Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Malady of Self-Delusion

Kissinger would have done well to take counsel from Calvin Coolidge's observation that "It is difficult for men high office to avoid the malady of self-delusion. They are always surrounded by worshipers...They live in an artificial atmosphere of adulation and exaltation which sooner of later impairs their judgment."
Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 488.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely the old saying says. The office of the presidency provided Nixon with untolds amount of power, prestige, and exaltation. He had government officials and government agencies at his finger tips - willing to do what he saw was right. He become the driving force behind world affairs. He experienced high approval ratings (not right away, but pretty quickly - and they stayed there until Watergate) from the American public. He was surrounded by men who in their own personal thirst for power were willing to accomodate his delusions. What Richard Nixon wanted, Richard Nixon was going to get.

Self-delusion is almost impossible to avoid when pride, arrogance, and complete freedom are given. Our judgment cannot avoid being impaired when we are surrounded by people who are our biggest fans. Pride is a natural outcome of position & title. No matter how high your position is - you have some degree of adulation from those beneath you. The problem is when that adulation becomes the voice you hear for making judgments. What to do? Cut out the worshipers. Don't look for praise when doing your job. Don't depend upon positive feedback after delivering a performance. Don't live for reassurance. Simply do what you need to do - in the best possible way to do it - and crave criticism that can help you execute better.

Friday, May 28, 2010


It is astonishing that in the midst of a major international crisis the principal American policy makers would be fretting over whether they came across as "tough." Impressing foreign adversaries as firm about U.S. national interests made sense, but there was something less than rational about "coming off like men." It was if the contest with Soviet Russia was a test of Nixon's manhood. Personalizing a great crisis or turning any political debate into a battle over a leader's identity or sense of self is never calculated to serve the national interest. In the end, it is amazing how well Nixon and Kissinger did in making foreign policy in spite of unacknowledged impulses to make decisions partly based on their amour propre.
Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 346.
Nixon & Kissinger spent the majority of their time at the pinnacle of their power concerned about their identities. Each of them was deeply obsessed with fostering an identity that would highlight their impressive resumes of accomplishment. Their days were shaped around creating images that the world would be completely grateful for and dependent upon. They wanted the world to need them and desired to be seen as experts on a global scale. Each problem they tackled was done with a sense of vanity and expectation that it would prop them up. Because of this, they constantly had to strive in order to maintain the lofty status they believed they had to have. Entire policies and worldwide political decisions were made to reinforce themselves. The problem of course came about when cutting corners and taking advantage of the law became "necessary" for survival. But even before that, the problem could clearly be seen in something as simple as Nixon needing to tame the Soviets in order to feel good about himself. It was if he was still the kid on the playground showing off to impress the cute little ponytail girl.

When our sense of worth and identity is shaped by the things we do and what others think about us, we will never find peace. There is always something more or better to do and there will always be someone who is not impressed by you. What's worse is we put ourselves in the uncomfortable position of making decisions not based upon what's best but what feeds our egos. Even if it does turn out right (Nixon's going to China for example), we live with the knowledge that we chose based upon ourselves instead of doing what we thought was best. Everyone has an identity. So the question becomes - what are the forces you are allowing to shape yours?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


It is difficult to understand how anyone could work for someone as volatile and irrational as Nixon sometimes was. Most likely, Kissinger and others rationalized their collaboration as helping to save Nixon from himself. After all, he was a democratically elected president and they saw themselves as servign the national well-being by reining him in. Yet what seems so striking in the record is how often the people around Nixon catered to his outbursts and flights of fancy rather than calling him back to reality by challenging some of his most unsavory and unenforceable demands. It was a way to remain at Nixon's side but it was a disservice to sensible policy making. It also speaks volumes about the reluctance of high government officials to alienate a president and perhaps force their departure from an office they believe gives them the chance to shape history-making events.
Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 316.
There can be little doubt that Kissinger and the other men in Nixon's close presidential circle saw that he was a lunatic. Although Nixon was extremely brilliant and had some good policy ideas, his paranoia, nervous breakdowns, alcoholism, and wild rants had to be of major concern. Certainly it would have been difficult to challenge the authority of a President - especially one as determined as Nixon was on retaliating against those he thought were out to get him. However, how many mistakes and poor decisions were executed or supported simply out of this fear? Even worse is the idea that some might be willing to cater to lunacy simply because they liked the taste of power they had in his inner circle at the highest level of authority in America. Disservice to the masses was allowable as long as it helped maintain their own status quo.

