Greg Grandin: Kissinger and Bush Neocons ... two peas in a pod

Roundup: Talking About History

[Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University. He is the author of The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War.]

After Nixon’s resignation, Reagan set his bid to steal the 1976 Republican nomination from Gerald Ford. He attacked Kissinger for bargaining away US interests in the Panama Canal and betraying friends in southern Africa and Taiwan. At the same time, Donald Rumsfeld, Ford’s secretary of defense, and Dick Cheney, the White House chief of staff, joined forces to undercut Kissinger and derail a new Salt treaty with Russia. Cheney inserted a ‘morality plank’ into the Republican platform, repudiating the ‘undue concessions’ made in ‘secret agreements’ with the Soviets and calling for a foreign policy motivated not by power politics but by a ‘belief in the rights of man, the rule of law, and guidance by the hand of God’. In 1976, Ford banned Kissinger from giving a series of foreign policy speeches in California for fear he would accelerate the defection of conservative Republicans to Reagan. Thus the containment of Kissinger was an important first step in the restoration of righteousness in American diplomacy, a restoration completed by the ‘moral clarity’ that defined George W. Bush’s response to the attacks of 9/11.

There is a kink in this storyline, however, and that is Kissinger himself, who just won’t go away. In the autumn of 2002, as the Bush White House began its drumbeat on Iraq, Kissinger first warned that there was a need to build an international coalition, and then not only endorsed the invasion but linked it to the campaign to defeat al-Qaida, testifying before a Senate committee that the two goals were ‘so closely related that they cannot be separated, and . . . the attempt to separate them will make it difficult to achieve either. The war against terrorism will take many years. Dealing with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq cannot wait.’ And even as critics of the war were focusing their anger on the neo-Jacobinism of Paul Wolfowitz and Co, the old Metternich hand was, as Bob Woodward reported, exerting a ‘powerful, largely invisible influence on Bush’s Iraq policy’, regularly meeting with the president and Cheney, dusting off his old Vietnam-era memos to urge the administration to stay the course: ‘Withdrawal of US troops will become like salted peanuts to the American public: the more US troops come home, the more will be demanded. This could eventually result in demands for unilateral withdrawal.’

It is tempting to explain the return of Kissinger as either a sign of Bush’s turn to realism after his idealism broke on geopolitical reality or as an example of Kissinger’s famous ‘courtier’s instincts’, as Walter Isaacson once described his willingness to say what those in power want to hear in order to gain not so much influence as the illusion of influence, the old man’s ‘advice’ serving as cover for decisions already made.

There is some truth to both explanations, yet Kissinger-style realism and neocon idealism aren’t competing diplomatic impulses so much as mutually enabling conceits. Whether it’s Kissinger quietly endorsing killing and torture carried out by American allies in Latin America, Africa or South-East Asia, or William Kristol singing the praises of violent ‘regime change’ in the Middle East, there is little difference: both do so in the name of a greater good (order, freedom, democracy). There are continuities in tactics and style as well; Kissinger’s cynicism, deceitfulness and refusal to show remorse have set useful precedents for Bush and his enablers. And if you think that the Bush administration’s threat to use tactical nuclear weapons marked a radical break with a more rational multilateral past, it’s useful to be reminded that Kissinger not only advocated such a strategy in his early academic writings, he twice put the US on nuclear alert, hoping to scare the Soviets into thinking that Nixon was ‘mad’ enough to start an atomic war....

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Arnold Shcherban - 11/28/2007

<Bush making democracy central to American foreign policy>?
What democracy?
Oh, that democracy... of bombs
and death squads, trained by the same US "specialists" that trained the death squads in Central America's proxy wars of 1980s that left the affected countries in ruins with dozens of thousands dead and destroying (with no end in sight) Iraq's (already weakened by murderous sanctions) economy, infrastructure, and the nation, as a whole.
The "democracy" that existed under Taliban, led to power and supported until 2001 by its American friends.
The "democracy" that existed for many years in Pakistan under military
rule, the regime that was uneqiuvocal sponsor and supporter of Punjabian terrorism against India which took away many thousands of lives... while being military and otherwise equipped by the same USA (despite its illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons.)

The "democracy" of Roaylty and religious fanaticism in Saudi Arabia,
our dear Middle Eastern friends and allies, and finally the "democracy"
of Kuwait and Arab Emirates practically medieval
regimes (within modern decor) based on a revulsive mixture of religious fanaticism, greed, and fear of Western imperialism.
Oops, I forgot that Mr. Keuter does not recognize what about 80% of the world's population with historians, and intellectuals among them(obviuosly "crazy" Leftists) characterize as Western Imperialism.
Alas, even that is nothing new: vicious double standards around such terms as "democracy", "aggression", "terrorism", "torture", "savagery", etc. have been axiomatized theoretically and contiliously applied in foreign policies practically by the Western ideological mainstream and the respective governments since 19th century up to these days.

Jason Blake Keuter - 11/27/2007

The critics of Bush'sforeign policy have unwittingly adopted Kissinger Realism as the basis of their criticism. Formerly, the left criticized Kissinger for cozying up to non-democratic regimes. Now the left criticizes Bush for making democracy central to American foreign policy because it is so "unrealistic" - democracy, it turns out, is a cultural construct, and an AMerican foreign policy that encourages it, is thus imperialistic. One that doesn't, is imperialistic too.

The obvious point, is that there is no real underlying principle in the left's foreign policy - it simply springs from anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism and, at heart, anti-liberalism as well.

One need only read Paul Krugman's pieces on Kissinger to see that the so called liberals are now the champions of the very thing they called vile just a generation ago. Krugman overtly champions Kissinger's Realpolitik.