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Henry Kissinger’s Annoying Habit of Being Right

HenryKissinger

Benjamin Wallace-Wells wonders with some irritation “Why Henry Kissinger Never Goes Away.”

Kissinger keeps coming around, a component part of any international crisis, with all of the leaden predictability of a chorus in a Billy Joel song. He has a profile that other former secretaries of state like Warren Christopher or George Shultz, men not regularly accused of mass murder, could never approach. His cynicism is so undeviating, it is a kind of metronomic background against which the rest of the foreign policy debate plays. Whether he is writing about Ukraine in the Washington Post, or the Arab Spring in the International Herald Tribune, or talking about Syria’s chemical weapons on Face the Nation, Kissinger will caution against the rashness of humanitarian intervention and admonish the White House to avoid disrupting the international order. People — the experience of those suffering or prospering under a regime or hoping to change it, the orientation of those in power — will barely be discussed at all.

Kissinger has managed to build a public position so unassailable that when new, credible evidence emerges suggesting his complicity in mass slaughter it does not change his public image at all. This fall, the Princeton historian Gary Bass persuasively demonstrated that Kissinger and Nixon had willfully turned a blind eye to alarmed diplomatic cables documenting that their ally, the Pakistani General Yahya Khan, was massacring hundreds of thousands of his citizens agitating for independence in East Bengal. There is something truly amazing about that. But the week Bass’s book was published, Kissinger appeared on Face the Nation to discuss the crisis in Syria. No one asked him about his role in the Bengali slaughter. It was part of the background scenery, just more Kissinger theater.

Presumably, that’s because the show hosts correctly presume most of their audience to be more interested in crises unfolding at the moment than in what may or may not have happened four decades ago. And Kissinger’s reputation as a strategic thinker continues to shine so brightly, perhaps, because he continues to be right much more often than he’s wrong.

Take, for example, his “cynicism” vis-a-vis the Arab Spring linked above. Writing in April 2012, Kissinger cautioned,

The Arab Spring is widely presented as a regional, youth-led revolution on behalf of liberal democratic principles. Yet Libya is not ruled by such forces; it hardly continues as a state. Nor is Egypt, whose electoral majority is overwhelmingly Islamist; nor do democrats seem to predominate in the Syrian opposition. The Arab League consensus on Syria is not shaped by countries previously distinguished by the practice or advocacy of democracy. Rather it reflects, in large part, the millennium-old conflict between Shia and Sunni and an attempt to reclaim Sunni dominance from a Shiite minority. It is also precisely why so many minority groups like Druzes, Kurds and Christians are uneasy about regime change in Syria.

The confluence of many disparate grievances avowing general slogans is not yet a democratic outcome. The more sweeping the destruction of the existing order, the more difficult the establishment of domestic authority is likely to prove, and the more likely is the resort to force or to impose a universal ideology. And the more fragmented the society grows, the greater the temptation to foster unity by appeals to a vision of a merged nationalism and Islamism targeting Western values or social goals.

We must take care lest revolutions turn, for the outside world, into a transitory Internet experience – watched intently for a few key moments, then tuned out once the main event is deemed to be done. The revolution will have to be judged by its outcome, not its proclamations.

That may be “cynical” and hard-hearted and unsentimental. It also happens to be spectacularly prescient.

And, oddly, Wallace-Wells’ fundamental critique of Kissinger isn’t that he counseled some policies during his tenure as Richard Nixon’s chief foreign policy advisor that can be painted as heinous, if not criminal. No, it’s precisely Kissinger’s lack of sentimentality that bothers him.

Fame is always bankable, even fame of the most heinous kind. But I think Kissinger’s strange place in the culture has a more specific cause. Our tendency in the public debate is to discuss foreign policy in bizarrely abstract terms — we talk ceaselessly about the tension between the “realist” and “idealist” positions on a crisis (even though every modern American endeavor, foreign policy or not, has components of both) as if the particular human experiences overseas mattered quite little, as if foreign affairs could be understood in terms as general and cleanly theoretical as those of economics. This is a useful shorthand, insofar as it allows you to have an opinion on how the White House should act without knowing much about the country in which it will be acting.

But it has a couple of nasty side effects. One is to subtly dehumanize people who happen to live in other countries, much as Kissinger himself does, by turning the discussion of events actually happening in the world — revolutions, famine, massacres — into a kind of internal test of character and leadership: What are the president’s most fundamental commitments? Is he an idealist or a realist? Another is to elevate the most ideologically rigid foreign policy thinkers to a permanent place in the debate. Kissinger is one; the error-prone neo-imperialist reporter Robert Kaplan, who has a long and absurd piece in The Atlantic this month, is another. In a perverse way, accruing evidence of Kissinger’s amorality, like the Bengali episode, only serves to strengthen his standing as the avatar of the relentlessly cynical American perspective on the rest of the world. In this, his credentials are impeccable. At least we know where he stands.

