Sucking up to P

Greg Grandin

  • Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power by Robert Dallek
    Allen Lane, 740 pp, £30.00, August 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9796 5
  • Henry Kissinger and the American Century by Jeremi Suri
    Harvard, 368 pp, £18.95, July 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02579 0

Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik, with its moral relativism and easy acceptance of American limits, is often contrasted with the neocon evangelism that took off after the attacks of 9/11. Kissinger had long served as a foil for the New Right. The secretary of state ‘sounds like Churchill’ but ‘acts like Chamberlain’, Norman Podhoretz wrote in 1976. And even before conservatives came to condemn Kissinger for his dealings with China and Moscow, they distrusted his associates, particularly Nelson Rockefeller.

In the mid-1960s, Kissinger was an adviser to Rockefeller. When he joined Nixon’s administration in 1968 he did so not just as an ambitious Harvard professor but as a regent for the multilateralist wing of the Republican Party. Corporate mandarins like the Rockefellers who bankrolled the Republican Party appreciated Nixon’s anti-Communist populism when it was used against the New Deal’s more radical elements. But they also saw it as unstable, the flipside of the democratisation of foreign policy brought about by protest against the Vietnam War. The ‘establishment’, as Nixon called Washington’s foreign policy elect, agreed that America was in deep crisis. But the solution wasn’t an escalation of the Cold War and a rapid increase in defence spending, as the militarists urged. They pushed instead for a normalisation of international relations. Enter Kissinger, who made his name writing an appreciation of Metternich.

As the architect of détente, Kissinger, who served under Nixon and Gerald Ford, first as national security adviser and, from 1973, as secretary of state as well, studiously avoided the moralism that had defined Washington’s position during the early Cold War. For him, the Soviet Union was not an existential evil that needed to be vanquished but a legitimate nation-state with defined interests. In 1972 he helped broker the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty between the US and the Soviet Union and began the normalisation of relations with China. Two decades earlier, Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had refused to shake Zhou Enlai’s hand: Kissinger not only did so but hailed him and Mao as great statesmen. Rather than claiming the right to project American power into the Communist world in the name of freedom, Kissinger promised to respect the security concerns of its rivals. Détente and rapprochement would help the US extricate itself from Vietnam and shore up its authority in its own sphere of influence, while at home they would allow the White House to outflank the antiwar left. As Kissinger put it, ‘refusing to negotiate with the Kremlin would spread the virulence of the anti-Vietnam protest movement into every aspect of American foreign policy, and deeply, perhaps, into our alliances.’

Kissinger, who as a child witnessed the collapse of the Weimar Republic, imagined himself as holding the centre against the left and right. In 1971 he told a gathering of East Coast corporate and academic bigwigs that the administration’s go-slow approach to withdrawal in Vietnam was meant to ‘neutralise’ supporters of the Southern Democrat George Wallace, who was trying to get the 1972 nomination. If Nixon pulled out too quickly, he warned, Wallace’s 13 per cent of the 1968 vote – he had run as an independent candidate on a segregationist ticket and split the right-wing vote – could balloon to 40 per cent. At the same time, he regularly lobbied California conservatives, led by the state’s governor, Ronald Reagan. Against their charges of appeasement and betrayal, Kissinger exaggerated the success of his bombing campaign in Laos and Cambodia. ‘We achieved what we were after,’ he said. He defended himself against staff members who resigned in protest over the 1970 invasion of Cambodia by telling them: ‘We are saving you from the right.’ ‘You are the right,’ they replied.

This triangulation could only work as long as détente seemed a viable solution to the cascading crises engulfing the country. In 1968, with the first extended postwar trade deficit, the devaluation of the dollar, the collapse of the gold standard, and increased competition from Europe, Japan and the Third World, the economy began to unravel. Détente became as much an economic strategy as a political one, a lifeline to the corporate base of the fraying New Deal coalition: military de-escalation would free up public revenue for productive investment and tamp down the inflationary pressures that scared the bond managers of multinational banks, while the normalisation of international relations would open the USSR, Eastern Europe and China for trade and investment.

