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A better question about Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, greets

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, greets Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state, after she addressed the U.S.-China Business Council dinner in honor of Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan and State Councilor Dai Bingguo in Washington. The United States and China pledged to work together to fight climate change and promote free trade as they set the stage for an era of closer cooperation between the Pacific giants. (AFP / Getty Images Photo / July 28, 2009) Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images

During Thursday’s Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders attacked Hillary Clinton for boasting about the advice she’s got from Henry Kissinger. He used Kissinger’s actions in the Vietnam War era to make his point. Evidently, Sanders hasn’t been following Kissinger lately: Things he said in Moscow last week could have provided him with better ammunition.

The former secretary of state came to the Russian capital to honor the memory of his friend Yevgeny Primakov, the hawkish foreign-affairs guru who served as Russia’s foreign-intelligence chief and later as prime minister. Kissinger took part in the opening of the Primakov Center for Foreign Policy Cooperation. Then he met with President Vladimir Putin and, separately, with Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov. The Kremlin did not release the minutes of these meetings, but Kissinger also delivered a public lecture that provides a glimpse into his conversations with the Russian leaders.

Kissinger’s main idea is that the United States and Russia need to agree on a strategic framework for their interaction, which would put them on a more or less equal footing. Russia, he argues, shouldn’t be seen as a threat but rather as a key element in the global equilibrium. That implies compromises and concessions based on an admission that the U.S. and Russia need to work together despite their diverging values. Here’s the gist of Kissinger’s stand on the two biggest issues in U.S.-Russian relations today:

“Ukraine needs to be embedded in the structure of European and international security architecture in such a way that it serves as a bridge between Russia and the West, rather than as an outpost of either side,” he said. “Regarding Syria, it is clear that the local and regional factions cannot find a solution on their own. Compatible U.S.-Russian efforts coordinated with other major powers could create a pattern for peaceful solutions in the Middle East and perhaps elsewhere.”

This is a markedly more dovish stand than that of the Obama administration or of another Clinton backer, George Soros, a major donor to a super PAC supporting her. Clinton doesn’t use Soros’s support as an argument for her voters, as she does Kissinger’s, yet he’s probably as much of a Russia expert as the ex-secretary of state: He ran a major philanthropic effort to support Russia’s teachers and academic community after the Soviet Union’s collapse, but his charities have lately been declared “undesirable” and kicked out of the country.

In a recent article for Project Syndicate, Soros argued that Putin wasn’t to be trusted as a partner in Syria because he’s merely seeking to undermine the European Union by escalating the war and increasing the outflow of refugees.

Instead of recalling Kissinger’s policy in Cambodia — ancient history to his young supporters and barely relevant at best to Clinton’s older ones — Sanders could have posed a far more interesting question: Who would have Clinton’s ear on Russia: Kissinger or Soros?

During the debate, Clinton said she would “pick and choose” people she would listen to, not listen to or listen to in certain areas. It’s important for voters who care about foreign policy whom she would pick in this particular area: The choice is between ensuring the continuity of Barack Obama’s current policy, which leans toward the Soros point of view, and going back to a version of the Clinton-engineered, failed “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations during Obama’s first term.

Sanders is often criticized for being nebulous on foreign policy, but, despite his friendly history with Russia, he is clear and coherent on the Russia policy he wants to pursue. It continues the recent Obama line. Sanders said at the debate on Thursday.

“I happen to believe that Putin is doing what he is doing because his economy is increasingly in shambles and he’s trying to rally his people in support of him. But bottom line is: The president is right. We have to put more money. We have to work with NATO to protect Eastern Europe against any kind of Russian aggression.”

And in Syria, Sanders believes Putin is trying to buy time to ensure a victory for President Bashar Assad.

Clearly, as as the senator said, he will not be taking advice from Henry Kissinger. He probably even missed the elder statesman’s Moscow lecture.

Clinton, considered to be a foreign policy expert, is harder to read on Russia. I, for one, have no idea what to expect of her. That’s the disadvantage of her deflection at the debate, saying she would listen to different people about different things. If she subscribed to one foreign-policy adviser’s school of thought, she could say so and we would know what that entailed.

Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Berlin.


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