The problem with all that is that Kissinger is by no means a man of abstract notions of world politics; rather, he’s a pragmatic policy analyst who’s had to actually make hundreds of really tough calls in that arena and live with the consequences. Nor is he a man lacking in ideals. Recall that he’s a Jew whose family was forced to flee Nazi Germany when he was a teenager; he’s hardly neutral on the question of whether democracy is better than totalitarianism.

Back in January 2009, just four days before Barack Obama would assume the presidency, Kissinger delivered the annual Makins Lecture at the Atlantic Council, which was then my employer. He noted then that, while it was “impossible” for a man with his personal experience to not be rooting for our ambitious goals in Afghanistan, he couldn’t see how we could realistically achieve them.  Why?

Our stated objective, as Kissinger sees it,  is a democratic state — in the fullest sense of the term, including equal rights for women and religious tolerance — that is centrally governed.   He believes we “need to examine whether this is a conceivable objective.”

Not only is our goal the achievement of something that has never existed in that territory but, to the extent that it’s plausible nobody seriously thinks it possible in less than twenty years.  Given that public opinion in most members of the coalition has already turned against the mission, Kissinger is highly skeptical that we can bring to bear sufficient resources to get the job done, much less sustain it for the necessary timeframe.

If, after careful reassessment, we decide that we don’t have the staying power and other necessary capabilities to achieve the goal, then we “need a different strategy.”   He suggests that it will likely be one “designed to prevent what we fear most: the return of a terrorist state.”

It should be noted that Kissigner is very much in favor of achieving our stated objective.  As an American and an immigrant, he says it is “impossible” not to believe in democracy and the power of its ideology.  But, alas, we must recognize the difference between our preferences and the national interest. Failure to align one’s policy goals to what is actually possible isn’t “idealism” but a recipe for failure.

Had President Obama taken Kissinger’s advice, rather than doubling down on the Afghan mission with the “Surge,” some 1600 American soldiers and Marines might still be alive. Wishes for a world that’s more perfect than the one we inhabit are laudatory. But crafting policy on the premise that said world actually exists is an abdication of responsibility.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I’m bothered by Wallace-Wells implication that not responding to a crime (particularly one you could not have prevented) is equivalent to having committed the crime yourself.

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  2. wr says:

    Sure, who cares about multiple cases of mass murder abetted or committed? He’s great on Sunday shows.

    “Hundreds of tough calls” — A nice way of describing the brutal war crime of bombing non-combatant Cambodia, expanding that war through the region, and paving the way for the Khmer Rouge.

    But I guess I’m just being “sentimental” by focusing on the millions of people who were murdered instead of what’s really important — just how smart Kissinger is.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 1

  3. Rafer Janders says:

    And, oddly, Wallace-Wells’ fundamental critique of Kissinger isn’t that he counseled some policies during his tenure as Richard Nixon’s chief foreign policy advisor that can be painted as heinous, if not criminal.

    Nice use of the passive voice there. Some of the policies he counseled can’t just be “painted as” heinous and criminal – they actually were heinous and criminal.

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  4. Rafer Janders says:

    The problem with all that is that Kissinger is by no means a man of abstract notions of world politics; rather, he’s a pragmatic policy analyst who’s had to actually make hundreds of really tough calls in that arena and live with the consequences.

    So was Stalin.

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  5. @Rafer Janders:

    Should we have refused to ally with Stalin in WWII in the name of principle? Does our decision to do so make FDR responsible for “aiding and abetting” Stalin’s purges?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 5

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    And, oddly, Wallace-Wells’ fundamental critique of Kissinger isn’t that he counseled some policies during his tenure as Richard Nixon’s chief foreign policy advisor that can be painted as heinous, if not criminal. No, it’s precisely Kissinger’s lack of sentimentality that bothers him.

    Wilsonians always react that way. The problem we face is that in so many of the incidents that arise there is no good side to cast our lots with. Are the militias that run Libya now really that much better than Qaddafi? Are the radical Sunni Islamists in Syria really preferable to Assad? Why do we favor the present Ukrainian government rather than Yanukovych?

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  7. Rafer Janders says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    No, but we don’t then claim that Stalin’s crimes don’t have any weight, we don’t use deliberately obfuscatory and passive language about how some of Stalin’s actions can be “painted as” potentially criminal.

    Henry Kissinger may be a smart man — but he’s also a gangster.

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  8. Tyrell says:

    My favorite Sec. of State is Dean Rusk.
    Read Dr. Kissinger’s “On China”.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Concur. We’ve done the same with Saddam’s use of chem weapons in the 1980s. We didn’t stop him from doing it and backed his fight against the Iranian mullahs, so we’re complicit.

    @Rafer Janders: The cited sentence puts Kissinger’s actions in the active voice and the making of judgments about them in the passive voice. Your opinion as to Kissinger’s actions doesn’t render them factual; they remain opinions.