But normalisation failed to solve the crisis of Keynesianism – China was a basketcase, while the economies of Eastern Europe and the USSR were too anaemic to absorb sufficient amounts of US capital and too baroque to serve as profitable trading partners – thus emboldening the Cold Warriors and other enemies of détente. After Nixon’s resignation, Reagan set his bid to steal the 1976 Republican nomination from Gerald Ford. He attacked Kissinger for bargaining away US interests in the Panama Canal and betraying friends in southern Africa and Taiwan. At the same time, Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s secretary of defense, and Dick Cheney, the White House chief of staff, joined forces to undercut Kissinger and derail a new Salt treaty with Russia. Cheney inserted a ‘morality plank’ into the Republican platform, repudiating the ‘undue concessions’ made in ‘secret agreements’ with the Soviets and calling for a foreign policy motivated not by power politics but by a ‘belief in the rights of man, the rule of law, and guidance by the hand of God’. In 1976, Ford banned Kissinger from giving a series of foreign policy speeches in California for fear he would accelerate the defection of conservative Republicans to Reagan. Thus the containment of Kissinger was an important first step in the restoration of righteousness in American diplomacy, a restoration completed by the ‘moral clarity’ that defined George W. Bush’s response to the attacks of 9/11.

There is a kink in this storyline, however, and that is Kissinger himself, who just won’t go away. In the autumn of 2002, as the Bush White House began its drumbeat on Iraq, Kissinger first warned that there was a need to build an international coalition, and then not only endorsed the invasion but linked it to the campaign to defeat al-Qaida, testifying before a Senate committee that the two goals were ‘so closely related that they cannot be separated, and … the attempt to separate them will make it difficult to achieve either. The war against terrorism will take many years. Dealing with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq cannot wait.’ And even as critics of the war were focusing their anger on the neo-Jacobinism of Paul Wolfowitz and Co, the old Metternich hand was, as Bob Woodward reported, exerting a ‘powerful, largely invisible influence on Bush’s Iraq policy’, regularly meeting with the president and Cheney, dusting off his old Vietnam-era memos to urge the administration to stay the course: ‘Withdrawal of US troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public: the more US troops come home, the more will be demanded. This could eventually result in demands for unilateral withdrawal.’

It is tempting to explain the return of Kissinger as either a sign of Bush’s turn to realism after his idealism broke on geopolitical reality or as an example of Kissinger’s famous ‘courtier’s instincts’, as Walter Isaacson once described his willingness to say what those in power want to hear in order to gain not so much influence as the illusion of influence, the old man’s ‘advice’ serving as cover for decisions already made.

There is some truth to both explanations, yet Kissinger-style realism and neocon idealism aren’t competing diplomatic impulses so much as mutually enabling conceits. Whether it’s Kissinger quietly endorsing killing and torture carried out by American allies in Latin America, Africa or South-East Asia, or William Kristol singing the praises of violent ‘regime change’ in the Middle East, there is little difference: both do so in the name of a greater good (order, freedom, democracy). There are continuities in tactics and style as well; Kissinger’s cynicism, deceitfulness and refusal to show remorse have set useful precedents for Bush and his enablers. And if you think that the Bush administration’s threat to use tactical nuclear weapons marked a radical break with a more rational multilateral past, it’s useful to be reminded that Kissinger not only advocated such a strategy in his early academic writings, he twice put the US on nuclear alert, hoping to scare the Soviets into thinking that Nixon was ‘mad’ enough to start an atomic war.

Reagan may have doubted his anti-Communist credentials, but Kissinger quickly accommodated himself to the New Right. ‘We all now turn to Ronald Reagan as the trustee of our hopes,’ he told the crowd at the 1980 nominating convention, which held him in only slightly less contempt than it did Jimmy Carter. He served as an unofficial adviser to the White House through the 1980s, and was chair of a ‘bipartisan’ committee that ratified Reagan’s murderous wars in Central America. Again, it would be accurate but not sufficient to attribute his rapprochement with the right to his chameleon character. His turn was part of a larger shift in which key institutions of the postwar mainstream that had supported détente – the Brookings Institution, the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations, of which Kissinger was and is a prominent member – made their peace with the Reagan revolution and, allowing for some mild criticism at the margins, with its domestic and foreign agenda: gutting the welfare state, steeply increasing defence spending, and escalating the Cold War. Even Nelson Rockefeller got on the bandwagon, dispatching an emissary to the 1980 Republican Convention to quell opposition among liberal Republicans to a party platform that would have been considered extremist just four years earlier.

