Indefensible Henry Kissinger

Standard

 

Can we please stop already with the tributes to Henry Kissinger? As more and more material gets declassified, there are periodic exposures of his uglier deeds. Walter Isaacson’s biography showed in detail how Kissinger had the FBI put wiretaps on journalists and government officials, including some of his own top staffers. A couple of years ago, it was revealed that back in 1975, while discussing how the Khmer Rouge had killed tens of thousands, he told Thailand’s foreign minister, “You should also tell the Cambodians”—the Khmer Rouge—“that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.” More recently, an Oval Office tape was released that captured Kissinger in 1973 saying, “if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

And yet Kissinger continues to be publicly lionized in some circles. After his remarkably successful decades-long marketing campaign, he can still call upon an impressive array of friends and cronies to promote him, give him fancy awards or explicitly exonerate him in the press. Last June, at his gala black-tie 90th birthday party at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, the guests included Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Barbara Walters, Tina Brown and hundreds more. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed him as an “indispensable statesman,” while Senator John McCain told a reporter, “I know of no individual who is more respected in the world than Henry Kissinger.”

Just this week, Kissinger will be speaking at the Center for the National Interest (CNI), a Washington think tank dedicated to realism and therefore regular encomiums to its most famous practitioner. Once again, he is more likely to be acclaimed than to face serious questions about, for instance, the 1972 “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong or the civilian death toll from the massive bombing of Cambodia.

***

Of all the incidents in Kissinger’s dark past, one of the least defensible must be his and President Richard Nixon’s staunch support of Pakistan’s military dictatorship while it carried out a bloody crackdown on its restive Bengali population in 1971. As Nixon’s national security adviser, Kissinger stood behind Pakistan—a Cold War ally that prized its close military and diplomatic relationship with the United States—even as it swept away the results of a democratic election, killed horrific numbers of Bengalis and targeted the Hindu minority among Bengalis. He reserved his vitriol for India. And he trashed the career of Archer Blood, the brave U.S. consul general in Dhaka who, while witnessing and documenting the onslaught against the Bengalis, dissented from the White House’s pro-Pakistan policy. Here is a case where you’d think that even Kissinger’s most ardent defenders might settle for an embarrassed silence.

Not so. Confronted with the facts in my new book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, Robert D. Blackwill makes a plea for sympathy—not for the hundreds of thousands of Bengalis killed, nor for the 10 million refugees or the traumatized survivors, but for “those at the top of the U.S. government who have to make momentous decisions.” In an expanded essay in The National Interest (which is published by CNI and whose honorary chairman is Kissinger), Blackwill goes further: “We should be grateful” to Nixon and Kissinger for their actions.

These apologetics make a revealing case study in how Kissinger’s reputation stays afloat. Rather than grappling with Nixon’s racist contempt for Indians, or Kissinger’s ignorance about South Asia or emotional misjudgments, Blackwill’s ahistorical piece rests on the careful skewing of the record.

When Kissinger’s actions get too indefensible, Blackwill simply ignores them. Take Nixon and Kissinger’s illegal arms transfers to Pakistan during its December 1971 war against India, where Blackwill goes to considerable lengths to overlook what Nixon and Kissinger knew full well: that they were breaking U.S. law. “Is it really so much against our law?” Nixon asked Kissinger, who admitted that it was. Blackwill ignores such evidence from the White House tapes, as well as the warnings of White House staffers and State Department and Pentagon lawyers that such arms transfers were violations of U.S. law. Instead, trying to change the subject, he writes, “Bass expresses indignation at this proposal, suggesting that it was undertaken to assist in the repression of civilians in East Pakistan”—even though these pages in my book actually concentrate on how Nixon and Kissinger broke the law. Blackwill can’t defend Kissinger for breaking U.S. law, but he can’t criticize Kissinger either, so he just pretends it never happened.

Blackwill’s method throughout is to avert his gaze from the most important evidence at the highest levels, particularly the White House tapes of Nixon and Kissinger’s most unguarded conversations, and stare selectively instead at a small portion of the less revealing stuff: Kissinger’s self-serving memoirs and books, public declarations, big interagency meetings, mid-level statements. This gives a systematic slant to Blackwill’s reading of events, which unsurprisingly validates his own ideological predilections. Anyone wanting the complete story can check out more than 2,600 footnotes in my book (the product of almost four years of comprehensive research in U.S. and Indian archives, untold thousands of declassified pages, and unheard White House tapes), rather than Blackwill’s slipshod little sketch. His real problem is that The Blood Telegram painstakingly documents Nixon and Kissinger’s whole record and draws measured and reasoned conclusions that don’t flatter Kissinger.