    @Rafer Janders: Reductio ad Hitler, er, Stalin, is not an actual argument.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 6

  10. Rafer Janders says:

    Nor is he a man lacking in ideals. Recall that he’s a Jew whose family was forced to flee Nazi Germany when he was a teenager;

    Non-sequitur. Just because his family fled Nazism when he was a teen doesn’t mean that the adult Kissinger has any ideals. Being Jewish is not, in itself, any indicator of good character any more than being a Christian or Mormon or Muslim is.

    he’s hardly neutral on the question of whether democracy is better than totalitarianism.

    He’s rather more neutral on the question of whether democracy is better than right-wing authoritarianism. See, e.g., his abetting the violent overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile.

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  11. @Rafer Janders:

    Did Stalin’s crimes have any weight? They didn’t stop us from allying with him or sending him all sorts of aid when it benefited us.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 4

  12. C. Clavin says:

    Had President Obama taken Kissinger’s advice, rather than doubling down on the Afghan mission with the “Surge,” some 1600 American soldiers and Marines might still be alive.

    The Afghan “surge” is one of Obama’s biggest screw-ups…along with the NSA kerfuffle…the Obamacare roll-out…and not handing Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld over to the Hague to be prosecuted as war-criminals.
    It’s my belief that Obama was more in agreement with Kissinger than not…but given the political realities at the time perhaps he felt his choices were limited? To this day you still have the know-nothings in the Republican Party blaming him for losing Iraq.
    Still…you are correct…Obama should have simply ignored the know-nothings…because they know nothing. (And yet they are convinced they are the only ones who know anything.) Of course if he pursued that sort of course…we might have single-payer and not a flawed Republican Heath Care Policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 2

  13. CB says:

    In which an actual Ukrainian specialist tears Kissinger to pieces:

    http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/alexander-j-motyl/kissinger-misunderstands-ukraine

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  14. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    Your opinion as to Kissinger’s actions doesn’t render them factual; they remain opinions.

    Henry Kissinger’s role in the criminal overthrow of the Allende government in Chile is not a matter of opinion. It is documented historical fact. Similarly, his go-ahead to Suharto for the invasion of East Timor, and supporting arms sales to the Indonesian military while it continued its genocide there, is well-documented on the historical record.

    Your emotional unwillingness to confront Kissinger’s heinous actions does not render them un-heinous; it just means that you let your emotions over-rule your intelligence.

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  15. @CB:

    “You are not authorized to access this page.”

    Truly an unassailable argument. ;)

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  16. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    Reductio ad Hitler, er, Stalin, is not an actual argument.

    It was your argument that being “a pragmatic policy analyst who’s had to actually make hundreds of really tough calls in that arena and live with the consequences” has value in and of itself, irrespective of the actual morality of those tough calls. I merely pointed out that that’s the excuse that every two-bit dictator, gangster and criminal uses.

    “Making tough calls” is not a good thing if those calls are on the side of evil.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Rafer Janders: Elections are not necessarily democracy. And, beyond that, during the Cold War, all presidents save Jimmy Carter supported anti-Communist governments irrespective of their human rights records.

    @Rafer Janders: I don’t have strong opinions on any of the incidents you cite, all of which happened when I was in grade school and none of which are cornerstones in the history of foreign policy. But none of them strike me as inherently heinous, much less criminal.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 3 Thumb down 17

  18. @CB:

    The expert’s arguments seem to be based on a reverse naturalism fallacy.

    Kissinger points out the Russians consider the Ukraine part of their historical territory. Expert points out that’s not historically accurate. Which may be true, but lack of historical accuracy doesn’t mean the Russians don’t think it anyways.

    Kissinger points out Crimea is predominately ethnic Russia. Expert points out that’s only because of a deliberate campaign by Russia to ethnically cleanse the area. Which again may be true, but does not change the fact that it’s mostly ethnic Russian now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  19. Moosebreath says:

    “Presumably, that’s because the show hosts correctly presume most of their audience to be more interested in crises unfolding at the moment than in what may or may not have happened four decades ago.”

    Or presumably, because he is a high-profile person on foreign affairs from a Republican administration who is not tarred by being a cheerleader for the debacles of the prior decade, and therefore want to keep him coming on to their shows. His association with Republican administrations is a major selling point for the Sunday talk shows, whose guests skew very heavily Republican.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  20. Rafer Janders says:

    Nor is he a man lacking in ideals. Recall that he’s a Jew whose family was forced to flee Nazi Germany when he was a teenager; he’s hardly neutral on the question of whether democracy is better than totalitarianism.

    Kissinger: “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

    “Maybe” a humanitarian concern. Maybe.

