Henry Kissinger was the master of Realpolitik – the amoral assessment of national interests. He was certainly aware of humanitarian concerns and doing the right thing and all that idealistic talk about spreading freedom and democracy, but that was irrelevant to his work. His work was diplomacy and he was the ultimate pragmatist. We could support brutal dictators, or those who overthrew brutal dictators – it didn’t matter. He held that the only thing that really mattered was our basic national interests – safety and prosperity – and that usually left only one geopolitical alternative. Sometimes you do awful things – send in a team to take out a newly elected leader who is obviously going to cause trouble, support a genocidal murderer who will be on our side in important other matters, bomb the crap out of Cambodia or whatever. This does ignore an array of values that almost everyone has – common decency and the sense that killing a whole lot of people might be a bit wrong. Kissinger pretty much shrugged at anyone who had that sort of sense of right and wrong. That had nothing to do with his work.
Kissinger obviously got no points for being warm and fuzzy, and many came to see him as a bit of a moral monster. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a long thundering book about that – the man was a mass murderer – but the man did win the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of our war in Vietnam, giving us the “peace with honor” the Nixon had promised. We got neither from that Paris treaty – the war would actually end two years later when our last chopper lifted off from the roof of our embassy in Saigon – we ended up giving up everything – but somehow Kissinger’s reputation didn’t suffer. He was a wise man. He knew things. He wasn’t a nice man, but he knew things, and he could get things done. He was born in Fürth, Bavaria, in Germany. He never lost the accent. Germans get things done, and he was our secretary of state for most of the seventies. He defined those times. It was a brutal time.
Henry Kissinger is ninety-two now. No one any longer asks him for advice – the world has changed and he’s a frail old man – but somehow he’s back in the news. Gary Bass at Politico explains how that happened:
Of all the dastardly deeds for which Henry Kissinger can be blamed, here’s an especially odd one: he made Hillary Clinton lose a foreign policy debate with Bernie Sanders. Last night at the Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee, in a moment to baffle the youthful voters who helped give Sanders his crushing victory over Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, Sanders (age 74) blasted his opponent (age 68) for being too cozy with Kissinger (age 92).
Yes, that happened, and it was odd:
Kissinger usually gets a free pass in Washington, where celebrity has a way of overshadowing historical analysis, but it’s still jarring to see Hillary Clinton embracing him. After all, in her youth, she protested against the Vietnam War and served as a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee considering impeaching President Richard Nixon for Watergate. But in more recent days, she lauded Kissinger’s historic outreach to China in her 2014 memoir Hard Choices, and wrote a fawning Washington Post review of his latest book in September 2014, calling him a personal friend and adviser while praising the book as “vintage Kissinger, with his singular combination of breadth and acuity.”
It takes a stone-cold pragmatist to know one, but Bass notes that this one is troublesome:
Despite Kissinger’s efforts to cultivate Clinton and other grandees, his reputation has been undermined by the realities revealed on the White House tapes. In 1969, he recommended a risky nuclear alert in 1969 to spook the Soviet Union. In September 1971, he privately told Nixon, “If we had done Cambodia in ’66 and Laos in ’67, the war would be history.” And in 1971, in one of the darkest American chapters of the Cold War, he and Nixon supported a brutal military dictatorship in Pakistan while it unleashed a devastating crackdown on what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh. Both the CIA and the State Department conservatively estimated that about two hundred thousand people perished, while ten million desperate Bengali refugees fled into India. Kissinger joked about the massacre of Bengali Hindus, and privately scorned those Americans who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.”
That’s what Hitchens was talking about, and now this:
In the Milwaukee debate, Sanders announced that he had a “very profound difference” with Clinton. “In her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger,” he said with disbelief. “Now I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.” He slammed Kissinger for bombing Cambodia, which “created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some three million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.”
Bass was impressed:
Sanders’ attack was doubly effective, giving him a rare chance to put his rival – a confident former secretary of state who is noticeably more adept on world politics – on the defensive on foreign policy, while also tarring Clinton as a profane creature of Washington. He got to showcase himself as someone who hadn’t been slowly corrupted by establishment cronyism. And the voters who are likeliest to care about this 1970s flashback aren’t Sanders’ young enthusiasts, but baby boomers who should be in Clinton’s camp.
That’s good politics:
Hillary Clinton’s response in the Milwaukee debate was flat-footed. Surely there must be issues where she disagrees with Kissinger. But rather than offering any criticism of him, or mentioning her own opposition to the Vietnam war, she ducked by saying that “whatever the complaints you want to make about him are,” Kissinger is worth talking to because of his “his ongoing relationships with the leaders of China” – a formulation which, while correctly noting Kissinger’s formidable guanxi in Beijing, sounds like cronyism taken to a global level.
