|Henry Kissinger with General Pinochet*|
Watching the glitzy Democratic gather earlier in the summer was a surreal experience. The party put together a convention that featured retired generals literally screaming about all the people we are going to obliterate, abundant chants of “USA! USA!” (as though that constitutes an argument of some kind), and a nominee who has been on the wrong side of almost every debate about matters of war and peace for the past decade and a half.
In some respects, Hillary Clinton’s disturbing foreign policy record and prescriptions are encapsulated by her relationship with Henry Kissinger, foreign policy grandee from the Nixon and Ford years, famous both for aiding rapprochement with China and for leaving a bloody wake and high body count behind U.S. perambulations through Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Southern Africa.
Critics of Clinton’s foreign policy have assailed her for the attention she has paid Kissinger, and for her admiration of his tenure. Her relationship with Kissinger goes well beyond one-time consulting, and she has cited his diplomacy as an inspiration. From her first days in the State Department, Clinton made a point of consulting with Kissinger, and she and her campaign (both de facto and de jure versions) have gone to great pains to call attention to the praise that has passed between the two former diplomats.
Clinton and her defenders argue that Clinton is meeting with a wide array of experts who represent a variety of schools of thought when it comes to the misconduct of American diplomacy. Kissinger, we are told, maintains useful contacts and “backchannels”, and apparently knows things that the world’s superpower and its overmighty national security apparatus don’t know. They argue that while we may not all agree with Kissinger, the fact that he should be behind bars doesn’t negate his deep expertise and profound intelligence, and that Clinton would be foolish not to solicit his advice about the workings of the modern world.
The flaws with this argument are onion-like, and best dealt with in layers.
As a diplomat, Clinton naturally knows that given actions can yield both costs and benefits. She obviously assumes that more is to be gained by meeting with Kissinger than is to be lost by the message her meetings send to people in all the parts of the world disfigured by what sociopaths call “realpolitik”, but which would be better described as mass murder dressed up in threadbare realist cloth.
In the first place, I’m not sure that argument is sound. And in the second, if it was really Kissinger’s advice Clinton was after, she could have met privately. Instead, in her various public iterations, she has made it clear that consorting with the ageing representation of blunt-force U.S. imperialism is about the “optics” rather than substantive advice. It is about trying to draw broken-toothed but still-ravenous Cold Warriors and deranged neoconservatives into the big tent Clinton is erecting to keep Trump out of office. Such people would be better shackled in cells in the Hague for their crimes against peace, but Clinton inexplicably wants them on side.
The other flaw with this defence of Clinton’s consultation with Kissinger is the idea that he represents some kind of foreign policy genius. The realists of the Nixon administration certainly broke ground in establishing relations with China. But Kissinger and his national security apparatus had no long term view of policy, saw every event in the world through the myopic lens of the Cold War, and were ill-informed about much of the world.
This was a feature of U.S. foreign policymaking for much of the post-war. Western diplomatic “experts” travelling to “solve” what they thought of as a Cold War Congo crisis in the 1960s admitted to not knowing on which side of the continent the country was located, making it clear that they didn’t possess elementary knowledge about history and political economy that would obviously be central to addressing the region’s ills.
Kissinger was appallingly ignorant--grandly self-admitted--of basic contours of life, politics, history, and economics of huge swathes of the world. He told the Chilean ambassador to the United States that he was “not interested in, nor do I know anything about, the southern portion of the world from the Pyrenees down” (Kinzer, Overthrow:177). While no top diplomat should have to know the ins and outs of all the world’s states, this level of disinterest and ignorance, with the flippant attitude that accompanied it, had devastating consequences for the world.
In part, this was because Kissinger’s ignorance made him easily swayed by his primary interlocutors in the region: a handful of immensely wealthy, powerful, and predatory American businesses. The influence of these businesses was all the worse because of the revolving door between public and corporate life that existed then as now in Washington. Not only were these business interests able to persuade Kissinger to act in their own interests; they viewed the world from inside the comically-paranoid and equally-ignorant straitjacket that Cold War thinking imposed on national security “experts.”