    Source: Nixon Archives, conversation between Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, March 1973.

    http://nixon.archives.gov/forresearchers/find/tapes/tape866/866-016.mp3

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  21. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t have strong opinions on any of the incidents you cite, all of which happened when I was in grade school

    Oh, if only there were some way to find out about things that happened when you were a child! Curiously enough, though, I manage to have strong opinions about those events even though I was also in grade school at the time — I read about them in books and articles afterwards. It doesn’t even matter if your opinions are strong or not , as long as they’re informed.

    and none of which are cornerstones in the history of foreign policy.

    Um, what? So what?

    But none of them strike me as inherently heinous, much less criminal.

    If actively conspiring in an anti-democratic coup d’etat and the kidnapping, torture and murder of coup opponents, or lending material support to genocide, don’t strike you as either heinous or criminal, then you’re either being deliberately stupid because of your emotional unwillingness to confront facts, or you have a rather severely limited moral compass.

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  22. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    Elections are not necessarily democracy.

    What about violent authoritarian military dictatorship? Is that democracy? Because that’s what Kissinger — supposedly a man not lacking in ideals — arranged to replace the democratically elected Allende government.

    And, beyond that, during the Cold War, all presidents save Jimmy Carter supported anti-Communist governments irrespective of their human rights records.

    Oh well, as long as everyone does it, that’s all right, then.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  23. James Joyner says:

    @Rafer Janders: I covered that one four years ago.http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/kissinger-jews-in-gas-chambers-maybe-humanitarian-concern/ It was an unfortunate formulation, although certainly understandable in the context of the Cold War.

    But that’s really the backdrop of the whole debate. Kissinger’s task was to maximize American security and foreign policy interests in the midsts of a longstanding conflict with the annihilation of the planet as the potential stakes. That colors one’s calculations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 8

  24. James Pearce says:

    Had President Obama taken Kissinger’s advice, rather than doubling down on the Afghan mission with the “Surge,” some 1600 American soldiers and Marines might still be alive.

    No doubt.

    But then again, Obama inherited the Afghan mission from his predecessor, who also ignored Kissinger’s advice and followed Rumsfeld’s instead.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  25. gVOR08 says:

    Dr. K was way too optimistic the day after the election in 2008, but he’s correct that we accept monsters in our public life.

    And in our national discourse, we pretended that these monsters were reasonable, respectable people. To point out that the monsters were, in fact, monsters, was “shrill.”

    Kissinger was a monster and should be shunned. He should not be on TV unless the subject is lying in high places, something on which he is an expert.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  26. James Joyner says:

    @Rafer Janders: I’ve read basic overviews of the incidents in question; they’re sufficiently insignificant in the grand history of US foreign policy that they’re not worth extensive research. But you grossly overstate the historical consensus.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 14

  27. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    Kissinger’s task was to maximize American security and foreign policy interests in the midsts of a longstanding conflict with the annihilation of the planet as the potential stakes.

    I’m not quite sure how the kidnap, torture and murder of democracy activists and labor union organizers in Chile, or the genocide in East Timor, did anything to save the planet from potential annihilation, but then again, I’m no Henry Kissinger….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  28. Tillman says:

    @Rafer Janders: Because those democracy activists and labor union organizers were threatening a status quo that was favorable to us and unfavorable (or antagonistic) to the Soviet Union? I don’t know, the dude made his decisions through the prism of a diplomatic clusterf$#@ that lasted for fifty years. Remember, unleaded gasoline wasn’t common then.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  29. stonetools says:

    @James Joyner:

    Had President Obama taken Kissinger’s advice, rather than doubling down on the Afghan mission with the “Surge,” some 1600 American soldiers and Marines might still be alive. Wishes for a world that’s more perfect than the one we inhabit are laudatory. But crafting policy on the premise that said world actually exists is an abdication of responsibility.

    You know, in hindsight, its obvious that the Afghan surge was a mistake. But Obama campaigned on Aghanistan being the “good war” and he had competent people advising him that the Afghan surge could have worked. He was wrong, but the good thing is that he had the sense to pull out rather than doubling down.
    Just remember that Mr. Kissinger was advising Nixon during the Vietnam War, and on their watch some 20,000 Americans died in Vietnam and Cambodia, along with uncounted numbers of Cambodians during the years of the Vietnam War(to say nothing of the deaths during the Khmer Rouge years).Kissinger did worse in his “quagmire” than Obama did in his. On Kissinger’s watch also , there was a major Middle East war, the 1973 oil embargo (which the CIA didn’t see coming), the 1974 Cyprus crisis, etc. The Nixon-Kissinger era was not a golden age of uninterrupted American foreign policy triumphs, although they do get major props for detente with China and the USSR.
    On the whole, I prefer Obama’s turn at the foreign policy helm to Kissinger and Nixon’s, his supposed departures from realist polcy making notwithstanding.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  30. Ken says:

    @gVOR08:Kissinger was a monster and should be shunned. He should not be on TV unless the subject is lying in high places, something on which he is an expert.