While Blackwill—a former senior George W. Bush administration official who is now, aptly enough, the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations—wants to believe that Nixon and Kissinger were masters of clear-eyed realpolitik, the White House tapes demonstrate that they were all too often driven by emotion and bias. Don’t take my word for it: At the time, Nixon called Kissinger “emotional” and wondered if he needed psychiatric care; Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman saw him as “overexcited” and “overdepressed about his failures”; George H. W. Bush, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, found him “very excitable, very emotional almost” and “paranoid.”

Blackwill sidesteps my book’s abundant evidence of Oval Office passion and bigotry only by raising the non-issue of profanity, pretending that I am “curiously offended that conversations in the Oval Office are often not the stuff of a church social.” In fact, the candid quotes from Nixon and Kissinger are salient because they are cruel, racist or reckless, not because they are PG-13. (I even point out that Kissinger didn’t swear much, tending toward “balderdash” or “poppycock.”) Indeed, some of Nixon’s harshest utterances about Indians use perfectly printable language: “I don’t know why the hell anybody would reproduce in that damn country but they do.” Kissinger joked about the massacre of Bengali Hindus, and, his voice dripping with contempt, sneered at Americans who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.” Is Blackwill really untroubled by such statements?

Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/01/indefensible-kissinger-102123.html#ixzz2qNbQuOxR

Ben Gurion: . . . if he were caught between the rise of al-Qaeda and Iran and the decline of the United States?

Standard

What Would Ben-Gurion Do

What Would Ben-Gurion Do

David Ben-Gurion with IDF Commander Yossef Nevo and Mayor of Jerusalem Mordechai Ish-Shalom at an army post at the Jerusalem border, 1962. By David Harris.

Ofir Haivry in “Israel in the Eye of the Hurricane” calls for reviving David Ben-Gurion’s activist school of foreign policy. In building his case for the rightness of such a policy, Haivry provides us not only with an insightful survey of the historical development of Israeli strategy but also with a framework for comparing policies across time periods. His approach is particularly helpful in pointing out the complex interconnections among local, regional, and global politics.

But in taking the view from 30,000 feet, Haivry misses the specific dilemma that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now faces: Israel is caught uncomfortably between the decline of American power and the rise of al-Qaeda and Iran.

As Haivry observes, America is pulling back. In the words of former National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, the Obama administration has determined that the United States is “overinvested” in the Middle East. President Obama, therefore, has shown himself to be deeply reluctant to commit the U.S. to any initiative designed to shape a new regional order. This standoffishness has resulted in a power vacuum. The vacuum is most obvious in Syria, where Shiite Iran and Sunni al-Qaeda are both growing increasingly powerful even as they vie with each other for influence.

For Israel, the dilemma arises not so much from America’s withdrawal as from the decidedly partial character of that withdrawal. Although Obama has taken one step out the door, the other foot is still planted firmly in place. At the United Nations General Assembly in September, for example, he targeted two problems for energetic solution: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. He could not have chosen two issues of greater concern to Israel. While other Middle Eastern leaders complain of an aloof and distant America, the Israeli prime minister finds himself hosting Secretary of State John Kerry nearly once a month. In short, Obama has boxed Netanyahu in.

 

As historical coincidence would have it, however, Ben-Gurion had to grapple with an analogous dilemma, and in doing so his activist school reached the zenith of its influence. In the mid-1950s, as radical pan-Arabism shook the region, the Eisenhower administration, which leaned toward the side of the Arab states, was singularly fixated on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict. The best way to achieve that goal, the President believed, was to force Israel to make painful territorial concessions.

And there was more. In 1955, Gamal Abd al-Nasser, the charismatic young leader of Egypt and champion of pan-Arabism, had signed a massive arms deal with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower chose to interpret Nasser’s move as a hedge against Israel rather than a rejection of the West per se. Rolling back Israel could therefore also serve as a means of wooing Nasser away from the USSR.

Not surprisingly, a significant gap in perception opened up between Jerusalem and Washington. The Americans fawned over Nasser; the Israelis increasingly saw him as an existential threat. As a result, Ben-Gurion was forced to adopt a bifurcated strategy. Wherever possible, he showed deference to the United States—making sure, for example, to cooperate with Eisenhower’s Arab-Israeli peace initiative. At the same time, in a practice that enraged the Americans, he did not refrain from launching aggressive border raids against his neighbors, including Egypt.