In retrospect, Nixon’s was a transitional administration marking the passage from New Deal multilateralism to New Right militarism, moralism and pre-emption. Kissinger, in turn, was a transitional intellectual, and that is why his realism so easily bleeds into the idealism that justifies the destruction of Iraq.

A key aspect of the transition entailed figuring out how to deal with public scrutiny and dissent. In the few years before Nixon’s inauguration, all of the institutional pillars of society that previous administrations could rely on to uphold government legitimacy – the press, universities, the movie and music industries, churches and courts – came to push against it, creating what neoconservatives condemned as an entrenched ‘adversarial culture’. As Kissinger saw it, excessive government transparency allowed the citizen or journalist to focus on isolated events while ignoring the larger geopolitical picture. ‘The conduct of foreign policy is becoming nearly impossible under these conditions,’ he once exclaimed when a journalist confronted him with documents indicating that he and Vice President Gerald Ford had given Suharto the go-ahead to invade East Timor in 1975, resulting in the deaths of 200,000 people.

Nixon and Kissinger’s manoeuvres to avoid accountability – their wiretappings, burglaries and harassment of dissidents – are legendary, and often attributed to some character flaw, to paranoia or arrogance. Robert Dallek in Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power situates their deceitfulness within a broader transformation of diplomacy, where the line that separated foreign and domestic policy, always unclear, was practically erased.

Dallek’s book is exhaustive, based largely on recently declassified transcripts of phone conversations Kissinger had secretly recorded, as well as newly available Nixon tapes, White House memos, and the papers and diaries of H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, and Alexander Haig, Kissinger’s deputy at the National Security Council. In more than seven hundred pages, it is hard to find one foreign policy initiative that was not also conducted for domestic gain, to quiet dissent, best rivals, or make Nixon look like a ‘man of stature and wisdom’, positioning him for re-election in 1972. An early push to build an antiballistic missile system had less to do with Soviet power than with staging a confrontation with Congress to establish Nixon’s dominance over foreign policy. The president, with the help of Kissinger, won that fight by overstating the Soviet threat, and then gloated in a victory memo about the ‘“Nixon style” in dealing with the Congress’ without even mentioning national defence. In the Middle East, Dallek writes, ‘domestic politics was paramount.’ Nixon wanted to press Israel to give up its nuclear programme, but, not wanting to lose pro-Israel votes in Congress, relented. Nixon ‘saw more political than national security value’ in Salt talks, while Kissinger told the president that détente would ‘break the back of this generation of Democratic leaders’. ‘That’s right,’ Nixon responded, ‘we’ve got to destroy the confidence of the people in the American establishment.’

It was over Vietnam that foreign and domestic policy were most intertwined: the administration needed to get out of Vietnam to stop the haemorrhaging of its authority in the world and at home; to do this, Nixon and Kissinger worked to stabilise relations with China and the Soviet Union, so that they might each enlist their Communist rival to put pressure on North Vietnam and neutralise domestic demands for peace; yet they also felt compelled to expand the war into Cambodia and Laos, in order to force Hanoi to agree to a settlement that would respect the sovereignty of Saigon, thus allowing the White House both to retain its ‘credibility’ with allies and placate a restless right. ‘We must escalate or P is lost,’ Kissinger wrote to Nixon in 1970. The president was beginning to doubt the efficacy of the bombing campaign but Kissinger held that a good ‘jolt’ could break the impasse in Paris, where Hanoi’s negotiators refused to budge. Kissinger also thought escalation could end the political stalemate at home. The ‘reservoir of votes and support in the country was on the right’, Kissinger said. His belief that he could play the right off the left was foolish. He was not a mediator but a facilitator, laying the groundwork for the Reagan revolution, which did what he couldn’t, solving the crises of the 1970s not by covert violence justified by bland talk of ‘mutual co-operation’ but by overt militarism infused with the sense of American righteousness.