And this may have echoes:
It’s unlikely that Kissinger is going to be too upset about the disfavor of a Vermont socialist, but this fracas still makes a disagreeable change of pace for someone whose experience of primary season usually consists of Republican presidential candidates lining up to pay homage to him. Sanders gave a welcome reminder of how insipid American political debates about foreign policy usually are, which was momentarily bad for Hillary Clinton and, if it sticks, more lastingly bad for Henry Kissinger. Despite Kissinger’s impressive efforts to gloss his historical legacy, the truth has a way of coming out.
Bass is the author of The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide – Bass is not a disinterested observer, if that matters. It doesn’t. Bernie Sanders did point out something essential here. It’s not just that “the establishment” hangs together no matter what – Kissinger can be a mass murderer but he’s one of the movers and shakers – it’s that Hillary Clinton admires a man who as coldly pragmatic as she says she is.
That is who she is. In 2008, she mocked Obama:
“Now, I could stand up here and say, ‘Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified,'” Clinton said to laughter of the crowd.
“The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect,” she said dryly as the crowd erupted.
“Maybe I’ve just lived a little long, but I have no illusions about how hard this is going to be,” Clinton continued. “You are not going to wave a magic wand to make special interests disappear.”
Forget that hope and change nonsense. Abandon hope. The next president needs to be cold and calculating. Feelings might get hurt, people might get hurt, but what did that matter? She could get things done.
That might have sounded better in the original German, or with Kissinger’s German accent, but she hasn’t changed. Sanders wants single-payer healthcare? Get real. It can’t be done. He wants to break up the big banks? Don’t be stupid. Drop the emotions and the moral arguments. Do the cold calculation. Do a Kissinger. She didn’t bring him up by accident.
Dan Froomkin adds a bit more:
Clinton and Sanders stand on opposite sides of that divide. One represents the hawkish Washington foreign policy establishment, which reveres and in some cases actually works for Kissinger. The other represents the marginalized non-interventionists, who can’t possibly forgive someone with the blood of millions of brown people on his hands.
Kissinger is an amazing and appropriate lens through which to see what’s at stake in the choice between Clinton and Sanders. But that only works, of course, if you understand who Kissinger is – which surely many of today’s voters don’t.
She’s counting on that, but she has her advisors:
Clinton is clearly picking from the usual suspects – the “securocrats in waiting” who make up the Washington, D.C., foreign policy establishment.
They work at places like Albright Stoneridge, the powerhouse global consulting firm led by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, a staunch Clinton backer. They work at places like Beacon Global Strategies, which is providing high-profile foreign policy guidance to Clinton – as well as to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. And they work at places like Kissinger Associates. In fact, Bob Hormats, who was a Goldman Sachs vice chairman before serving as Clinton’s undersecretary of state, is now advising Clinton’s campaign even while serving as the vice chairman of Kissinger Associates.
Despite the wildly bellicose and human rights-averse rhetoric from the leading Republican presidential candidates, they’re picking from essentially the same pool as well.
That’s Kissinger and Goldman Sachs and Hillary Clinton all tied up with a nice little bow. Bernie Sanders seems to sense that, but he’s outnumbered:
Imagine two types of people: those who would schmooze with Kissinger at a cocktail party, and those who would spit in his eye. The elite Washington media is almost without exception in that first category. In fact, they’d probably have anyone who spit in Kissinger’s eye arrested.
Since they only see one side, they don’t want to get into it. And there was a little indicator at Thursday night’s debate, hosted by PBS, of just how eagerly the elite political media welcomes an honest exploration of the subject.
Just as Sanders raised the issue of Kissinger’s legacy in Vietnam either Gwen Ifill or Judy Woodruff – both of whom are very conventional, establishment, Washington cocktail-party celebrities – was caught audibly muttering, “Oh, God.”
This seems almost personal, and David Corn says it is:
What Clinton did not mention was that her bond with Kissinger was personal as well as professional, as she and her husband have for years regularly spent their winter holidays with Kissinger and his wife, Nancy, at the beachfront villa of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, who died in 2014, and his wife, Annette, in the Dominican Republic. …
They pal around together. On June 3, 2013, Hillary Clinton presented an award to de la Renta, a good friend who for years had provided her dresses and fashion advice, and then the two of them hopped over to a 90th birthday party for Kissinger. In fact, the schedule of the award ceremony had been shifted to allow Clinton and de la Renta to make it to the Kissinger bash. (Secretary of State John Kerry also attended the party.) The Kissingers and the de la Rentas were longtime buddies. Kissinger wrote one of his recent books while staying at de la Rentas’ mansion in the Dominican Republic and dedicated the book to the fashion designer and his wife.
