Henry Kissinger, Others Share Diplomatic War Stories

Former national security big wigs meet to discuss foreign policy issues.

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Covering the White House for the past 25 years, I've learned that there is a remarkable degree of continuity and cohesion within America's national security establishment despite all the polarization in political life.

This was underscored last night at a forum that I moderated at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Those who participated were former White House national-security adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who worked for Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford; former White House national security adviser Steve Hadley, who worked for President George W. Bush; national-security expert Jim Steinberg, who worked for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and former Rep. Jane Harman of California, who now heads the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

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At the forum and at a reception beforehand, they swapped stories, compared notes on their current activities, and generally displayed a civility that is too often missing from public debate.

Kissinger was the star. The other panelists referred to him warmly as "Henry" or "Dr. Kissinger," and he relished the attention. During the public discussion, held in the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium before a full house, I asked the panelists to describe the toughest decision they and their presidents had to make.

Kissinger spent a long moment in thought, and then repled that it was charting a course in Vietnam to find what Nixon considered peace with honor during his first year as president. Kissinger said Nixon and his senior advisers "agonized" over that decision. He noted that it was vastly complicated by a number of factors. Among them: The administration was trying to find detente with the Soviet Union, craft a new policy toward China, and provide effective leadership of the West, and proceed with very difficult peace negotiations with North Vietnam.

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At various points in the program, Kissinger provided vivid recollections of what Nixon was really like. He said Nixon took a tremendous interest in foreign policy and national security, and was forever trying to expand his knowledge. But Nixon was reluctant to confront or disagree with his staff personally even on issue he felt strongly about. So instead of announcing decisions to his aides face to face, Nixon preferred to spend time analyzing their recommendations in private, and then issued written memos on his decisions.

Asked what the top national security issue is today, Hadley said without hesitation that the nation needs to strengthen the economy. "Getting our economy back on track is a national security issue" which needs to be addressed as quickly as possible, he explained.

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Steinberg, former deputy secretary of state under President Obama and deputy national security adviser under President Clinton, agreed. He said strengthening the economy is essential to the success of other U.S. objectives around the world. "Without that, we can't do anything else," Steinberg noted.

Harman, who specialized in national security and intelligence issues while in Congress, said it's important for the United States to develop a new way to explain itself to the world. She said it's important that U.S. leaders start "fashioning a narrative about what America stands for" that doesn't involve mindless bashing of Muslims or taking other simplistic positions.

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