Master of the Game by Martin Indyk

He’ll have ye smilin’

Time​ magazine called him ‘Henry of Arabia’ and featured him on a cover in 1974. The headline read ‘Mideast Miracle’. Newsweek depicted him that same day as ‘Super K’ in a fluttering blue cape. The New York Times, Washington Post and the television networks piled on their own encomia. Henry Kissinger, already a media darling, had become the Middle East’s saviour, whose ‘shuttle diplomacy’, then a neologism, had ended the Arab-Israeli War of October 1973.

Nixon had appointed him secretary of state a month before the war broke out. Born Heinz Alfred Kissinger, the German-Jewish Harvard professor didn’t fit the State Department stereotype: all 55 of his predecessors were native-born WASPs. His Dr Strangelove accent remained a lifelong reminder of his émigré status. (Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, told him that her foreign minister spoke better English than he did.) Yet after becoming a naturalised American at the age of twenty he liked to describe himself in terms of his adopted country’s folklore. He told a reporter that he was ‘a cowboy who rides alone into town with his horse and nothing else’. He also resembled another American frontier archetype: the pedlar whose wagonload of patent medicines promised to cure every ailment. By the time the rubes realised that his bottles contained snake oil, he had left town. ‘He’ll have ye smilin’,’ an old Irish saying goes, ‘while he takes the gold out of your teeth.’

In Master of the Game, Martin Indyk shows Kissinger at work before, during and after the October War, and highlights his most acclaimed achievements in its aftermath: persuading Israel to cede small patches of occupied territory and convincing Egypt and Syria to recognise the ‘Zionist entity’, at least de facto, by negotiating with it through him. Indyk’s account, while adding little to the historical record, makes exciting reading. And despite his veneration for Kissinger, Indyk acknowledges that the elaborate diplomatic manoeuvring was an exercise in damage control. After all, if it hadn’t been for Kissinger, there would have been no October War.

The Middle East was terra incognita to Kissinger in January 1969, when he became Nixon’s national security adviser. Great Power machinations rather than the Arab-Israeli backwater preoccupied him as he forged detente with the Soviet Union and ‘Red’ China in the hope of extricating the US from its war against Vietnam. The Middle East file fell by default to the then secretary of state, William Rogers, a conventional WASP public servant, Second World War veteran, lawyer and former attorney general. To the annoyance of Kissinger, who loathed him, Rogers took the job seriously. The Rogers Plan of December 1969 delivered a ceasefire in the costly War of Attrition on Israel’s Syrian and Egyptian fronts and promised mediation that would lead to a comprehensive peace…

Master of the Game by Martin IndykMaster of the Game: Henry Kissinger and the Art of Middle East Diplomacy
by Martin Indyk.
Knopf, 677 pp., £28, October 2021, 978 1 101 94754 8

Read the full review on The London Review of Books

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