    I was going to type a long sarcastic rant about a NOVA special with segments on Kissinger, Rumsfeld, Ollie North, etc, but I just don’t have the energy. Maybe I’ll save it for next week’s article about the compassionate and constitutionally cogent legal opinions that John Yoo and Alberto Gonzales penned

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  31. Tillman says:

    I’ve read basic overviews of the incidents in question; they’re sufficiently insignificant in the grand history of US foreign policy that they’re not worth extensive research.

    I understand this quoted statement might come off as callous to people, but you have to realize that Chile, Indonesia, etc. were considered chess pieces to move against the Soviet Union within the backdrop of global annihilation. It’s like General Turgidson says: “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

    Playing counterfactual with these relatively small moves that nonetheless killed lots of people is mostly fruitless. A couple of them are unmitigated disasters no one disagrees on (Cambodia) but you get fuzzier elsewhere.

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  32. Stan says:

    Despite his intellect and grasp of history, Dr. Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik did lasting harm to America’s place in the world. No doubt it was to our short term advantage to aid the mass murderer Suharto in Indonesia and to oust Salvatore Allende, but these actions and others were moral disasters. In the long run they hurt us more than they helped us.

    Having said that, many of Kissinger’s critics don’t come off that well themselves. During his period of power nobody criticized him more severely than the NY Times columnist Anthony Lewis, and, of course, Noam Chomsky. Both men were inspirations to all us good liberals. I hung on their every word. Then the communists won in Indonesia, and Anthony Lewis could not bring himself to say anything about why the Vietnamese boat people were fleeing their country, and Chomsky actually defended Pol Pot, at least for a while. Of course there were people with integrity on the left, George McGovern and Joan Baez, for example. But they were a minority. Too many liberals and leftists were afraid to condemn the many crimes committed by communists out loud for fear of aiding Barry Goldwater and his buddies. So I take the criticisms of Dr. Kissinger I’ve read here and elsewhere with more than a few grains of salt.

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  33. grumpy realist says:

    This all brings to mind a comment by Metternich: “Treason is often simply a matter of dates.”

    Kissinger sides with the powerful because he thinks of the world in terms of nation-states and chesspieces on a chessboard. Historically, the peasants’ revolts usually lose. About the only revolution that managed to succeed before the rise of the modern nation-state was the Sicilian Vespers and that only managed to work because one of the kings involved was more interested in Constantinople.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  34. @C. Clavin:

    Obama backed himself into a corner on Afghanistan during the 2008 campaign by using it as the example of the “good war” that the Bush Administration ignored in order to pursue the war in Iraq. I believe he also mentioned the idea of an Afghan “surge” during the campaign as well but I may be mistaken about that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  35. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    I agree that it was a just war…and I was against the surge.
    I’m not sure that the corner was of his own making…other than lacking the fortitude to stand up to known fools.

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  36. wr says:

    @Tillman: “I understand this quoted statement might come off as callous to people, but you have to realize that Chile, Indonesia, etc. were considered chess pieces to move against the Soviet Union within the backdrop of global annihilation”

    I’m sorry, but I have to call bullshit on this. The United States collaborated in the overthrow of democratically elected government in Central and South America not because they were dominos about to fall to the Russkies, but because the new governments were inconveniencing American-friendly conglomerates like United Fruit and ITT.

    Shockingly, at the same time Allen Dulles was the head of the CIA plotting the overthrow of Guatemala, he and his brothers both sat on United Fruit’s board, and UF’s profits were threatened by a government which planned to help its low-paid workers.

    It wasn’t about the threat of global annilhation. That’s how they get the rubes on board. It was all about the well-connected stealing as much as they could from the poor.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 2

  37. wr says:

    @Stan: Yes, some prominent liberals didn’t criticize Communist regimes that committed atrocities, and Kissinger was directly responsible for multiple mass murders, so clearly both sides do it and both are equally culpable.

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  38. Stan says:

    @wr: I take your point, but I can’t help disliking selective morality.

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  39. wr says:

    @Stan: So what’s the alternative? To say that some people are 100% morally pure, while every else who is tarnished to any degree is 100% corrupt, and therefore Noam Chomsky, an intellectual who said some stupid things, is exactly the same as the architect of multiple mass murders?

    So Chomsky was wrong about Pol Pot. I hope that this was based on misinformation, and that he was unaware of the horrors in Cambodia. But even if he willingly blinded himself to the truth, does that make him retroactively wrong about Kissinger?

    And maybe this was a typo, but I can’t follow your logic about Anthony Lewis and what seems to be Vietnamese boat people fleeing from Indonesia…

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  40. Tillman says:

    @wr: Your point is taken re:Guatemala, but ITT in Brazil was closer to an ideological farce (preventing leftists from gaining power and nationalizing ITT’s holdings) than an outright attempt to overthrow government for one corporation’s benefit. (Note that if the coup in Guatemala was supposed to help United Fruit, it didn’t.)

