By Jonathan Power
Henry Kissinger used to be a totally different kettle of fish than he is these days. It was Kissinger who helped engineer a coup d’état in democratic Chile that led to a great deal of torture and suffering. Second, turn to the war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, America’s biggest war since World War 2, that ended in an ignominious US retreat and defeat. Its people were ravaged beyond description. It was President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Kissinger, who had decided “to bomb the hell out of the North Vietnamese”.
President Lyndon Johnson, exhausted by the Vietnam War and the divisions it produced at home, decided not to run again. Nixon had campaigned on the promise that he could end the war. In fact, once in power, he and Kissinger decided that the way to end the war was to win it. They unleashed one bombing campaign after another, using quantities of bombs far more than were used in World War 2.
This went on until right into Nixon’s second term. Kissinger led the US team attending the long-drawn-out peace negotiations in Paris, where the divorced Kissinger publicly frolicked with one film star after another, much to Nixon’s amusement. In the end the White House settled for terms that could have been reached years before.
In 1971, General Telford Taylor who had been the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, said that if the standards of Nuremberg were applied evenly and applied to the American statesmen and bureaucrats who designed the Vietnam war, “then there would be a very strong possibility that they would come to the same end” as the Nazi and Japanese leaders. Christopher Hitchens wrote in his book, ‘The Trial of Henry Kissinger’, “It is not every day that a senior American soldier and jurist delivers the opinion that a large proportion of his country’s political class should probably be hooded and blindfolded and dropped through a trap door at the end of a rope”.
It is understandable why Kissinger became so reviled. A Jew himself, he once said, “The emigration of Jews from Russia is not an object 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.”
On another occasion, apropos the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, he said, “You should tell the Cambodians (i.e., The Khmer Rouge who committed genocide of their own people) that we want to be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in the way.” In fact, the US fought for the Khmer Rouge to occupy Cambodia’s seat at the UN. Among Western nations only Sweden opposed this. Kissinger knew how to use the whip on US allies.
Nixon’s top general in Vietnam, Maxwell Taylor, wrote later that the practice of air strikes against hamlets in Cambodia suspected of harbouring Vietnamese guerrillas as “fragrant violations” of the Geneva Convention on Civilian Protection which prohibits “collective penalties” and “reprisals against protected persons”.
What happened was bad enough but what Kissinger sometimes considered doing was beyond comprehension, for example he and Nixon contemplated using nuclear weapons to obliterate the pass through which ran the railway link from North Vietnam to China.
Nixon and Kissinger not only extended the war into Cambodia they also took it into Laos. It has been estimated that as many as 350,000 civilians in Laos and 600,000 in Cambodia lost their lives. (These are not the highest estimates.) Figures for the wounded and refugees are several multiples of that. In addition, the widespread use of toxic chemical defoliants (now banned by the US military) created a massive health crisis which fell most heavily on children, nursing mothers, the aged and infirm. Even today the residue of these chemicals is claiming victims, as I found when I visited Cambodia to report on the UN war crimes court.
Kissinger’s 90th birthday was celebrated in New York in a glittering affair, attended by Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry (President Barack Obama’s secretary of state who as a young man led protests against the Vietnam war), James Baker (George W.H. Bush’s secretary of state), John McCain (presidential race opponent of Obama), Condoleezza Rice (George W. Bush’s secretary of state), George Shultz (Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state) and Susan Rice (Obama’s National Security Advisor).
“The bullets that would fell a lesser man appear to simply bounce off him and he remains courted by business, politicians, journalists and society hostesses whose presence, they believe, will add yeast, or rather a frisson—the authentic touch of raw and unapologetic power—to any occasion you care to name”, wrote Hitchens.
Now, a week ago, at 99 years of age, Kissinger was invited to talk at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos. His faculties were clear, and he spoke to the point in perfectly grammatical sentences. Is he the same Kissinger who held office? Perhaps no longer. Perhaps, like Robert McNamara, President Johnson’s secretary for defence, he bleeds inside for past deeds, as he told a mutual friend, Barbara Ward. McNamara publicly labelled himself a war criminal.
What cannot be gainsaid—he is the most experienced practitioner of realpolitik alive on the planet.
Kissinger has often wandered off Washington’s beaten foreign policy path. He ignores the “Blob”, the in-grown foreign policy “influencers” in the senior military brass, big business, the best universities, and the serious media who usually take a hard, often militaristic, line on foreign policy. (They have their counterparts in Europe.) Indeed, it’s practically impossible to get a job in such top positions without being a de-facto member of the Blob.
A handful of members, besides Kissinger, have broken with the Blob on occasion, but only once they had achieved high office. For example, the late George Kennan, (a senior counselor to President Harry Truman), Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, (national security advisors to presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush), and the still alive, Jack Matlock (ambassador to the Soviet Union) and Robert Gates (George W. Bush’s secretary of defence).
Because of the power of the Blob, a mistaken sense of duty and probably a desire for self-advancement, they kept their more critical opinions to themselves until they had left office. All of them have opposed the expansion of NATO, the geo-political move that led to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Kissinger, who feels he owes the Blob nothing these days, has laid out blueprint for cooperation between the US and China. He opposed NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia under former President Bill Clinton. “The rejection of long-range strategy explains how it was possible to slide into the Kosovo conflict without adequate consideration of all its implications—especially the visceral reaction of almost all nations of the world against the new NATO doctrine of humanitarian intervention,” Kissinger wrote.
Now this month, at 99 years old, Kissinger was invited to talk at the prestigious World Economic Forum in Davos. His faculties were clear, and he spoke to the point about Ukraine in perfectly grammatical sentences.
“Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante. Pursuing the war beyond that point will not be about the freedom of Ukraine, but a new war against Russia itself,” Kissinger said. The “status quo ante” was referring to leaving Crimea, Lugansk, and Donetsk under Russia’s control. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, later that day, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky denounced him (and others of the same opinion), saying, “Go, fuck themselves”.
Kissinger argued that Ukraine should not be a member of NATO and should be non-aligned. He has said before that the US wants to “break” Russia.
Is he the same Kissinger who held high office? Perhaps not.
Why don’t people in power in Western capitals listen to him? Why do the US, its NATO allies and the Blob close their ears to this most wise and tested of men?
About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com