The Kissinger Effect on Realpolitik -War on the Rocks


Henry Kissinger is closely associated with the term realpolitik and the IR school, realism. This article suggests that Kissinger did not fit neatly inside of these categories. The discussion is enlightening not only because of its insights into Kissinger’s thinking, but also because of the way it highlights the tension between abstract principles of foreign policy, moral beliefs and pragmatism in American policy making.

Some of the more interesting points:

First: “Stanley Hoffmann, a Harvard professor and contemporary of Kissinger, claimed that Kissinger’s career was “a quest for a realpolitik devoid of moral homilies,”…but….. “One of his professors at Harvard, Sam Beer, later recalled that Kissinger “had an intuitive grasp of the importance of ideas in world affairs,” particularly religion.”

Second: “In addition to the history of ideas, Kissinger was as much interested in statesmen and statesmanship — and the role of the individual in managing and mitigating trends in international relations.  …his doctoral thesis….  set itself against a “scholarship of social determinism” that “reduced the statesman to a lever on a machine called ‘history.’”

Third, Kissinger criticized realism and its proponents, such Kennan, for having a doctrinaire mechanical understanding of politics. What he referred to as ‘absolutist tendencies’. “He saw in Kennan’s later writings an unwillingness to “manage nuance” and accept ambiguity as irreducible components of political life.” And claimed later: “The challenge of statesmanship was “to define the components of both power and morality and strike a balance between them.” This was not a one-time effort but required “constant recalibration.” It was “as much an artistic and philosophical as a political enterprise” and demanded “a willingness to manage nuance and to live with ambiguity.”

Of course, Kissinger’s many critics would be unimpressed by how he practiced this “artistic and philosophical enterprise”. Indeed, as the article points out, Kissinger’s handling of the Vietnam war and the bombing of Cambodia was criticized by fellow realists such as Hans  Morgenthau “who wrote to Kissinger directly, just as Kissinger was about to take up his position as national security advisor, to denounce him for not coming out strongly enough against the war or signaling his intention to bring it to an end.” He later said, once Kissinger was in office, “The incompetence and pathology is really shocking.” Morgenthau’s critiques were practical rather than moral, but it demonstrates that in practice, realism and realpolitik come in many different shades.

All ISIS, All The Time -Financial Times


At the risk of overkill, I am posting these articles from the Financial Times because they provide a bit more detail about the functioning of ISIS than we usually see and because they address some most common questions I am asked about the organization, such as how are they funded, where do they get their weapons, and what is their relationship to Al Qaeda?

The first article deals with arms:

“The best sources of ammunition are Isis’s enemies. Pro-government militia in Iraq sell some supplies to black marketeers, who then sell on to Isis dealers.

Map: Isis weapons

Most of all, Isis fighters rely on their rivals in Syria’s three-way war between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the rebels fighting to topple both him and Isis. This is where Syrian arms dealers play a critical role.”

The second, oil:

“Isis controls most of Syria’s oil fields and crude is the militant group’s biggest single source of revenue. Here we follow the progress of a barrel of oil from extraction to end user to see how the Isis production system works, who is making money from it, and why it is proving so challenging to disrupt.”


The third looks at the tensions between ISIS and its precursor, al Qaeda:

“Isis seems obsessed with al-Qaeda, from which it split in 2013 following disagreements over the goals of jihad in Syria. Since then Isis has distinguished itself from its parent through its savagery (there is no limit to the violence it is willing to inflict) and its move to create a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.”


It is worth noting that fighting between ISIS and al Qaeda has been on the rise in both Afghanistan and Yemen, where ISIS is looking to expand it operations. ISIS is also directly courting al Shahab, an al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia.



Are there 70,000 Syrian ‘moderates’ ready to back UK? -BBC


As Britain debates extending airstrikes into Syria, this article looks at some of the questions about the moderate Syrian opposition. Of those who are ideologically palatable to the UK, and the West in general, they are relatively weak and divided:

“But while it may be possible to identify 65,000-75,000 personnel in brigades that fight both Assad and IS, the problem is that these groups of fighters, particularly in the north of the country, are not powerful enough to take on al-Qaeda or IS by themselves, or in many cases break their current alliances/ceasefires with them.

For example, Jaysh al-Fatah – a coalition of seven different groups operating around the northern cities of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama – is comprised of Salafist jihadists from the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, and the equally unpalatable Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa.”