The Clintons and Kissingers appear to spend a chunk of their quality time together at that de la Renta estate in the Punta Cana resort. Last year, the Associated Press noted that this is where the Clintons take their annual Christmas holiday.
That just makes this even odder:
When awarding herself the Kissinger seal of approval to bolster her standing as a competent diplomat and government official, Hillary Clinton has not referred to the annual hobnobbing at the de la Renta villa. So when Sanders criticized Clinton for playing the Kissinger card – “not my kind of guy,” he declared – whether he realized it or not, he was hitting very close to home.
Lawrence Korb, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and leads the think-tank-life now, brings this back to policy:
On CNN last week and on Meet the Press this week, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders cited me as someone who has given him foreign policy advice. I admit I was surprised to hear this – I have spoken to Senator Sanders only once since he declared his candidacy, in October. In the time since, this fact has been used by the media and his opponents to cast doubt on Sanders’ foreign policy credibility, to point out a supposed weak spot in a surging candidacy: Since I’m not on his campaign, and have met with him only once, how serious could Sanders – the socialist crusader battling the former secretary of state – really be?
The answer is: serious. Since Sanders’ public mention of me, I have been asked repeatedly whether I think his foreign policy positions and experience are sound. I do.
That’s because the guy isn’t Henry Kissinger:
In my dealings with him, and in analyzing his record in Congress over the past 25 years, I have found that Sanders has taken balanced, realistic positions on many of the most critical foreign policy issues facing the country. In the mold of realists like Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush, Sanders voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2002, while wisely supporting the war against in Afghanistan in 2001 and the intervention in the Balkans in 1990s. And Sanders certainly isn’t a foreign policy lightweight: In fact, given his long tenure in the House and Senate, he has more foreign policy experience than Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama did when they were running for office the first time.
What would a President Sanders’ foreign policy look like? Based on his record and my conversation with him, I believe it would be rooted in a number of key principles. First is restraint in using American force abroad. As he has stated, and as is demonstrated by his vote against the Iraq War and the first Gulf War, Sanders believes military action should be the last, not first, option and that, when taken, such action should be multilateral. I also believe, based on our conversation, that he would follow the Weinberger Doctrine (also known as the Powell Doctrine): When the United States uses military force abroad, our objectives should be clear, we should be prepared to use all the force necessary to achieve those objectives, and we should know when they have been achieved.
Korb then makes curious comparisons:
A President Sanders would govern more like a President Dwight Eisenhower, who refused to give in to the demands of the military-industrial complex even after the Russians launched Sputnik, and focused on nation-building at home rather than spending billions on unnecessary weapons systems. Or like Nixon, who cut defense spending dramatically and developed a health care plan more inclusive than Obamacare. Or like Obama, who not only reached out to Iran, but also has tried to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, and who restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.
And experience, like Hillary’s, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be:
It is hard to know what challenges the next president might face. That’s why, ultimately, judgment matters more than experience for a potential president. The presidents I have advised – Reagan and Obama, as well as George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State John Kerry – all showed great judgment in considering, but not bowing to, the advice of the foreign policy establishment. Reagan proved wise in choosing to withdraw from Lebanon and negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev, and Obama has smartly avoided getting involved in the Syrian civil war, negotiated an arms-control deal with Iran and set a deadline to end the surge in Afghanistan.
I have no doubt that Sanders will be willing to challenge the foreign policy establishment, as Obama did on such issues.
Does Sanders have the same amount of foreign policy experience as Hillary Clinton? Obviously not. But Bill Clinton had far less foreign policy experience than George H. W. Bush, and Obama had less than John McCain – and both presidents had effective foreign policies. If he is elected, I believe Sanders will also be able to attract a competent foreign policy cohort, just as Obama did – including many of the current Clinton team. With the right partners in place – and, above all, the right principals and instincts – a President Sanders could be just the foreign policy president we need.
If so, then why is Hillary Clinton bringing up her good friend Henry Kissinger, the master of amoral if not immoral Realpolitik, as her hero? This may be more than a bit of shameless name-dropping. She seems to be saying that she has the same principals and instincts. Do we want to go there again? How many millions of dead people do we want this time? It’s too bad that, for most people, Henry Kissinger is just a vaguely-remembered name of someone or other from long ago. But others remember. That was a frightening moment at that debate.