NO one who lived anywhere in the world through the 1970s could ignore Henry Kissinger as he bestrode the world like a colossus, not so much as the peacemaker he pretended to be than as consolidator of the American empire.
We were meant to marvel at Super K, the real-world incarnation of Superman as he shuttled through war zones and beyond, sprinkling his enormous wisdom along the way.
Kissinger, who died a week ago at the overripe age of 100, has been cast as a diplomatic superstar who pursued US interests to the end of the world. That is not an inaccurate assumption, provided one recognises that the interests were exclusively those of the imperium that the US sought to usher in after World War II: they served the aims of the political and economic elites who were determined to make the world safe for capitalism.
“We the people” mentioned at the outset of the Declaration of Independence had nothing to do with it. It logically follows that people anywhere simply did not matter. The encomiums and panegyrics that have flowed in much of the Western media in the past week — alongside some unrelenting critiques — do not suggest that Kissinger ever lost any sleep over the human devastation his policies wrought from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
Kissinger’s legacy is copiously laced with blood.
It was more or less taken for granted that Kissinger would be ensconced in the US foreign policy establishment, regardless of who won the 1968 election. Richard Nixon probably would not have been his first choice as a boss, but once Nixon emerged as the Republican nominee, Kissinger curried favour by helping to prevent a Vietnam peace agreement that might have benefited the Democratic alternative.
The US war in Indochina dragged on for another five years. As Nixon’s national security adviser, Kissinger was largely responsible for the death toll in not just Vietnam but also Cambodia and Laos.
With an office in the White House, Kissinger was conveniently placed to take away the foreign policy initiative from Nixon’s first secretary of state, William Rogers — who, inter alia, was willing to collaborate with the USSR in ushering in a Middle East peace agreement that would have disappointed the Palestinians, but might have reduced the bloodshed.
Willingly serving a profoundly antisemitic president, Kissinger himself was not particularly wedded to the interests of Israel beyond seeing it as an invaluable asset that could help the US win over Arab states that leaned towards the Soviet Union, especially Egypt.
Within its limitations, his shuttle diplomacy succeeded on that front, but its appalling consequences continue to be demonstrated half a century later as the US aids and abets an unfolding genocide in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Genocide was never much of a moral dilemma for Kissinger. He was happy to pursue it in Vietnam and extend it to Laos and Cambodia. In the latter instance, he was directly responsible for every airstrike — “It’s an order,” Kissinger told a subordinate in 1970. “Anything that flies, on anything that moves.”
This ingenious strategy paved the way for the Khmer Rouge regime that killed an estimated two million Cambodians — and enjoyed US backing after it was displaced by a Vietnamese humanitarian intervention.
Kissinger’s crimes of commission also include the fate of a democratic socialist interlude in Chile, where Nixonger — as Isaiah Berlin dubbed the duo — decided Salvador Allende was intolerable even before was inaugurated.
“I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” Kissinger commented in 1970. And the US did not stand by. Allende was overthrown and assassinated three years later, and Augusto Pinochet, as well as Argentina’s Jorge Videla among other military tyrants, revelled in Kissinger’s imprimatur as they went on a killing spree.
Chile also served as a Petri dish for Chicago School neoliberalism, which was imposed on client states via the IMF and World Bank in the years that followed. Chile, among others, is still paying the price.
There were also crimes of omission, and the two that obviously spring to mind include East Pakistan and East Timor.
Kissinger did nothing to tame Nixon’s racist and misogynist aversion to Indians and particularly Indira Gandhi. Yahya Khan, who diligently served as Nixonger’s emissary to China, was amply rewarded when he inaugurated a civil war in 1971.
Despite the countless skeletons in his cupboard, Kissinger remained a source of advice to successive US administrations — and to many other governments via his firm, Kissinger and Associates, whose client list he wasn’t prepared to reveal even when tapped as the head of the 9/11 Commission. Perhaps because he was unwilling to acknowledge the consequences of his decisions.
Published in Dawn, December 6th, 2023