The sparring during Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over whether Henry Kissinger is an elder statesman or a pariah has laid bare a major foreign policy divide within the Democratic Party.
Clinton and Sanders stand on opposite sides of that divide. One represents the hawkish Washington foreign policy establishment, which reveres and in some cases actually works for Kissinger. The other represents the marginalized non-interventionists, who can’t possibly forgive someone with the blood of millions of brown people on his hands.
Kissinger is an amazing and appropriate lens through which to see what’s at stake in the choice between Clinton and Sanders. But that only works, of course, if you understand who Kissinger is — which surely many of today’s voters don’t.
Some may only dimly recall that Kissinger won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the Vietnam War (comedian Tom Lehrer famously said the award made political satire obsolete), and that he played a central role in President Nixon’s opening of relations with China.
But Kissinger is reviled by many left-leaning observers of foreign policy. They consider him an amoral egotist who enabled dictators, extended the Vietnam War, laid the path to the Khmer Rouge killing fields, stage-managed a genocide in East Timor, overthrew the democratically elected left-wing government in Chile, and encouraged Nixon to wiretap his political adversaries.
First, let’s review what happened at the debate. Here’s the video, followed by the transcript:
SANDERS: Where the secretary and I have a very profound difference, in the last debate — and I believe in her book — very good book, by the way — in her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger. Now, I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.
I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some 3 million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.
IFILL: Secretary Clinton?
CLINTON: Well, I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is.
SANDERS: Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger. That’s for sure.
CLINTON: That’s fine. That’s fine.
You know, I listen to a wide variety of voices that have expertise in various areas. I think it is fair to say, whatever the complaints that you want to make about him are, that with respect to China, one of the most challenging relationships we have, his opening up China and his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America.
So if we want to pick and choose — and I certainly do — people I listen to, people I don’t listen to, people I listen to for certain areas, then I think we have to be fair and look at the entire world, because it’s a big, complicated world out there.
SANDERS: It is.
CLINTON: And, yes, people we may disagree with on a number of things may have some insight, may have some relationships that are important for the president to understand in order to best protect the United States.
SANDERS: I find — I mean, it’s just a very different, you know, historical perspective here. Kissinger was one of those people during the Vietnam era who talked about the domino theory. Not everybody remembers that. You do. I do. The domino theory, you know, if Vietnam goes, China, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. That’s what he talked about, the great threat of China.
And then, after the war, this is the guy who, in fact, yes, you’re right, he opened up relations with China, and now pushed various type of trade agreements, resulting in American workers losing their jobs as corporations moved to China. The terrible, authoritarian, Communist dictatorship he warned us about, now he’s urging companies to shut down and move to China. Not my kind of guy.
And now, some background about Kissinger.
Greg Grandin, a history professor at New York University, just published a timely book called Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman. In an article in The Nation last week, “Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton’s Tutor in War and Peace,” he offered this pithy summary:
Let’s consider some of Kissinger’s achievements during his tenure as Richard Nixon’s top foreign policy–maker. He (1) prolonged the Vietnam War for five pointless years; (2) illegally bombed Cambodia and Laos; (3) goaded Nixon to wiretap staffers and journalists; (4) bore responsibility for three genocides in Cambodia, East Timor, and Bangladesh; (5) urged Nixon to go after Daniel Ellsberg for having released the Pentagon Papers, which set off a chain of events that brought down the Nixon White House; (6) pumped up Pakistan’s ISI, and encouraged it to use political Islam to destabilize Afghanistan; (7) began the U.S.’s arms-for-petrodollars dependency with Saudi Arabia and pre-revolutionary Iran; (8) accelerated needless civil wars in southern Africa that, in the name of supporting white supremacy, left millions dead; (9) supported coups and death squads throughout Latin America; and (10) ingratiated himself with the first-generation neocons, such as Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, who would take American militarism to its next calamitous level. Read all about it in Kissinger’s Shadow!
A full tally hasn’t been done, but a back-of-the-envelope count would attribute 3, maybe 4 million deaths to Kissinger’s actions, but that number probably undercounts his victims in southern Africa. Pull but one string from the current tangle of today’s multiple foreign policy crises, and odds are it will lead back to something Kissinger did between 1968 and 1977. Over-reliance on Saudi oil? That’s Kissinger. Blowback from the instrumental use of radical Islam to destabilize Soviet allies? Again, Kissinger. An unstable arms race in the Middle East? Check, Kissinger. Sunni-Shia rivalry? Yup, Kissinger. The impasse in Israel-Palestine? Kissinger. Radicalization of Iran? “An act of folly” was how veteran diplomat George Ball described Kissinger’s relationship to the Shah. Militarization of the Persian Gulf? Kissinger, Kissinger, Kissinger.
The late essayist Christopher Hitchens examined Kissinger’s war crimes in his 2001 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. He listed the key elements of his case:
1. The deliberate mass killing of civilian populations in Indochina.
2. Deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination, in Bangladesh.
3. The personal suborning and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation — Chile — with which the United States was not at war.
4. Personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus.
5. The incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor
6. Personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in Washington, D.C.
Kissinger’s role in the genocide that took place in East Timor is less well-known than the one he enabled in Indochina. Author Charles Glass wrote about that episode in 2011:
On December 6, 1975, Kissinger and Gerald Ford met President Suharto in Indonesia and promised to increase arms supplies to sustain Indonesian suppression of the former Portuguese colony. Kissinger, quoted verbatim in U.S. Embassy cables of that war council, insisted that American weapons for the Indonesian Army’s invasion could be finessed: “It depends on how we construe it; whether it is in self-defense or is a foreign operation.”
Since no one in East Timor had attacked or intended to attack Indonesia, Suharto could hardly plead self-defense. But Kissinger would make the case for him. All he asked was that Suharto delay the invasion a few hours until he and Ford had left Jakarta. He presumably relied on the American public’s inability to connect the Jakarta conference with the invasion so long as he and Ford were back in Washington when the killing began. As far as the American media went, he was right. The Indonesian Army invaded on the anniversary of a previous day of infamy, December 7, massacring about a third of the population. The press, apart from five Australian journalists whom the Indonesian Army slaughtered, ignored the invasion and subsequent occupation. Well done, Henry.
By the time Suharto was overthrown in 1998, Kissinger had gone private — charging vast fees to advise people like Suharto on methods for marketing their crimes. He also kept posing as an elder statesman whose views were sought (and often paid for) by a media that enabled his penchant for self-publicity. He was a patriot whose love of country stopped short of taking part in the 9/11 Commission if it meant disclosing how much the Saudi royal family paid him for his counsel.
The continuing role Kissinger plays in modern foreign policy is perfectly illustrated by Hillary Clinton, his longtime fan and friend. Just recently, in November, she reviewed Kissinger’s latest book, World Order, for the Washington Post. There’s a summary of that here.
Clinton called it “vintage Kissinger, with his singular combination of breadth and acuity along with his knack for connecting headlines to trend lines.” She wrote that “his analysis, despite some differences over specific policies, largely fits with the broad strategy behind the Obama administration’s effort over the past six years to build a global architecture of security and cooperation for the 21st century.”
And she said he came off as “surprisingly idealistic. Even when there are tensions between our values and other objectives, America, he reminds us, succeeds by standing up for our values, not shirking them, and leads by engaging peoples and societies, the source of legitimacy, not governments alone.”
A key passage:
Kissinger is a friend, and I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state. He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels. Though we have often seen the world and some of our challenges quite differently, and advocated different responses now and in the past, what comes through clearly in this new book is a conviction that we, and President Obama, share: a belief in the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order.
The difference between the two views of Kissinger is not simply of academic or historical interest. How a presidential candidate feels about him is a clear sign of her or his worldview and indicates the kind of decisions she or he will make in office – and, perhaps even more importantly, suggests the kind of staffers she or he will appoint to key positions of authority in areas of diplomacy, defense, national security, and intelligence.
Sanders has not made clear who he is turning to for foreign policy advice, if anyone. (What’s your dream foreign policy team? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
But Clinton is clearly picking from the usual suspects — the “securocrats in waiting” who make up the Washington, D.C., foreign policy establishment.
They work at places like Albright Stonebridge, the powerhouse global consulting firm led by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, a staunch Clinton backer. They work at places like Beacon Global Strategies, which is providing high-profile foreign policy guidance to Clinton — as well as to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. And they work at places like Kissinger Associates. In fact, Bob Hormats, who was a Goldman Sachs vice chairman before serving as Clinton’s undersecretary of state, is now advising Clinton’s campaign even while serving as the vice chairman of Kissinger Associates.
Despite the wildly bellicose and human rights-averse rhetoric from the leading Republican presidential candidates, they’re picking from essentially the same pool as well.
A few weeks ago, I talked to Chas Freeman, the former diplomat I once called a “one-man destroyer of groupthink,” whose non-interventionism and even-handed approach to the Middle East was so un-Kissingeresque that his surprising appointment to President Obama’s National Intelligence Council in 2009 lasted all of a few days.
He marveled at the lack of any “honest brokers” in the D.C. foreign policy establishment. “We have a foreign policy elite in this country that’s off its meds, basically,” he said.
“There’s no debate because everybody’s interventionist, everybody’s militaristic.” They all are pretty much in the thrall of neoconservatism, he said. You can see them “speckled all over the Republican side” and “also in the Clinton group.”
Henry Kissinger is thus a litmus test for foreign policy. But don’t count on the mainstream media to help you understand that.
Imagine two types of people: those who would schmooze with Kissinger at a cocktail party, and those who would spit in his eye. The elite Washington media is almost without exception in that first category. In fact, they’d probably have anyone who spit in Kissinger’s eye arrested.
Since they only see one side, they don’t want to get into it. And there was a little indicator at Thursday night’s debate, hosted by PBS, of just how eagerly the elite political media welcomes an honest exploration of the subject.
Just as Sanders raised the issue of Kissinger’s legacy in Vietnam, either Gwen Ifill or Judy Woodruff — both of whom are very conventional, establishment, Washington cocktail-party celebrities — was caught audibly muttering, “Oh, God.”
Top photo: Hillary Clinton smiles as Henry Kissinger presents her with a Distinguished Leadership Award from the Atlantic Council in Washington in May 2013.