Kissinger (before he died) and Trump

Reactions to Henry Kissinger’s death have taken two main forms. The first has come especially from those who sought to follow in his path of ruthlessly using military power to defend Western imperialism—­­­Tony Blair, for example, and Ursula von der Leyen.

They have praised his wisdom and celebrated him as a “statesman”.

The rest of the world has reviled him as a war criminal. This is, of course, the right response. But it’s worth asking why, despite the long list of very well-known crimes — Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Argentina, East Timor—he continued to be lionised.

It reflected the old monster’s success in marketing himself. This is brought out very well by Ben Judah in an article in the New Statesman that he originally wrote for Kissinger’s 100th birthday in May. 

Judah points out that he last held office in January 1977, 46 years ago. Yet, “Through expert media handling he made himself a brand and turned that brand into a company— Kissinger Associates, the highly profitable global consulting firm.”

Far from offering deep insights, Judah argues, “Kissinger specialised in interviews, in which obvious truisms, such as ‘China is rising’ or ‘Russia is revanchist’, were delivered with oracular grandeur.

They were then sprinkled with a little bit of late 18th-century history just over the event horizon of the reader—for example, an allusion to the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich.

The result is a forgettable blur. “This was by design. Because the actual Kissinger genius over the last few decades was not these anodyne comments but the ability to listen—and therefore say exactly what the client, the sponsor or the establishment wanted to hear.” 

Judah points out that corporate bosses often hire outside experts, not for their analysis but to confirm what they have already decided to do.

I part company with him when he contrasts Kissinger unfavourably with his Democratic Party rival Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter in 1977-81.

Brzezinski dedicated himself explicitly to maintaining the global supremacy of US imperial power. 

To that end, he helped to develop the strategy of backing Islamist guerrillas to resist the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. 

This policy led to the rise of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Only monstrous means can maintain empires.

Nevertheless, Judah rightly skewers Kissinger as less an independent thinker than a worshipper of power.

This assessment was anticipated by the historian Greg Grandin in his book Kissinger’s Shadow. He shows that Kissinger was not, as is commonly claimed, committed to the doctrine of realism. 

Realism requires looking carefully at states’ military and economic capabilities and the constraints these impose. 

This may be why leading realists such as Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and John Mearsheimer have been critical of US foreign policy.

Kissinger, by contrast, argued from his student days at Harvard University onwards that there is no reality existing independently of us. 

He wrote in 1963, “There are two kinds of realists: those who manipulate facts and those who create them. The West requires nothing so much as men able to create their own reality.” Throughout his career, Kissinger sought “to create (his) own reality”.

He manipulated perceptions to advance himself—first as a policy intellectual at the height of the Cold War, then in the administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford in 1969-77.

And he ordered the intensive bombardment of Indochina, with the millions of deaths it caused, to shape perceptions, not reality. 

Asked in 1969 by French president Charles de Gaulle, “Why don’t you get out of Vietnam?” Kissinger replied, “Because a sudden withdrawal might give us a credibility problem.” 

He suggested a way out to the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in April 1972. “If there was a peaceful settlement in Vietnam the US would be agreeable to the Vietnamese doing whatever they want … after a period of time, say 18 months,” he said.

South Vietnam’s capital Saigon, in fact, fell in April 1975, two and a half years after the peace agreement with North Vietnam that allowed the US to withdraw. All those lives wasted to save US “credibility”.

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