I had a bad case of insomnia last night, which is why I didn’t wake up early and write about the death of Henry Kissinger at the overripe old age of 100. If I had, it probably would have run with a headline very similar to Spencer Ackerman’s Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class, Finally Dies. In a sense, that captures everything that needs to be said. Sadly.
Somewhere on my bookshelves I have a copt of David Rothkopf’s important 2006 book Running The World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power. It’s must reading for anyone concerned with American foreign policy is the second half of the 20th-Century. More recently, Rothkopf has been focused on the pernicious evil of Trumpism. In 2020, he wrote Traitor: A History of American Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump.
In the 2006 book, Rothkopf made very clear that virtually everyone of importance then involved in the National Security Council from both parties was mentored by Kissinger. It’s really striking how far Kissinger’s influence extended, including with Rothkopf himself who left the Clinton administration in the 1990’s to serve as managing director of Kissinger Associates, a geopolitical consulting firm Kissinger ran with former Clinton White House chief of staff Mack McLarty.
American critics of Kissinger tend to focus on the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam, and with good reason. Before he died, Anthony Bourdain famously wrote “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.” Of course, Bourdain also said he wanted to punch Kissinger in the face for his role in the death of 200,000 East Timorese, which is a rational response in my estimation. I don’t know for certain, but it’s probable that Bourdain wanted to pound Kissinger’s head with a mallet for his cynical betrayal of the Kurds.
“Promise them anything, give them what they get, and fuck them if they can’t take a joke.” –Kissinger to a staff member regarding the Kurds, 1975.
And who can forget Kissinger’s gift to Chile, Augusto Pinochet? I know you remember the fascist dictator who founded Operation Condor, persecuted leftists, executed thousands, tortured tens of thousands, and interred perhaps as many as 80,000 more.
People can throw around epithets like “war criminal,” but it doesn’t really hit home. Perhaps that’s why Ackerman compares Kissinger to Timothy McVeigh to make the point that McVeigh was a comparative piker in the creating death department.
McVeigh, who in his own psychotic way thought he was saving America, never remotely killed on the scale of Kissinger, the most revered American grand strategist of the second half of the 20th century.
The Yale University historian Greg Grandin, author of the biography Kissinger’s Shadow, estimates that Kissinger’s actions from 1969 through 1976, a period of eight brief years when Kissinger made Richard Nixon’s and then Gerald Ford’s foreign policy as national security adviser and secretary of state, meant the end of between three and four million people. That includes “crimes of commission,” he explained, as in Cambodia and Chile, and omission, like greenlighting Indonesia’s bloodshed in East Timor; Pakistan’s bloodshed in Bangladesh; and the inauguration of an American tradition of using and then abandoning the Kurds.
But you’ll never hear the Democratic establishment talk about Kissinger in these tones. Barack Obama and the Clintons will eulogize Kissinger just as they eulogized former Secretary of State Colin Powell who was similarly flawed but far more deserving.
I do believe we need to have a bipartisan foreign policy establishment that is respectful of each other, and saying nice things about the dead is part of the that. But Kissinger is the poster boy for all that can go wrong with this tradition. The man literally gargled the blood of innocents throughout the totality of his time in power, and he trained more than one generation of ensuing American statesmen and women to view the world through his lens.
The results were not good. Kissinger was a horrible, horrible person, a terrible American, a disastrous mentor and influence and he lived the fullest and most glamorous life imaginable. To top it off, now America’s elite will whitewash his record, exalt his career, and make all decent people throw up in their mouths a little.