Whatever the purpose of Henry Kissinger’s inclusion in a public-policy panel Thursday night, it was not for comic relief. But he managed to score a few laughs anyway.

“I was not, and for that matter I am still not, exactly clear what I’m doing here,” the former secretary of state said at the beginning of his remarks, eliciting laughter and applause. “I’m not supposed to be a principal speaker. So if I confine myself to 10 minutes or less, you can all say you were present at a historical occasion.”

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He spoke for 21 minutes.

Before a packed Law School Auditorium, the 84-year-old diplomacy icon offered a few glimpses into his views on current American foreign policy and grand strategy. During the speech, he addressed the war in Iraq and American attempts to export democracy abroad, arguing that American efforts to instill democracy in foreign countries is likely to fail. In an interview with the News before the panel began, he also discussed Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

“It was hinted that I also might say something about the Iraq war, but I want to get out of here before midnight,” he said in his famously low, German-accented grumble.

Kissinger’s presence was billed as a sideshow to the program, in which authors Sir Alistair Horne and Tom Ricks ’77 compared the French war in Algeria to the United States’ current conflict in Iraq. Political science lecturer Stanley Flink, the program’s organizer, said Kissinger “[did] not wish to overshadow the event, though I think that’s impossible.”

In an interview with the News before the lecture, Kissinger responded to a U.S. intelligence assessment released Monday that concluded that Iran abandoned its nuclear-weapons ambitions in 2003. Kissinger said even if Iran’s nuclear program is benign for now, its mere ability to create a nuclear weapon poses a threat.

“There was a lot in there about intentions, but in the long run you have to worry about the capabilities,” he told the News.

Although the report does not diminish the Iranian nuclear threat in Kissinger’s mind, it has had an impact in Washington, he said.

“It makes military action highly unlikely,” he said in the interview.

In his speech, Kissinger contrasted the war in Iraq with the Vietnam War, calling Iraq “much less stable and [with] many more neighbors that, if one seeks a political solution, have to be brought into the equation.”

Kissinger said he considers the war in Iraq not to be winnable without a political solution, but he rejected the idea of setting a deadline for withdrawal.

“It is very difficult to win a guerrilla war,” he said. “It is impossible to win a guerrilla war in a brief period, and it is impossible to conduct a guerrilla war with an exit strategy that has terminal date.”

But in Iraq, as in Vietnam, the United States intervened in order to preserve the international order — not necessarily because of direct security interests, he said.

But that order, as Kissinger sees it, is changing, and Washington has not perceived the transformation.

He said during his speech that the international nation-state system is beginning to collapse. The collapse is especially apparent in Europe, where the super-national structure of the European Union is undermining the sovereignty of individual countries, and in the Middle East, where the sovereign-state order imposed at end of World War I is unraveling precipitously, Kissinger said.

“Therefore Iraq cannot be separated from Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia” or the larger context of the millennia-old Sunni-Shiite rift, he said.

But Kissinger said actively working to democratize the Muslim world will not solve this problem.

“The issue is the degree to which America can engineer democracy and make the engineering in the short term a principal goal of foreign policy, and there I have serious doubts that we are in a position to prescribe to the whole world methods by which they should achieve that goal,” he said. “I agree with the goal that America should promote democracy where we can, but I understand this as part of a historical process and not something that can be legislated and imposed in a brief period of time.”

Kissinger stopped short of suggesting an alternative way forward, instead offering a characterization of the Sisyphusian nature of diplomacy. Diplomats cannot arrive at solutions to complex international problems simply by sitting around a table and rationally devising abstract compromises, he said.

“In an American context, there’s always this assumption that there is some brilliant maneuver out there that will bring about a final solution to whatever the problem is,” he said. “Above all, one has to understand that almost no problem has [a] final solution. In diplomacy, every so-called solution is an admissions ticket to another set of problems.”

History, Kissinger said, can tell us “what went wrong better than what we should do.”

As for the latter: “For this we have seminars at Yale and Harvard to tell us.”