As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recounted the steps that led up to his first visit… As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recounted the steps that led up to his first visit to China, which took place in a time when China had no diplomatic ties with the US, shouts from an audience member seated on the balcony interrupted his remarks.
“You don’t deserve a voice,” the heckler shouted from the audience.
The voice faded and Kissinger turned to his old friend and colleague, former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, and said, “I certainly don’t leave them indifferent.”
This type of dry wit has been characteristic of Kissinger during his long career in politics and foreign policy. He demonstrated this trait as the keynote speaker Wednesday night at the Carnegie Music Hall. He spoke for the fourth annual conference hosted by the Pittsburgh Middle East Institute, whose goal is to promote ties between the U.S. and the Middle East. His lecture reflected on his term as secretary of state and his views on current foreign affairs.
In his hour-long lecture, Kissinger discussed immigrating to the U.S. from Nazi Germany in 1938 with his Jewish family at the age of 15. He was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II, which sent him back to Europe where he worked in military intelligence.
He also reflected on his involvement in the Vietnam War under former President Richard Nixon and recollected the steps that he and the Nixon administration took to open relations with communist China at a time when such a relationship was unheard of.
Nixon swore in Kissinger as the 56th Secretary of State in 1973, a position in which Kissinger was famous for his calculated decisions.
“As a policymaker, you are responsible not only for the best, but for the worst. And there are some things you cannot do even though you might like to because the consequences of failure are too serious,” Kissinger said.
Kissinger also discussed the recent changes in the politics of the Middle East resulting from the Arab Spring and how those changes affect American interests. He said that in addition to stability within these countries, he was concerned that the rapid political flux would make it harder for Arab governments to move toward peace with Israel, a major U.S. ally in the region.
“Establishment of democracy by outsiders can become very problematical,” he said. “We saw it in Vietnam. We saw it in Iraq. We’re experiencing it now in Afghanistan.”
Kissinger also expressed his concerns about the complexity and unpredictability of future events in the Middle East as the Arab Spring progresses. While groups with different motives may come together to remove a leader, Kissinger said that it was another matter for them to maintain order and establish new leadership.
“One has to remember that the excitement of the first few months is the first scene of the first act of a five-act drama, and all of this exuberance of our media at the beginning forgot the history of revolution,” Kissinger said.
He went on to stress that he saw widely disparate groups emerging and vying for leadership in Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries that are part of the Arab Spring.
Outside the conference, not everyone was enthusiastic about Kissinger’s visit. Around 20 protesters carried signs criticizing the PMEI for hosting the former statesman. Most cited his handling of Vietnam and bombing of Cambodia as reasons for protesting.
Bob Ross, a professor of global cultural studies at Point Park University, said he was skeptical about whether the conference would really help the Middle East.
Ross took issue with the title of the second part of the conference, “Saudi Arabia: Kingdom of Opportunity.”
“It begs the question, opportunity for whom?” Ross said.
He said that Kissinger’s record as a diplomat and expert on foreign policy has drawn criticism, specifically regarding his dealings with authoritarian regimes.
“[Kissinger] has a lot of experience working with dictatorial regimes to create business opportunities,” he said.
Malik Al-Hinai, who sat in on the lecture, works in the mayor’s office in Muscat, the capital of Oman. He came to Pittsburgh with the Omani delegation and said he was pleased with Kissinger’s remarks.
Al-Hinai said he was optimistic about the ties between the Gulf country of Oman and Pittsburgh.
“It is very inspiring to see a leader who has seen the past,” Alhinai said, citing Kissinger’s remarks on the need for caution among the next generation of leaders in the Middle East. “That is exactly what we need to hear.”