In this case, I think the real issue & problem lies with the supporting cast instead of the main actor. What Nixon needed was sensible truth & someone willing to speak it. The tragedy was the demise of a presidency because the supporting cast cared more about their ability to hang onto a role than shape correct policy. Of course stepping up and calling out a leader may get you fired, let go, or pushed the outer edges of obscurity. But that becomes a small price to pay to ensure that history will remember you as the one that stuck to your principles. Is it really worth accepting, dealing with, or even defending policies, decisions, and retaliations you disagree with simply to save your job? Is whatever amount of power you feel from your current position truly worth the compromise it takes to keep it? And who knows. Maybe, just maybe, in speaking up you will prevent a disaster and will earn even more respect from the commander in chief.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Cost of Self-Interest

Nixon wanted to plan the removal of all U.S. troops by the end of 1971, but Henry [Kissinger] cautioned that if North Vietnam then destabilized Saigon in 1972, it could have an adverse effect on the president's reelection. He recommended a pullout in the fall of 1972, "so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election." He had nothing to say about the American lives that would be lost in the service of Nixon's reelection. After two years serving Nixon, Kissinger was as cynical about politics as his chief.
Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 257.
To a degree, every politician is self-interested. The glory that comes with being elected to a position certainly fosters the feeling. Once given the position and the power associated with it, the desire to remain in it has to be strong. In the case of Nixon & Kissinger, it appears that many of their decisions were based more upon reelection in '72 than in making the best possible solutions. How would Vietnam had ended for the United States had Nixon simply been concerned with ending the conflict instead of using it to bolster his image? Certainly Nixon & Kissinger are no different from most politicians. However, the evidence points to men who, in particular, were so consumed with power & position that they lost track of reality. Were the lives of soldiers - both American and Vietnamese - really worth another term in office?

The question is when does it become acceptable to think of one's own personal needs & desires before acting for the good of the masses? What sacrifices become okay so that you can keep your authority, power, and title? Ethics become a very tricky thing to hold onto because they almost certainly face getting cut so that we can hold onto whatever it is that we think we need. After all - we don't reelect or hold onto unpopular leaders. As long as we refuse to see the cost of self-interest, we will continue to hold onto it as a means to prop ourselves up. The cost in human lives will always be great with this line of thinking. But in the end, each of us is so concerned about our own needs that we willingly hold onto a broken system because none of us are willing to sacrifice ourselves to stop it.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


When a journalist later asked him what personal qualities he considered essential to diplomatic exchanges, Henry replied: "Knowledge of what I am trying to do. Knowledge of the subject. Knowledge of the history and psychology of the people I am dealing with. And some human rapport...To have some human relations with the people I am negotiating with. This takes some rough edges off. They won't make concessions they wouldn't otherwise make."
Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 150-151.
One of the ways Nixon hopelessly tried to dig America out of the disaster known as Vietnam, was sending Kissinger to secretly try to negotiate with the North Vietnamese. The hope was to somehow get the North Vietnamese to agree to certain conditions which would have allowed the United States to leave without shame. The negotiations would prove to be fruitless as did the entire conflict. Attempting to eradicate a people's desire for self-determination often is futile. However, despite the negotiations proving to be worthless, Kissinger's stated model of diplomacy (stated being key - as both Nixon & Kissinger were not known for producing a rapport with anyone outside of their circles) is worthy of acknowledgement.

The first step is knowing the purpose of what you are trying to accomplish. What are your goals? What do you need to make sure happens? What are you actually talking about? Too often diplomacy fails because the purpose behind it is muddy leaving the negotiator trying to figure it out on the fly. The next step is to know the history/psychology of who you are dealing with. This is where I believe the U.S. failed in dealing with North Vietnam. They simply did not understand that they were never going to give up. It was more than just a war to them - it was a sense of pride and identity. If you do not understand the history/psyschology of who you are dealing with - you will continue to push forth a plan that will never fit.

The third and perhaps most crucial step is that of having a rapport with whoever it is you are dealing with. I believe this is the most overlooked dynamic in diplomacy and dealing with people. Too often relationship is assumed and it leads to disaster. Don't assume the people you are dealing with like you or want anything to do with you (including colleagues, subordinates, opponents, etc). Without this crucial step - you will too often assume things are going better then they actually are. "Rough edges" as Kissinger called them are often the greatest obstacles to resolution. If things do not seem to be working out - this is where I would start looking first.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Reality of Success

...most politicians are drawn to public life by the personal satisfaction of fame and adulation: some of the greatest men and women in history have struggled with inner demons that motivated their ambitions. Personal aspirations, however, can make for problems when they are incompatible with ethical public standards; it is usually the latter that suffer. The careers of both Nixon and Kissinger reflect the extent to which great accomplishments and public wrongdoing can spring from inner lives.
Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 34.
What motivates our leadership, ambition, and aspirations? The stories of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger are highly fascinating if for nothing else that they showcase a pair of people who's inner struggles were revealed on the highest of levels. Their drive for success and power pushed both of them to reveal the shadier parts of themselves. And perhaps unfortunately, no matter what accomplishments they might have made - the dark stains are all we remember.

The difficulty with studying somebody like Richard Nixon is that if we are honest with ourselves, we know that our own inner demons often motivate what we strive and aim to do in our lives. We might deceive ourselves and others that what we desire is good for everyone...but the reality is we too would bend our own ethical standards for the the shot at achieving that which our hearts most desire. What we are left with is great accomplishment with heavy sacrifice. Our careers, accomplishments, and accolades look impressive but the trailing wake reveals broken marriages, neglected kids, damaged colleagues, and an ethical record that is so variant that it is hard to determine where we stand in life.

What's the cost? At what point do we realize that while we might be succeeding in the ways that get us a pat on the back - we are actually failing as people? That line is so often blurred in history that it has hard to determine if those we admire the most are also those we should pity the most.