    Many individuals who directly influenced U.S. policy towards Guatemala in the 1950s also had direct ties to UFCO. The overthrow of Arbenz, however, failed to benefit the Company. Its stock market value declined along with its profit margin. The Eisenhower administration proceeded with antitrust action against the company, which forced it to divest in 1958. In 1972, the company sold off the last of their Guatemalan holdings after over a decade of decline.

    Re:Stan’s view, forcing the word “equally” in there is a nice strawman since all Stan said was that Kissinger’s critics haven’t ever been the most objective people themselves. Noam Chomsky called one of the first books detailing the genocide in Cambodia third-rate propaganda, for crying out loud.

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  41. Tillman says:

    Ugh, I can’t believe I’m defending Henry Kissinger by proxy. This isn’t a good day.

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  42. Stan says:

    @wr: I didn’t say that Chomsky was exactly the same as Kissinger. What I said was that a lot of people who were thought of as moral arbiters held their tongues when it came to horrible acts by Stalin, Mao, and their successors, and in some cases cheered them on. Was Chomsky a conscious liar or merely criminally stupid? Presented with report after report about events resembling the Holocaust, he said flat out that the press was lying. But hey, if he’s your hero, that’s your problem, not mine.

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  43. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: ‘@Stormy Dragon: Concur. We’ve done the same with Saddam’s use of chem weapons in the 1980s. We didn’t stop him from doing it and backed his fight against the Iranian mullahs, so we’re complicit.’

    Stop him? That assumes that the US government wasn’t actively selling him the goods.

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  44. Rob in CT says:

    He can be both despicable and right about this or that particular thing. Very few people manage to be both despicable and always wrong (paging Bill Kristol, Mr. Kristol to the curtesy phone…).

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  45. gVOR08 says:

    @Barry: IIRC, several years ago Cheney (speaking of monsters) vehemently denied the US government had ever supplied chemical or biological agents to Iraq. He artfully didn’t say the government hadn’t brokered and authorized sales by US companies.

    The executive branch of our government approved 771 different export licenses for sale of dual-use technology to Iraq. I think that is a devastating record.

    per Senator Don Rieglel.

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  46. rudderpedals says:

    @James Joyner: Doesn’t Kissinger and Nixon’s continuing to ship arms to Islamabad (Gen. Yaha, in the piece you quoted) that were to be and actually were used to massacre Hindus in what was then East Pakistan qualify as as heinous and wrong but maybe not criminal?

    BTW may I suggest The Blood Telegram, a somewhat recent history of the West Pak / Bengal war. On dead tree media in the New stack at your local library.

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  47. Rafer Janders says:

    @rudderpedals:

    One correction, the weapons were used to massacre Muslims. Both West and East Pakistan (now Pakistan and Bangladesh, respectively) were overwhelmingly Muslim.

    But according to James, arming and facilitating a genocide does not rise to the level of heinous or criminal.

    One wonders what does, for him.

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  48. rudderpedals says:

    @Rafer Janders: I don’t think we disagree on the details although my brevity could have encouraged disagreement. By sheer volume, it’s fully proven Muslim deaths were greater than Hindu deaths. But consider Muslims overwhelmingly outnumbered Hindus in E. Pak. The intra-religious conflict was less brutal as the West Paks weren’t treating E Paks as infidels, but did believe the martial Pashto W. Pak background resulted in a better Pakistani than the laid back Bengalis. Contrast that with the inter-religious singling out and special brutality and targeting for ethnic cleansing as Yaha’s forces engaged in against E Pak’s few Hindus. The latter suffered way out of proportion to their numbers.

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  49. Tyrell says:

    The decades after WWII were a time of Communist expansion around the world as they sought to take over and subjegate whole peoples by invasion, coup, or phony elections. The US and some other countries signed treaties to help defend countries from the Communists. Eisenhower and Johnson were committed to fulfilling our obligations under those treaties. Congress gave Johnson a full blank check concerning Vietnam. I did not vote for Nixon, but for Humphrey. Nixon inherited the Vietnam War and had the goal of an honorable and lasting peace, not just packing up and “bugging” out as some wanted to do. Dr. Kissinger engaged in attempts at a just settlement with the North Vietnamese. It was the Communists who were guilty of murdering innocent people. Cambodia was a refuge and cover for North Vietnamese bases and supply lines. They are the ones who went in there with no business. President Nixon’s hands were then being tied by members of Congress, some of whom had voted to give Johnson full authority to do whatever necessary in Vietnam. Those were desperate times. Mistakes, misjudgements, and poor decisions were made.
    Dr. Kissinger’s name is synonymous with diplomacy, and statesmanship.
    “What were we to do ? Tear up the treaties we had signed ?” Johnson.

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  50. @Barry:

    We sold Sadam the precursors that were used to make the chemical weapons. The problem is that all of these precursors are also used for industrial oil refining, so it doesn’t immediately follow that this qualifies as intentional aid to his chemical weapons program.

    If Bed, Bath, and Beyond sells me a kitchen knife and I later stab someone with it, it doesn’t follow that they supported the death of that person.

