Kissinger, McMaster, and the Middle East: A 70-year Retrospective on US Policymaking

Written by Samuel Kramer on . Posted in Capital Commentary

On Oct. 10, the Center for Strategic and International Studies hosted a retrospective discussion of the National Security Council (NSC)'s 70-year history and its path forward. The evening’s stars were Henry Kissinger, doyen of American realism, and H.R. McMaster, the current National Security Adviser. Though their conversation covered broad topics, it revealed the intellectual scaffolding for American policy toward Israel and the greater Middle East.

Both the panelists’ experiences in office and leadership styles were reflected in the crises they faced. Kissinger praised a bipartisan approach to foreign policy. “We invariably briefed the leading members of the various senatorial committees,” he said.

Kissinger’s close relationship with President Richard Nixon engendered a formidable executive combination. This personal approach to diplomacy ultimately benefited Israel in times of crisis. National Security Adviser Kissinger urged caution when Israel allegedly developed nuclear weapons: In a July 19, 1969, draft memo to Nixon, Kissinger wrote, “Public knowledge is almost as dangerous as possession itself.” Nixon concurred and avoided pressuring Israel. American acceptance resulted in Israel’s current nuclear policy of strategic ambiguity.

Later, as the Bar-Lev line collapsed during the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger responded to Israeli requests for resupply. “That night in Washington, Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz was desperate. He called Kissinger at 1:45 a.m. on Oct. 9, insisting that the United States send weapons to Israel,” Sasha Polakow-Suransky wrote. “Dinitz woke him again at 3 a.m. warning that Israel could face imminent defeat without emergency military aid from Washington.”

“President Nixon had no patience with the Pentagon’s stalling, however, and told Kissinger, "[Expletive], … tell them to send everything that can fly,’” she added. Irrespective of motive, Kissinger and Nixon’s decision allowed Israeli troops to replace destroyed materiel and repel the invasion.

Kissinger took his personalist “shuttle diplomacy” to the region as Egyptian forces retreated beyond the Suez Canal, convincing them to make peace with Israel for the Sinai’s return. These efforts opened the door to Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat’s historic 1977 visit to the Knesset and the subsequent Camp David Accords ending Israeli-Egyptian belligerence. Succeeding diplomats follow Kissinger’s example, establishing personal ties with Middle Eastern leaders to further policy objectives. As Kissinger noted at the Center for Strategic International Studies, “Traveler, there is no road. The roads are made by walking.”

The current adviser, H.R. McMaster, has an equally distinguished association with Israel. In 2011, McMaster consulted Dan Senor and Saul Singer on their popular book “Start-Up Nation.” Praised by figures like Fareed Zakaria and Salam Fayyad, the book touts Israel’s progress despite its neighbors’ hostility.

However, McMaster’s arrival at the Trump White House sparked controversy. Parts of President Trump’s base believe McMaster caused predecessor Mike Flynn’s ouster and “purged” the NSC of Flynn supporters like Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Derek Harvey.

A bipartisan coalition swiftly backed McMaster. Conservative mega-donor Sheldon Adelson’s representative stated, “Sheldon Adelson has nothing to do with the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) campaign against McMaster. Had no knowledge of it. And has provided zero support, and is perfectly comfortable with the role that McMaster is playing.”

Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee added, “He is one of [the] people, frankly, one of the few people that people on both sides of the aisle have confidence in that are within this administration.” Critically for McMaster’s political survival, Trump publicly supported his National Security Adviser. “He is a good man and very pro-Israel,” Trump said on Aug. 4. “I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country.”

Trump’s statement came days after an anonymous report suggested Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo would replace McMaster. McMaster dismissed the controversy, issuing no statements as scandals boiled. Prudence embodies McMaster’s surgical approach to policy. “If all you do is manage crises, all you’ll do is get more crises,” he told the Oct. 10 audience.

Kissinger and McMaster, by virtue of their reputations, have great influence on American Mideast policy. The individual defines the game: Kissinger, ever furtive, used personal ties and White House connections to forge policy. McMaster, a professional soldier, cultivates a no-drama image at odds with a seemingly idiosyncratic White House. Both men continue to blaze new paths for U.S. relations with the Middle East and especially Israel.

By Samuel Kramer

 Samuel Kramer is a master’s candidate at Georgetown University. He has interned at the State Department, Department of the Treasury, and the Hudson Institute. The views expressed in this article are his own.