Events reached a high point in 1956 when, ignoring explicit American warnings, Israel launched a war against Egypt in concert with the French and the British. That coalition was itself very much the product of the preceding two years of Israeli activism. By demonstrating Israel’s willingness to act independently of Washington, and by showcasing considerable military prowess, Ben-Gurion had laid the groundwork for an alliance with France that in the next decade would prove a godsend to the newly independent Jewish state. It was, indeed, the French who roped the British into the coalition against Egypt.

 

Although much has changed since then, there is a good deal to be learned from this historical example. Specifically, if Israel were to revitalize Ben-Gurion’s activism in today’s circumstances, what goals would it pursue?

In addressing this question, Haivry himself argues in favor of “abandoning the preoccupation of the last decades with two issues at the expense of virtually all others: namely, the conflict with the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear threat.” Ben-Gurion’s track record suggests otherwise, especially with regard to Iran.

In the 1950s, the Israeli leader’s top priority was arresting the advance of Egyptian militarypower. The Soviet arms deal gave Nasser an edge: an advantage that to Ben-Gurion represented a threat on the same order as the Iranian nuclear threat represents to Israel today. Indeed, if Ben-Gurion were reincarnated as an adviser to Netanyahu, he would undoubtedly draw a parallel between the rise of Iran as a nuclear power—and the American posture that has inadvertently facilitated that rise—and his own experience with Nasser.

Just like Egypt in the 1950s, Iran today presents a nexus of three key factors: malevolent intention, lethal capabilities, and strategic determination. None of Israel’s other antagonists on the Middle East scene exhibits such a multidimensional challenge. Al-Qaeda, to be sure, is fearsome. But Sunni jihadism in general is organizationally fragmented, militarily weak, and strategically inept. The danger it poses to Israel is real enough, but hardly rises to the level of an existential threat.

The primacy of the Iranian challenge raises a key question. If Ben-Gurion were alive today, would he urge Netanyahu to follow his example in 1956 and launch a strike against Iran that could, plausibly, turn into full-scale war? The answer is almost assuredly no.

Let’s assume that Israel actually possesses the military capability to destroy the Iranian nuclear program (a big assumption). In the event that led to all-out military confrontation, it would lack great-power support, something that Ben-Gurion regarded as an absolute prerequisite. In 1956, he gave the order to attack only after he had ensured the backing of Britain and France.

Netanyahu enjoys no such support today. Getting into a war with Iran all by himself would be easy enough. But getting out of it would require the good offices of the United States, which he cannot count on.

 

This, however, does not entirely nullify the activist option. Extrapolating from his behavior in 1954-55, but stopping short of war, Ben-Gurion would press forward with the most muscular policy possible, especially through an aggressive covert campaign against the Iranian nuclear program. All the while, using the model of Britain and France in 1956, he would search for actors willing to partner with Israel against Iran on the wider Mideast scene.

Granted, it is not entirely clear that such actors exist; but the possibility is insufficiently explored in Haivry’s analysis. For example, after discussing the three “clusters” of states in today’s Middle East, Haivry writes: “Israel is, to say the least, not a good fit for any of these regional groupings.” He thereby scants one of the most striking developments of the last three years—namely, the confluence of interests between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states, Saudi Arabia first and foremost.

A reincarnated Ben-Gurion would certainly investigate whether behind-the-scenes cooperation between Riyadh and Jerusalem was possible, and whether an activist foreign policy could help to solidify it. The arena offering the greatest potential for such cooperation is Syria, where shifting the balance against Iran’s proxy Hizballah is in the interest of both the Saudis and the Israelis. An additional advantage in Syria is that Netanyahu can act aggressively there without unduly complicating relations with Washington.

Of course, the impediments to cooperation between Jerusalem and Riyadh are considerable, and it would be difficult to pull off even a covert alignment with any effectiveness. But the Middle East is changing rapidly, and the stakes are very high. It would be a mistake to assume that yesterday’s impossibility will remain unthinkable tomorrow.

Who knows? In the process of courting the Gulf states, Netanyahu might even find other partners whose cooperation he could not have foreseen. After all, Ben-Gurion planned neither the alliance with France nor the alignment with Britain. It was his activism that generated both relationships. Activism, he understood, was a form of advertisement.