motives were concerned, Kissinger has a persuasive argument.
In any case, the incident has a certain pertinence to the political/public relations problem currently presented by the American hostages in Iran. For both Ronald Reagan and President Carter, the parallels with the dilemma posed by the Vietnam peace talks in the closing, politically supercharged weeks of the 1972 campaign are close enough.
In the case of Vietnam, as Kissinger tells it, peace negotiations were in their final stage. Only the stubborn recalcitrance of South Vietnam's President Thieu stood in the way. The North Vietnamese were forcing the pace, fixing deadlines, prematurely releasing the settlement terms. The trick, then, was somehow to find a way to keep the talks from collapsing, while at the same time maintaining pressure on both sides.
Hence, in Kissinger's first televised press conference a week before Election Day, the phrase "peace is at hand." It was intended, Kissinger recounts in his book, as a "pithy message -- too optimistic as it turned out -- to the parties of our determination to persevere; a signal to Hanoi that we were not reneging and to Saigon that we would not be derailed."
But it was almost universally interpreted, of course, as a political ploy.
In Iran, the issue and the position of the United States are entirely different, but at least some of the essentials are the same. Clearly some sort of extremely delicate probings, if not actual negotiations, for release of the hostages have been under way between the United States, third parties and at least some elements of the splintered power structure in Iran. Clearly there are some important Iranians who would like to force the pace. Even Ayatollah Khomeini was floating tentative settlement terms before the outlook darkened with the onset of fighting with Iraq.
It is still not inconceivalbe that moderate Iranians, anxious to dispose of the hostage issue, would prefer to close a deal with Carter than face Reagan's basically harder-line approach. (Reagan has made it plain that, given his druthers, he wouldn't even have tried to negotiate until after the hostages' release.)
To the extent that this tendency exists in Iran, Carter has good reason, on the merits, to encourage it. But the impression he has given of a willingness to turn the hostage crisis to political advantage makes him no less suspect than was President Nixon in 1972. He will be in no position to proclaim "release is at hand" -- for whatever subtle and worthy diplomatic purpose -- and not expect it to be taken as cynical trafficking in false hopes.
For all his recent profession of support for whatever American negotiating initiatives, Reagan is not in much better shape. His effusive acceptance of three out of four of the ayatollah's terms won him kudos for responsible bipartisanship. A day later he was back at the old stand, declaring that "the continued suffering of our hostages in Iran for nearly a year bears stark testimony to the decline of American prestige." A thoughtful voter has to wonder just how far Ronald Reagan wants to remove the hostages as a campaign issue.
Vietnam, in other words, offers a useful general rule for election-year treatment of the hostage crisis in Iran -- if the principals are really serious about not using it for political gain. As a practical matter, in the free and open play of American politics the intent (however noble) of what is said publicily is less important than the political impact.