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Henry Kissinger and US Foreign Policy

The death of Henry Kissinger in November 2023 was, as could be expected, met with a combination of disappointment and relief. Disappointment that this war criminal had lived so long (Verso have managed to just release a book on Kissinger appropriately entitled: "The Good Die Young"), and disappointment that he never was given the well-deserved opportunity to defend his actions at The Hague. There was a relief too, relief that finally this stain on the human species had been rubbed out and fortunately, before medical advances provided the opportunity for life extension and rejuvenation. Another emotion can be added here; concern that Kissinger's actions and the foreign policy decisions that he implemented and influenced will be forgotten with the passing of time. This remembrance hopefully will contribute to his lasting notoriety.

Kissinger's major appointments were as Secretary of State and National Secretary Adviser for the US Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. His approach was one of partisan international realism, that is, he argued that the United States should act in the interest of the United States in the lawless environment of international relations without regard to the cost to the lives of real, flesh-and-blood, human beings. In the eight years that he served in these positions, it is estimated that he was, directly and indirectly, responsible for the deaths of millions of people. As war crimes prosecutor and human rights advocate, Reed Brody has remarked; "few people who have had a hand in as much death and destruction, as much human suffering, in so many places around the world as Henry Kissinger". Now circulating as a popular meme, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain has some very blunt words:

Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević. While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls & remaki at A-list parties, Cambodia, the neutral nation he secretly and illegally bombed, invaded, undermined, and then threw to the dogs, is still trying to raise itself up on its one remaining leg.
-- Anthony Bourdain, A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal (2001), p. 162

Perhaps the first action that can be accorded in justification of this anger is how Kissinger prolonged the US involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson agreed to peace negotiations with the North Vietnamese with a view to ending the conflict. Kissinger had access to the diplomatic delegation to the Paris talks and - completely ignoring national security protocols - provided intel to Richard Nixon, who was concerned that an early peace would undermine his own Presidential election chances as he hoped to argue that he had a plan to end the war. As a result, no peace agreement was reached until 1973 and the war ended with a 1975 victory for the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Kissinger successfully prevented a chance for an end to the war in 1968 on the basis that he would gain prestige and power in the incoming Nixon administration. Effectively, every death in Vietnam from 1968 to 1975 can be at least partially attributed to his own desire for position.

By 1969 Kissinger was part of the Nixon administration, personally selecting targets in Cambodia, a neutral country although a location for NLF forces. "Not only was Henry carefully screening the raids, he was reading the raw intelligence", Col. Ray B. Sitton told Seymour Hersh for "The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House" (1983). The bombing, of course, was completely illegal under international law, but such requirements would be ignored. So too was US internal law, with the secret bombing campaign forming one of the initial articles of impeachment against Nixon In fact, the US bombing of Cambodia would continue until August 1973, five months after US combat troops withdrew from Vietnam. The United States supported a coup in 1970 that overthrew Prince Sihanouk and following that, Nixon ordered US troops to invade Cambodia. From the air and the ground, US forces were unable to prevent the NLF supply lines with their indiscriminate, but they were able to generate support for Khmer Rouge, and all that would follow. The most likely loss of civilian life would be approximately 300,000, albeit with a wide range of estimates.

Whilst Kissinger's notorious actions in Indochina are perhaps the most well-known, there are numerous others that must be noted. In the early 1970s, Pakistan was engaging in a "selective genocide" (using the words of US consul-general, Archer K Blood at the time) against Bengali's of what was then East Pakistan. Nixon stridently supported the Pakistani dictator, General Yahya Khan in the Bangladeshi Liberation War of 1971 and, with Nixon, ended Blood's tenure. Kissinger directly illegal arms sales to Pakistan in this period; civilian deaths in East Pakistan at the hands of Pakistani military and paramilitary forces are estimated at approximately 400,000 during the nine-month war.

In addition, Kissinger enabled the rise of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, from opposing the inauguration of the elected socialist Salvor Allende, encouraging the coup that would eventually succeed leading to 3,000 being killed by the dictatorship. Kissinger also supported the neighbouring Argentinian dictatorship which was responsible for 30,000 deaths, as well as helping initiate Operation Condor, and gave the go-ahead to Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, which resulted in at least 100,000 people being killed - a very high proportion of the country's population 700,000 people. He also encouraged civil war in Angola, aided apartheid in South Africa and abadoned the Kurds in Iraq.

Kissinger never showed any remorse for the people who were shot, bombed, murdered, and raped by his foreign policy and military decisions. Instead, he would blame others: "mistakes were quite possibly made by the administration in which I served", and "in retrospect, I have come to doubt whether the South Vietnamese ever really understood what we were trying to accomplish". It is perhaps all too easy to write him off as a psychopath who acquired too much power. But it must be understood that he is but an individual who represents the sort of psychopathology that comes from institutional power itself. In hindsight, one could even identify this in Kissinger's doctoral thesis, "Peace, Legitimacy, and the Equilibrium", where he argued that "legitimacy" was when States accepted an international order, regardless of justice, public opinion, and morality.

Always a darling of the ruling class and their politicians, Kissinger was a celebrity throughout his life. In an act of supreme irony (as Tom Lehrer commented "political satire became obsolete"), he was jointly awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese diplomat; Tho refused the award as the United States continued bombing in Vietnam. Kissinger also received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and in 1982 established the company Kissinger Associates helping major corporations establish deals with foreign governments, and served as a member of the US President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 1984 to 1990 and the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board from 2001 to 2016. Critics, such as Christopher Hitchens ("The Trail of Henry Kissinger", called for Kissinger’s prosecution "for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture” from Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile and East Timor to Cambodia, Laos, Uruguay, and Vietnam".

In 2015, codepink (women peace activists) staged a protest demanding that Kissinger be arrested for war crimes. Senator John McCain denounced those participating at the protest as "low life scum", and their actions "physically intimidating" as they held banners and handcuffs. One has to wonder whether McCain would consider those who suffered because of Kissinger's decisions to have received greater or less "physical intimidation", or why McCain would make such comments whilst in the presence of a war criminal. The difference, of course, can only be established by the fact that Kissinger was the sort of war criminal that McCain approved of; one which led to millions of deaths of people in the service of US foreign policy.