June 5, 2007 – NEW YORK — They say America is the land of the second chance — the chance to make good on a promise, a project or a virtuous deed that might lead to redemption. But in the case of Henry Kissinger, the chances never seem to run out, no matter how much harm he does.
Twice in the last two months I’ve heard the world’s most famous (and venal) diplomat — now said by Bob Woodward to be advising President Bush on Iraq — make speeches that might be deemed comical if they weren’t so depressingly emblematic of this country’s endless tolerance for con men, courtiers and failures. Kissinger should have run out his string years ago, but there he was, nearly 84 and still vigorous, commanding the rapt attention of people who by now should know better.
How does he get away with it? The crimes committed by Kissinger in the service of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford are well known, exhaustively described by William Shawcross, Seymour Hersh and Christopher Hitchens, among others. I’ve always thought that Kissinger’s role in pointlessly prolonging the carnage of Vietnam while Nixon’s national security adviser was his greatest sin. But I don’t mean to minimize his other acts of diplomatic debauchery, both large (contributing to the destruction of Cambodia and the overthrow of Salvadore Allende, in Chile), and smaller (giving the green light to Indonesia’s immensely bloody invasion, and subsequent occupation, of East Timor).
I suspect that the secret to Kissinger’s enduring influence, against all moral suasion, is his sheer persistence. He is a tireless self-promoter, with more energy and vanity than men half his age. Last month, at the memorial service for Arthur Schlesinger Jr., this servant of Republican Party power was called upon to eulogize a man identified with the Democratic Party and the cause of liberalism. But before a packed audience of nearly 900 people that included Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Norman Mailer and Bill Clinton, Kissinger talked almost entirely about himself.
It seems that when Henry was a young professor at Harvard in the 1950s, he wrote Arthur a letter about nuclear- weapons policy in response to something Arthur had said. Next thing you know, Arthur had passed Henry’s great thoughts along to the editor of Foreign Affairs, resulting, Henry recalled, “in my first published piece on public policy.”
Imagine that. An Adlai Stevenson Democrat got Henry started in his villainous life in politics. Bravo for Arthur! Bravo for Henry! The “eulogy” continued in this narcissistic vein to the point where Kissinger might just as well have brought out his résumé and handed it to Clinton to pass on to future president Hillary. I’m not sure that Schlesinger would have wanted to be remembered as the man who launched Kissinger’s sordid career, but there was no stopping Henry’s ambition amid the historic grandeur of the Great Hall of Cooper Union, scene of one of Abraham Lincoln’s most celebrated speeches.
Two weeks later I got to observe Kissinger working another, more conservative room, this one filled with hundreds of admiring business people, members of the Economic Club of New York. In keeping with Kissinger’s courtier spirit, the lunch was held in the Trianon Room of the New York Hilton, and club president Barbara Franklin did her best to promote an atmosphere worthy of Versailles.
Kissinger, declared Franklin in her introduction, was “the most influential diplomat” of modern times, “his brilliance the stuff of legend.” But wait. Though “we still depend on him; we still need him,” the great man’s precious time had other claims upon it. Kissinger would have to cut short his answers during the question period after his speech, since his attendance was required that very evening at a White House state dinner honoring Queen Elizabeth II.
A collective frisson passed through the audience. But that wasn’t the only thing to get excited about. Something really, really important was in the offing. “In another break with precedent,” intoned Franklin, Kissinger’s talk would be off the record. A second frisson, and then the “one and only Henry Kissinger” approached the podium.
I furiously began scribbling in my notebook, to better violate the ground rules. Whispering “confidences” to docile reporters (“you’re the only one who can appreciate the sensitivity of this information”) to reward them for their servility is Kissinger’s stock in trade. In front of 500 or so people, the notion of an “off-the-record” speech was even more preposterous than the idea that Kissinger would ever tell a journalist anything important that he didn’t want known.
And, true to form, there was virtually nothing in the doctor’s speech that would have been worth quoting in a news story. Not always clearly understandable under the heavy German accent, Kissinger recounted a little bit of history studded with clichés: “In the 17th Century there emerged the idea of sovereign states” whose “frontiers were declared impermeable”; “Nationalist appeals to military service in Europe are in decline”; “Europe prefers the use of ‘soft’ power”; the United States is inclined toward the use of “ ‘hard’ power.”
Presumably to suggest an interest in stopping wars, Kissinger made vague reference to Emmanuel Kant’s essay “Perpetual Peace,” though he may have meant it ironically. In any event, he didn’t say anything of substance about the burning issues of the day, namely Iraq and Iran. Only truisms: The modern Middle East, apart from Iran, is made up of artificial states created by “Victorian powers” and “loyalties in the region were tribal and religious.” You don’t say.
Then this: “Vietnam had a definable opponent. . . . When I hear people say we should withdraw from Iraq or send more troops, people do not understand the turmoil we are facing. . . . We cannot let a region fall into the hands of a revolutionary group.” Nevertheless, “things are not hopeless.” For further information, you have to hire Kissinger Associates, and that costs a lot more than a ticket to an Economic Club luncheon.
Indeed, the only thing that Kissinger said that approached anything resembling candor was his statement that China could not maintain an annual growth rate of 11 percent “with an African standard of living in the interior of the country and a European standard on the coast.”
Kissinger’s tactics work wonders on the self-regarding rich. One of two after-lunch questioners, Richard Nixon’s son-in-law, lawyer Edward F. Cox, tried hard to outdo Franklin, calling Kissinger, “the pre-eminent strategic thinker of our time.” But a brilliant self-promoter doesn’t make a brilliant thinker or diplomat.
When, in answer to a question about the Suez crisis of 1956, Kissinger replied that “this was not [President Eisenhower’s] greatest moment,” I remembered just how shortsighted Kissinger can be. Suez was, in fact, one of Eisenhower’s four greatest moments as president, including the ending of the Korean War, the forced integration of Little Rock’s Central High School and his farewell address, in which he warned us about the “military-industrial complex.” Halting the British-French-Israeli seizure of the Suez Canal from Nasser’s Egypt was as principled as it was pragmatic: It told the world, not to mention millions of oppressed Muslims, that America would tolerate only so much re-colonization in the post-war era.
This was far too subtle and ethical for Kissinger, who, as a “private citizen,” in 1979, lobbied hard to admit the deposed shah of Iran to the United States for cancer treatment. Despite President Carter’s initial opposition and strong warnings from the American embassy in Tehran, Kissinger, David Rockefeller and their allies wore down the administration and got their way. The shah entered New York Hospital and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s outraged Revolutionary Guard, fearing a counterrevolutionary plot, seized the hostages at the U.S. embassy, permanently poisoning relations between Tehran and Washington. Now that we need Iran’s help in Iraq, Kissinger’s intervention on behalf of the shah looks worse every day.
But were the members of the Economic Club really as stupid as Kissinger thinks? After his stage-managed exit to attend to the Queen (and King George), I noticed a prominent real-estate man, a Democrat whom I know slightly, whispering earnestly to another guest: “Kissinger said nothing. That’s bad news because it means there’s no way out of Iraq.” I guess Bush must be really desperate. Or maybe he’s just as dumb as people say.
John R. MacArthur, a monthly contributor, is publisher of Harper’s Magazine.