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  51. Dave D says:

    @Tyrell: I’ll call bullshit that it was the VC that were murdering innocent people as we indiscriminately bombed and burned villages, had our own massacres (see Mei Lai), and sent troops into Laos without insignia on their uniforms. Tell me again how the VC had no right to be in other countries.

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  52. wr says:

    @Stan: Nice straw man! Chomsky’s not my “hero” — never read him, in fact. I was objecting to your finding moral equivalence between those who abetted or committed acts of mass murder and those who wrote stupid things about them.

    A star-struck woman who decides she wants to marry Charles Manson may be a deranged idiot and morally unhinged, but she’s not the same as his followers who actually murdered people.

    But for the sake of bringing peace to this forum, I will concede that few people in the world are morally perfect, even those we admire for many reasons.

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  53. wr says:

    @Tyrell: You might want to do a little research. You can start by putting down the old copies of Readers Digest and checking out Errol Morris’ film The Fog of War, in which Robert MacNamara admits that he — and Johnson — knew that Vietnam was unwinnable early on, but refused to leave because the Republicans would call them soft on Communism.

    All those American boys and Vietnamese men, women and children dead so that US politicians could pretend to be strong.

    Oh, and you continue to fall for it, 40 years later, even after those who perpetrated the fraud have come clean.

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  54. Andy says:

    Lots of ad hominem arguments here. Kissinger’s sketchy and controversial past when he was in government does not lessen his ability to analyze international politics. Whether one likes or hates what he did in the Nixon administration, his recent geopolitical analysis stands up to pretty much anyone else’s, in particular the boomer DC natsec establishment. Furthermore, his analysis roundly trounces the neocon and R2P crowds who are completely mired in ideological thnking. In that respect, he serves as an important check on the problem of DC groupthink an general foreign policy stupidity.

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  55. bill says:

    @wr: well, cleaning up lbj’s mess required some more mess. or are you insinuating that we should have tried to stay in se asia and fight for something we couldn’t win? life’s cheap over there, it’s nothing new.

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  56. george says:

    @Andy:

    Lots of ad hominem arguments here. Kissinger’s sketchy and controversial past when he was in government does not lessen his ability to analyze international politics.

    Sums up my feelings. Science has had a fair number of figures who were real assholes (including Newton it seems), but we use their science anyway.

    How many people are going to stop using their computer because Shockley, inventor of the transistor, was a racist?

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  57. Rafer Janders says:

    That may be “cynical” and hard-hearted and unsentimental. It also happens to be spectacularly prescient.

    There’s nothing hard-hearted, unsentimental, prescient or intelligent about that — it’s just a collection of vague generalities. What’s Kissinger saying? That there’s a long-standing split between Sunni and Shia? That formerly authoritarian states which have just undergone a violent revolution can be unstable? That nationalism and Islamism will be in conflict, and that the world pays more attention to brief spasms of violence than to the long-term work of democratic reform?

    Well, big whoop. Everything he writes is stunningly obvious conventional wisdom, and yet somehow because it’s Henry Kissinger writing it, the rubes see it as “prescient.” Every other two-bit hack made the same observations.

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  58. Andy says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Every other two-bit hack made the same observations.

    I suppose we need more two bit hacks in DC then….

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  59. Rafer Janders says:

    @Andy:

    I suppose we need more two bit hacks in DC then….

    Every second policy analyst and Foggy Bottom lifer in DC made the same prediction. No one said the Arab Spring would be smooth sailing, or that once the governments were overthrown that it would be unicorns and ice cream for everyone. To pretend otherwise is a strawman.

    James treats what Kissinger wrote as if it’s some stunning insight, hard-won from a lifetime of violating human rights, when it’s nothing more than a collection of conventional wisdom hardly more insightful than a write-up in TIME. He’s fallen for the act.

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  60. Rafer Janders says:

    Then there’s this gem, referencing the Afghanistan lecture Kissinger gave in 2009:

    If, after careful reassessment, we decide that we don’t have the staying power and other necessary capabilities to achieve the goal, then we “need a different strategy.” He suggests that it will likely be one “designed to prevent what we fear most: the return of a terrorist state.”

    To which James writes:

    Had President Obama taken Kissinger’s advice, rather than doubling down on the Afghan mission with the “Surge,” some 1600 American soldiers and Marines might still be alive.

    Umm…what advice? To craft “a different strategy”?After “careful reassessment”? One that is “designed to prevent what we fear most: the return of a terrorist state”? My god, what insight! Wow, what hard-headed, realistic, Realpolitiky grappling with the truth! A different strategy! One that’s designed to prevent the return of a terrorist state! But of course! Why didn’t anyone in the Obama White House think of that before! Why isn’t anyone listening to this man!