This relationship ensured that Kissinger acted not to serve any widely defined public interest, but rather a strikingly narrow subset of private interest.
This was in turn exacerbated by Kissinger’s naive and cartoonish diplomacy. For a “realist,” his grasp on how the world works resembles less a wise statesman than a teenager who is up far too late playing a game of Risk. Kissinger’s world consisted of states that were either allies or enemies, capitalists or communists. Whole parts of the world were either “ours” or not, and if they were, they should stay that way. Non-state actors did not enter the picture, and while such a framework might have got him successfully through many an international coup and conference, we are paying the price for it today.
By demonstrating little interest in people’s histories, circumstances, or motives, and by positioning the U.S. at the center of the world in such a way as to only understand other state’s behaviors with reference to the United States rather than those countries’ realities, Kissinger won some small short-term victories, but unleashed chaos over the long term by dismantling democracies, creating dictatorships, and refusing to acknowledge the catastrophic consequences of “small wars.”
He and his handlers--and his mentees--treated powerful countries with careful diplomacy, and directed barbarian violence toward weaker countries. Those states that had the power to threaten the United States were received at conferences, and received hand-shakes and photo ops. Small states that posed not the slightest threat to the U.S. public and which were deemed threatening to U.S. corporate interests or a Dr Strangelove-version of national security were bombed or ravaged by “friendly”, U.S.-installed regimes. Kissinger sponsored carefully orchestrated coups, and aided rogue generals in creating chaos as a pretext for coups.
Kissinger’s actions led directly to the destruction of democratic institutions and economies. They led to the murder and disappearance of millions of people. They installed frightful regimes. They have poisoned relations between the U.S. and other parts of the world down to the present, leaving our politicians gaping stupidly, unable to process why other states have little trust of our government.
Clinton is no Kissinger. The world today is far less forgiving of that level of ignorance. She knows more of the world and its interconnectedness. But her cultivation of a man who is evil incarnate to those whose families his hand-picked dictators slaughtered without a second thought tells us something about what she values. Kissinger may have insights, but as a private citizen whose contacts are more than ever through the private sector, the “interests” he represents and worldview he stakes out are horrifyingly distorted.
Her cultivation of Kissinger is in line with her failure to understand the long-term ramifications of propping up friendly regimes who savage their people. It fits with her lack of understanding that the non-state actors who bear the brunt of our violent foreign policy are the people who will one day wield power, and who thanks to technological advances have more abilities to act in asymmetrical conflicts against our public interest. It fits with the culture of impunity in our national security sector which protects people who torture, disappear, murder, and violate the safety and security of our fellow human beings.
Clinton, her defenders rightly say, is unlikely to start a “shooting war” with Russia or China, or to launch nukes at someone who tweets rudely about the size of her hands. But like her grand mentor, she is likely to fan the flames of the “small wars” that define life for many of our fellow global citizens, and to plant the seeds for another generation’s horrific conflicts. I for one am less worried about a shooting war than the way in which these “small wars” have managed to transform the global economy, instil fear in democracies, and bring people around the world to their knees.
Clinton’s decision to go cap in hand to a putrid war criminal in his dotage is astonishing.
And the fact that Clinton and some of her supporters can’t understand why it is wrong demonstrates the deep empathy problem that defines many of our country’s foreign policy ills, as they did in Kissinger’s time. We know and care far less about the world than the world knows about us. This impairs our ability to understand just how devastating some of our actions are. It encourages people like Clinton to reach for blunt instruments. It allows her to focus on a horizon defined by a fatally short horizon. And it permits her to focus on actions that are more about our egos than about doing good.
Doing good, the faux realists tell us, is weak and naive. But their hubris has blinded them to the lesson, imparted again and again by events if we would but read them carefully, that the easy, violent answers are seldom based on the world as it is.