How Kissinger and the use of the Balance of Power Model got us into an Iraqi mess.
Henry Kissinger’s dedication to Balance of Power Model was a major factor in the United States’ ill-conceived involvement in Iraq’s sectarian mess.
First of all it is necessary to understand the importance of Kissinger to the political policies of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC ), as well as his informal role advising George W. Bush during his presidency.
In his 2014 book “World Order,” Kissinger downplays his role in advising President George W. Bush. More accurate was Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial” in which he noted that Kissinger had a “largely invisible influence” on Bush’s administration and regularly met with Cheney and Rumsfeld.
PNAC was a conservative think tank that famously sent a letter to President Bill Clinton, urging him to remove Saddam Hussein by force. Among those supporting this position were Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, Dick Cheney and John Bolton, all later to become members of President George W. Bush administration and all heavily influenced by former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. All, including Kissinger, met with then candidate Bush, at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, to educate him on foreign affairs. PBS’ Frontline referred to PNAC’s 1998 letter to President Clinton, including noting its signatories as among the key factors leading to the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Note that this policy recommendation well preceded 9-11.
Kissinger, like his fellow political scientist, Hans Morgenthau, was born in Germany and emigrated to the United States in the 1937-38 period to escape Hitler’s Nazism. Morgenthau authored a major textbook in the study of international relations using the European Balance of Power framework (Politics Among Nations). Morgenthau was about twenty years older than Kissinger and was educated in Germany. Kissinger, because he was only a teenager when he immigrated to the U.S., received his higher education in this country. Yet, like Morgenthau, Kissinger employed what they called a “realpolitik” view of the world. This view was based upon a theory of international politics that was derived from a study of European politics from the beginning of the nation-state system in 1648 through the machinations leading up to World War I. It was a standard mode of thought by European historians and was simply put, a model that predicted that peace, or more specifically, the lack of war in Europe would take place when the powers of European coalitions were in balance. Historically, England would play the role of “the balancer,” staying on the sidelines until coalitions were formed and then joining forces with the weaker (in terms of power) side to bring the system back into balance. England was concerned less one side would become victorious and dominant on the continent and then be unstoppable as they advanced upon the English Isles. When World War II ended, it saw ultimate power rest in the hands of those with nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. The Soviet Union and the United States became the two polarities in this new age and the system was appropriately called, The Bi-Polar System and the awful and unacceptable consequences of a nuclear war served as a deterrence to that happening. Yet Kissinger and Morgenthau insisted that their realpolitik view of international relations still applied (though in a private meeting with the author in 1973, Morgenthau admitted that he and Kissinger had been wrong in their assumptions about political actors’ behaviors in Vietnam—though Kissinger never admitted this).
Jump now to the fall of the Soviet Union and the power vacuum, in the Balance of Power model, that ensued, especially with respect to the oil rich prizes surrounding the Persian Gulf in the Middle East. Kissinger, and PNAC, with their realpolitik view, felt that either the United States move into this power vacuum, which occurred due to the chaos of the Soviet Union’s disintegration, or we would lose this opportunity, and some other(s) would move in. Iraq, under the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, was the key target, they argued, both because of its geographical importance for control of the Gulf and for its own vast oil reserves. The WMDs and Nuclear Cones were just excuses. The policy had been urged, publicly, for at least a half-dozen years before we went in.
The rest, as they say, is history. We did get rid of Saddam Hussein, but in doing so, we took a relatively stable, if undemocratic, Sunni country bordering the hostile Shia country of Iran and created a very unstable mess. Instead of utilizing the Sunni Republican Guard to help maintain order, we, inadvertently created an unstable, ineffective, and also undemocratic Shia government, insuring a future threat to Sunni ruled Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. This guaranteed unhappiness and militant opposition by the Sunnis. It also, as we have seen, had an effect on the largely sectarian turmoil in neighboring Syria, and it is even spilling over to the Syrian satrap, Lebanon. The Balance of Power model based upon European history, and assumptions of rational decision-makers, didn’t serve us well in the swirling sands of the Middle East’s religious-tribal based political economies.
Thanks for your thoughtful analysis and comments. Makes sense to me.