    Once again, Kissinger sits on the sidelines, stroking his chin and rumbling out vague generalities, and the rubes fall for it, never actually analyzing the content of his words but falling for the Cult of Henry. It’s the same dynamic that keeps the Sunday shows going: lazy minds seeking reassurance from older, supposedly wiser men, when in fact it’s the idiots listening to the immoral.

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  61. Crusty Dem says:

    Whenever I see anyone on the right characterized as “smart”, “right”, or “pragmatic”, I have a habit of going and looking what they said about war with Iraq in 2002.

    Guess what? Kissinger was a complete idiot! Full of delusion, lacking any nuance, “we have to hit them in more than Afghanistan”, as if it is even the same “them”!! For the most part, he’s just another Cheney-esque political hack, critical of any action by a democratic president because it plays well to his audience..

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  62. wr says:

    @bill: “Life’s cheap over there.”

    Nope, Bill’s not another Republican racist. He’s just honestly parroting the yellow peril propaganda of the early 20th century.

    By the way, if what Nixon wanted was peace, he wouldn’t have sabotaged the peace talks during his 68 campaign.

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  63. gVOR08 says:

    @wr: You, know, I’d almost forgotten about that. Does kind of undercut the ‘he had to clean up LBJ’s mess’ argument, doesn’t it.

    Dr. Joyner has details, but charitably doesn’t think it rises to

    “treason.” But it is certainly an illegal interference in US foreign policy. And, if true, a lot more people got killed for nothing.

    I mentioned monsters above @gVOR08: Nixon certainly was one.

    There was a lot of unconfirmed rumbling that Kissinger had been Nixon’s spy at LBJ’s peace talks.

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  64. dazedandconfused says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Kissinger was taking Biden’s lonely side that the COIN strategy being advocated by Petreaus and Hillary, and advocated to the point of attempting to limit the President’s options by carefully controlling the things on the menu he was handed as well.

    Henry was right on this. He had absorbed the full story of COIN during Viet Nam (and elsewhere) because he had actually participated in managing it. Our new, bright eyed and bushy-tailed generals thought they had found a Swiss Army knife, but what they had was actually a bottom-drawer-of-the-tool-box specialty tool.

    Sometimes it pays to listen to the “old guys” who are “covered with scars”. Somewhere on CSPAN is a wonderful little meeting Dennis Ross put together of some of Henry’s crew from the early 70′s. “Nixon in the Middle East”, or something like that. It’s just stunning to compare how those old pragmatists think and with how our current strident advocates for action such as Susan Rice do.

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  65. Rafer Janders says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    Sometimes it pays to listen to the “old guys” who are “covered with scars”. Somewhere on CSPAN is a wonderful little meeting Dennis Ross put together of some of Henry’s crew from the early 70′s. “Nixon in the Middle East”, or something like that. It’s just stunning to compare how those old pragmatists think and with how our current strident advocates for action such as Susan Rice do.

    Yes, if only we’d listened to the old, scar-covered, pragmatist, caution-urging Nixon veterans such as Kissinger, Cheney, and Rumsfeld we wouldn’t be in the mess in the Middle East and Central Asia that we find ourselves in….

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  66. dazedandconfused says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    You ignored the word “sometimes” in my comment. I’ve found that most of the knights in pristine armor aren’t to be followed blindly. They haven’t been “in the sh#t” yet.

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  67. gVOR08 says:

    @dazedandconfused: How many times do we have to learn the same lesson that we can’t do COIN or nation building? And then will we ever learn that those are exactly the sort of wars we will get into?

    The military’s attitude right now seems to be they’ll just not do that again. Not really a choice they get to make. And there will always be a lot of generals on the make ready to promise they know how to make it work this time.

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  68. dazedandconfused says:

    @gVOR08:

    The damnedest thing about it is…we can do COIN, and so can a lot of other people, when the conditions are right and we are willing to pay the price.

    My guess is after about a generation or so, if we remain a powerful country, we might very well forget a lot more of the pain and remember a lot more of the glory than we should once again somewhere.

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  69. bill says:

    @wr: i guess you’ve never been to asia? “realism” and “racism” are very different- nice try to abuse that tired old tag though, and typical.
    and it wasn’t nixon that started that fiasco to begin with- i recall the peacenix had a grand time at a certain parties convention, and nixon wasn’t on that ticket.

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  70. wr says:

    @bill: Yes, I’ve been to Asia, and I’m off again to Singapore to teach next month. I’ve also been alive for more than five minutes, so I know that “life is cheap to that type” is the excuse used throughout history to justify mass murder.

    And I don’t know who you think you’re talking to if you’re “correcting” people that Nixon didn’t start the war. I know it, everyone here knows it. It was started under JFK and expanded under Johnson. Nixon ran on ending it, and once in office expanded it further, illegally bombing sovereign nations like Laos and Cambodia.

    Which is why young Democrats were, indeed, protesting at their own convention. Because they wanted to stop the unnecessary mass killing. Because they knew that the people being slaughtered did not consider their lives “cheap.”

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