Henry Kissinger speaks at the Coral Casino
Paul Wellman

Former White House advisor and divisive foreign policy figure Henry Kissinger came to Santa Barbara this week to discuss several hot topics including Syria, Putin, American exceptionalism, and immigration.

Guests forked over $1,500 to attend the oceanfront luncheon Wednesday afternoon at the Coral Casino — hosted by Westmont College — and listen to President Nixon’s secretary of state discuss America’s complex past and foreseeable future.

Westmont President Gayle Beebe led the Q & A and asked Kissinger several questions from cards submitted by audience members. Specific inquiries included chemical weapons in Syria, relations with Russia, radical Islam, instability in Benghazi, Turkey and the European Union, Napoleon Bonaparte, America’s reputation, immigration, and his new book about world order and global culture.

When asked about recent cooperation between the U.S. and Russia in Syria and if it indicates future bipartisan efforts in nuclear weapons issues, Kissinger briefly paused and said: “We have to understand the culture of a country in order to understand what it is likely to do or what its limits are …. Russia is a country with totally different history from ours … [Russia] wants to flex their muscles to prove they are still a major country. They know, however, they are very vulnerable. So they can’t act in their minds like a NATO country because that could indicate intentions on another society.

“If it’s between us and [Russia],” Kissinger went on, “the [reliance on nuclear weapons] can be reduced because both of us know we’re not going to fight a nuclear war against each other. If it’s between them and the rest, they feel they need for nuclear weapons. We can negotiate at least … on issues like Syria.”

Kissinger added he first met Russian President Vladimir Putin six weeks before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “There was a big debate about missile defense in this country, and he said, ‘I’m not interested in missile defense in this country; I’m interested in radical Islam, and I want to know if it’s possible to cooperate against radical Islam.’ … Six weeks later we were attacked by radical Islam.”

In light of recent immigration legislation in California and intense debate across the country, Beebe asked Kissinger — who migrated to the U.S. in 1938 and became a citizen in 1943 — how he felt about immigration today.

“When I came here, the idea was I had to go to George Washington High School in New York. Nobody said, ‘Give him instruction in his own language.’ It was a different atmosphere from that point of view. I’m sympathetic to the immigrant … but one has a right to defend its borders.”

The 90-year-old former statesman will travel to Washington next week and Moscow the week after. Beebe emphasized Kissinger is still an influential figure in global relations. Kissinger mentioned he’d rather advise current U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as opposed to President Obama.

When asked how he balanced so-called American exceptionalism and the U.S.’s role in international affairs and world order, Kissinger gave a nuanced approach, explaining several factors — U.S. motivation and international opinion — should be considered before conducting military operations. “Trying to keep a country together, once you enter a war … we have to consider what that does to the credibility to the United States,” he said.


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