The methods employed by Nixon and Kissinger to circumvent democratic scrutiny of foreign policy have since become standard; they were deployed recently to discredit critics of and spread disinformation about the invasion of Iraq. At the same time, the line between foreign and domestic policy has continued to dissolve. At no point in American history have the domestic fortunes of the ruling coalition depended as much on foreign policy as those of today’s Republican Party, which uses national security and the ‘war on terror’ to bridge potentially crippling differences among its competing constituencies, between neocons and the religious right, say, or social liberals and cultural warriors. There is, though, one important difference between today’s Republicans and the Nixon White House, Kissinger’s staying power notwithstanding. In the 1970s, Nixon and Kissinger had to pay lip service to peace and disarmament, not just to silence the antiwar protesters, but to satisfy the ‘establishment’ against which Nixon railed and to which Kissinger reported. Today, the only way the Republicans can hope to win the coming presidential election is by promising not coexistence but perpetual conflict.

It is hard to reconcile Dallek’s Kissinger – jealous, sycophantic, duplicitous and striving – with the one in Jeremi Suri’s Henry Kissinger and the American Century. In Dallek, we see not a great negotiator but a naïf, manipulated by his more sophisticated Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese counterparts. Hanoi’s envoys to the Paris peace talks quickly detected Kissinger’s almost childish delight in participating in the rarefied world of cosmopolitan diplomacy, and took advantage of it to drag out the discussions to their advantage. ‘It’s obvious he can’t negotiate,’ Nixon complained. Kissinger deferred to Nixon’s anti-semitism, keeping Jews on his staff out of White House meetings, and flew into tantrums at imagined slights. ‘Henry persists in rushing in to the P and telling him we’re about to get into a war in the Middle East,’ Haldeman’s diary reads: ‘The P asks him what he wants to do about it. He doesn’t have any ideas, except that he wants to take over. The real problem is that Henry becomes extremely emotional about the whole thing.’

Suri’s Kissinger, in contrast, is a ‘heroic statesman’, a ‘man of passion who sought to do good in the world by making tough choices’ and who ‘entered politics for moral reasons’. Where Dallek sees opportunism, Suri discerns ‘flexibility’. Suri’s book is considerably shorter than Dallek’s but more ambitious, best thought of as a response to Christopher Hitchens’s 2001 polemic, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, which argued that Kissinger should be tried for crimes against humanity. Suri, in contrast, portrays his subject as a flawed but honourable statesman who ‘made many mistakes in trying circumstances’. Laos gets a footnote and Kissinger is condemned for his ‘failings of imagination’, particularly in Chile and Vietnam. But Suri doesn’t mention Kissinger’s support for the invasion of East Timor; his lack of interest in the murder of half a million Bengalis in Bangladesh in late 1971 by West Pakistan, Washington’s and China’s ally, unwilling to allow it to disrupt his career-making trip to Peking; his bankrolling of the Renamo rebels in Mozambique; or his part in the destruction of Cambodia, which helped bring the Khmer Rouge to power. ‘Thousands of people died because of Kissinger’s activities,’ Suri writes, though the figure could easily be put at more than a million. Kissinger, he asserts more than once, ‘was not a war criminal’.

Suri pleads for Kissinger’s actions to be placed in historical context to help us think about ‘why good men and women commit bad deeds’. It’s hardly a bold proposition for a historian, and it’s certainly true, as Suri argues, that Kissinger’s experiences – witnessing the collapse of German democracy and the rise of Nazism, his Jewishness and status as an immigrant in US society – shaped his diplomatic philosophy, especially his distrust of mass democracy. And Suri rightly focuses on the ‘global revolution of the late 1960s’ as a watershed for international relations, one Kissinger was well positioned to use to his advantage. Yet rather than situate this revolution in the economics and politics of the time, Suri describes it in terms uncannily similar to those used by his subject, as a generalised breakdown of authority. ‘Social and cultural traditions endured concerted attack,’ he writes, ‘fears of worldwide chaos replaced assumptions about international order’; political leaders ‘were traumatised’. It’s always hard to tell where Suri’s interpretation of Kissinger’s worldview ends and his own analysis begins: ‘Like the democracies on the eve of the Second World War, the citizens of the transatlantic community had become weak, divided and cowardly,’ he writes.

Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, once attacked the Carter administration for explaining world events in impersonal terms, as resulting from ‘processes’ or ‘forces’; this, she said, reflected analytical vacuity and moral disorientation. But Carter officials had nothing on Suri, who urges us to ‘understand the experience of Henry Kissinger and American power as processes of globalisation – the interpenetration of ideas, personalities and institutions from diverse societies’. ‘Kissinger and other statesmen,’ he writes, ‘remained subjects of larger revolutionary forces they could not control.’ For Suri, Kissinger’s ‘career, like the American Century as a whole’, unfolded in the passive tense. Both were ‘deeply affected – sometimes distorted – by external factors. These included military conflicts far from North America, the collapse of foreign societies, and the emergence of aggressive regimes. The American Century was a response to international transformations.’ This last phrase is repeated like a mantra, rendering history meaningless: ‘The American Century was a response to international transformations; it was a global century.’

Suri passionately argues that Kissinger’s commitment to the restoration of American power was deeply idealistic: he quotes Kissinger as saying that he acted to defend America for ‘its idealism, its humanity and its embodiment of mankind’s hopes’. Kissinger, Suri writes, ‘was defending his American dream in Vietnam’. Yet because Suri has such an amorphous understanding of politics, he is blind to the way his subject’s ‘moral reasons’, distrust of democratic oversight, and willingness to execute or condone carnage to advance American interests, helped deliver the US diplomatic establishment to the neoconservatives. At the end of his book he draws an absolute distinction between Bush’s response to 9/11 and ‘Kissinger’s more cautious and less democratic approach to power’, which makes one wonder how Kissinger’s covert bombing of two countries, not to mention putting the US military on nuclear alert, could be called cautious or how Bush’s ‘approach to power’ could be described as democratic.

Dallek isn’t a radical critic of US foreign policy, and his book is more likely to be given as a Christmas present than found on a seminar syllabus. Yet he grounds his history in the actions of real people, which allows him soberly to weigh the consequences of those actions. In contrast, Suri, often praised for bringing a ‘transnational’ perspective to diplomatic history, is more ambitiously trying to assess the meaning of the ‘American Century’. He implores us to consider the fullness of Kissinger’s life, yet he paints him in such woolly terms that he becomes universal, and historically inconsequential. ‘For all his distinctive characteristics,’ he writes, ‘Kissinger is one of us.’ He washes away Kissinger’s crimes – and by extension those of the ‘American Century’ – in a bath of banalities: Kissinger ‘did not seek to design a new sea for his life’s voyage. He sailed along the existing currents, tacking nimbly to catch the wind in his sails.’

When Suri asked Kissinger, in an interview for his book, to state his ‘core moral principles – the principles you would not violate’, Kissinger said he was ‘not prepared to share that yet’. Suri takes this as evidence of Kissinger wrestling with his conscience, with the fact that ‘good intentions often produce bad results.’ But Kissinger did have an answer to a similar question in 1971. What line, a journalist wanted to know, would have to be crossed before he would consider resigning. It was a good moment to ask, since Nixon and Kissinger, panicked that they could not get out of Vietnam before the 1972 election, had just begun bombing Laos again, part of an intermittent campaign in which the US would drop millions of tons of napalm, white phosphorus and high explosives, killing hundreds of thousands of Laotians. Kissinger responded that he would resign if the ‘whole trend of the policy became morally reprehensible to me’. But he wouldn’t criticise Nixon ‘unless gas chambers were set up or some horrendous moral outrage’. His failure decades later to summon up even this questionable response is not evidence of moral struggle but the silence of a man responsible for making ever more horrors justifiable in the name of national security.