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‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Kissinger – just a few thoughts

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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, murdering 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’ll never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milosevic. While Henry continues to nibble nori rolls and 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


Kissinger, Rockefeller and Ford in the seventies

Jacinta: The above quote from the late traveller and food junkie has slightly revived my interest in a controversial figure. What do you know about Henry Kissinger?

Canto: Former Secretary of State, is that so, under Nixon? Reviled and revered, known for, or accused of engaging in realpolitik to the detriment of nations seen rightly or wrongly as hostile to the USA, his adopted country, and contrary to the human rights of too many individuals. He was German-born, right?

Jacinta: Yes – I once read a slim bio of him, written in the seventies when he was still in power, under Ford I think. It focussed particularly on the Cambodian bombing, but it wasn’t very damning, as I recall. I think because he’s such a polarising figure I’d like to explore his behaviour in more detail if I can. Two items have decided me to explore him again – the above remarks and something I read recently about his role in the invasion of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975. My immediate impression of him is of someone I wouldn’t like – too close to the powerful world-as-chessboard types, with an apparent unconcern for the powerless. I doubt if he’s ever holidayed in Cambodia.

Canto: Well I’m getting up to speed by reading his Wikipedia article. He was a German-Jew who fled from Nazi persecution with his family in the late thirties. He turned 95 a couple of weeks ago. He seems to have been a very smart chappie, destined for impressive things…

Jacinta: Ambitious, certainly. He was pushing for Republican political influence from the late fifties, after a stellar academic career, and he certainly experienced it under the Nixon and Ford administrations. Realpolitik is generally associated with pragmatism, but with consideration of practical gain, first and foremost, for the side engaging in it. That’s to say, instead of seeing China or Russia as an ideological enemy that should be cut, how about engaging with them to our advantage.

Canto: Friends with benefits?

Jacinta: The problem is that the other side will be looking for benefits too and will be justifiably mistrustful after years of being treated as a sworn enemy. Another issue with realpolitik, as engaged by powerful countries, is that, due to the fallacy fallen into by all powerful states since the beginning of civilisation, that economic and military power equates to moral superiority, ‘insignificant’ countries tend to be swept off the chessboard more or less with impunity. That’s why, in examining Kissinger, I’m more interested in his dealings with Cambodia, East Timor, Pakistan and Cyprus than with China or Russia.

Canto: So let’s deal with a couple of those countries.

Jacinta: Okay, on Cambodia, I recently heard the conservative historian Niall Ferguson on Sam Harris’ podcast downplaying the bombing and invasion of Cambodia because, well the war in the region was hardly Kissinger’s doing and anyway there was evidence of Cambodia’s aiding and abetting the Viet Cong. My feeling on hearing this was that inheriting a war isn’t necessarily a reason for continuing to prosecute it, indeed to escalate it. Also, it’s my instinct in these matters to take the side of the underdog. The USA seems perennially to be in the grip of anti-communist hysteria – or at least its conservative administrations do. Perhaps less so in recent times…

Canto: They called Obamacare a socialist takeover of sorts didn’t they?

Jacinta: With the benefit of hindsight, admittedly, it now seems obvious that the people of Vietnam and Cambodia suffered disproportionately, to put it mildly, for the USA’s anti-communist paranoia, but what really gets me about Kissinger’s ‘Operation Menu’, as it was called, was its secrecy – because they strongly doubted that the massive bombing campaign would be acceptable domestically – and the whooping delight they felt about its ‘success’. This Cambodian bombing operation (not the first, but by far the most devastating) began on March 18 1969, involved massive ordinance, but it’s impossible to know how many Cambodian lives were lost. The US military has never shown any interest in counting the non-American victims of its wars and invasions. Of course the bombing campaign cannot be ultimately seen as ‘successful’, whatever that may mean in the circumstances, because the USA eventually abandoned the war as a lost cause. The devastation to Cambodia itself arguably led to the rise of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Of course the whole scenario is foggy, but Kissinger certainly felt no doubt about the ‘morality’ of his decisions. I just scratch my head about such people.

Canto: It’s worth looking at counterfactuals isn’t it? What would’ve happened if Kissinger had been a different person and had successfully argued for a withdrawal from the whole region in 1969?

Jacinta: Saying, okay, it’s up to the Vietnamese to decide what sort of government they want. Who knows? I’m certainly not sufficiently conversant with the forces and players of that time – the Chinese government, the local leaders and warlords, the sentiment of the people – to provide any kind of answer to that. I presume that a regime would’ve taken over that was nominally communist, and perhaps a puppet of China, but let’s not pretend that any of these regimes are communist in any real sense. Not that communism would be a good thing. Presumably it would’ve been a dictatorship, but then most nations in these regions have been dictatorships, or absolute monarchies, which amounts to the same thing….

Canto: The point is, it’s hard to see why the USA was ever so worried about the region, so worried as to interfere so massively and so devastatingly with it. So what about East Timor?

Jacinta: Well, to your point, it may be hard to see why powerful countries interfere with countries that are far distant, often in more than one respect, but the fact is that they do and always have done. Another rule of thumb. Powerful countries always feel entitled to have the widest spheres of influence. It’s self-interest, pure and simple. It makes little difference what their internal politics are. That’s why we need to strengthen global ties, to have a global police force enforcing global laws, rather than a global police officer who refuses to accede to international law, as is usually the case with powerful countries, viz the USA, China, the former USSR, etc. Now you might wonder why Kissinger was ever involved in such an ‘insignificant’ territory as East Timor….

Canto: Some background – East Timor was invaded by Indonesia on December 7 1975 in order to overthrow a popular local government. The Indonesian military’s activities both before and for 25 years after this event resulted in at least 100,000 deaths, by the most conservative estimates. Descriptions of the mass slaughter during the first days of the invasion, collected in this Wikipedia article, make for harrowing reading. The suppression and the killings were further enabled, according to John Taylor’s book East Timor: the price of freedom, by the acquisition of powerful weaponry from the USA and Israel (who get virtually all their weapons from the US) and other countries, including Australia. Always remember that Indonesia at this time was under the control of Suharto, one of the greatest mass-murderers of the second half of the twentieth century….

Jacinta: Okay, now the date of December 7 is significant, because on December 6 Kissinger and Gerald Ford met with Suharto and clearly accepted his decision to invade. Realpolitik again – after the fall of Saigon the USA felt the need to develop other alliances in the region, with Indonesia first on the list. From documents released in 2001, Kissinger’s concerns were clear – he didn’t want it to be known that US weaponry was used almost exclusively in the invasion. Having said this, the weaponry, much of it specially designed for counter-insurgency ops – that’s to say, for campaigns such as those in East Timor, and not for Indonesia’s defence needs – continued to be funnelled to Indonesia under the Carter administration, and in subsequent administrations.

Canto: So – any preliminary conclusions on Kissinger, bearing in mind Anthony Bourdain’s critique?

Jacinta: Yes, certainly Kissinger isn’t a person I’d be interested in spending any time with. His own memoirs and accounts of events are typically self-serving, and appear to display little in the way of humanity, but he’s a typical product of the zero sum game nationalism that blights so much diplomacy and makes so many victims of those born in ‘pawn’ nations or proto-nations on the chessboard of realpolitik. Kissinger was no Suharto or Mao Zedong, but nor does he seem to be a person whose views on international relations are worthy of much respect. In fact, reading about his activities in supporting right-wing oppression on the world stage makes me quite disheartened if not disgusted – we can surely do better than this. We need to.


Written by stewart henderson

June 23, 2018 at 11:25 am

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