Where Henry Kissinger's Dark Wisdom Blinds Him

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tags: Henry Kissinger, World Order



Jim Sleeper lectures in political science at Yale and posts frequently at TPM. He has been a New York newspaper columnist and is the author of "The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism." His website is www.jimsleeper.com.

For a man who's well-known to be prickly about what he's well-known for -- and who has just published World Order, a lofty, butt-covering assessment of how the world is unraveling without his grand strategy -- former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger can't have been happy to find himself in The New York Times two weeks ago under a headline, "Kissinger Drew Up Plans to Attack Cuba, Records Show." 

In 1976, the Times reports, he was so "apoplectic" about Fidel Castro's sending troops to support Communist insurgents in Angola that he wanted to, "as he said, 'cobber the pipsqueak," according to longtime Cuba expert Peter LeoGrande, who has co-authored a book with the relevant documents, newly declassified by the Ford Presidential Library.

In a substantial review-essay on Kissinger and his new book in the Los Angeles Review of Books, I mention briefly Kissinger's Angola plan (which was never implemented) and his well-documented, cold-blooded supporting roles in the (fully-implemented) carpet-bombing of Laos and Cambodia, the brutal coup and subsequent murderous regime of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis by Pakistan. 

Not surprisingly, Kissinger has been obsessed with butt-covering ever since, but his new book says little about these events and nothing about his role in them. He's attempting a magisterial survey of today's dimming prospects for world order and, with it, a valedictory defense of his conservative, state-centric, balance-of-power philosophy, by whose lights the outrages I've mentioned are incidental if brutal necessities in a world he considers fundamentally dark, cold, and hard. 

At bottom, I think, Kissinger is haunted not only by a tragic sense of life borne of his experience as a 15-year-old refugee from Hitler's Germany but also by his inability to reconcile them with his experience of the America that brought him deliverance even before he became a Harvard professor and then our Klemens von Metternich, the Hapsburg Empire's foreign minister of the early 19th Century.

Grateful though he is to America, Kissinger sometimes speaks as if dogged by an inner voice from his frightening early years that whispers, "It can happen here, too:" America's post-war good fortune was but a fortuitous, momentary convergence of possibilities that, in his cankered heart of hearts, Kissinger believes cannot last. 

Many Americans are coming to believe that, too, but for reasons quite different from his. American capitalism has produced not only the start-up entrepreneurialism we hear so much about but also "giant corporations that no longer care for the country," as George Packer reminded hundreds of students and faculty at a conference on "The Unmaking of Americans" sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, where he, Charles and others, including me, are holding forth on this country's prospects.

Kissinger's odd discomfort with the country he's lived in and served since 1938 may account for three blind spots in World Order that I sketch in the review: His presumptions to omniscience, coupled with thinly veiled contempt for democracy; his mild acceptance of the republic-dissolving wrecking ball that America's casino-like financing and consumer bamboozling capitalism is becoming; and his over-indulgence of hypocrisies inherent in serving unjustified concentrations of power. 

I hope that Americans will consider these blind spots, along with Kissinger's occasional indulgences of cold-blooded brutality, before over-praising his troves of wisdom and occasional elegance. There's much to be learned from World Order, I'm glad to acknowledge. But ultimately we'll have to decide how much of its author's pessimism about democracy we Americans need to incorporate into our national and global self-understandings if we hope to be a decent, even virtuous society as well as a strong one.




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