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Kissinger: The Great Showman

Posted on Saturday, December 2, 2023
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AMAC Exclusive – By Walter Samuel

Kissinger being sworn in as Secretary of State by Chief Justice Warren Burger, September 22, 1973. Kissinger's mother, Paula, holds the Bible as President Nixon looks on.
Kissinger being sworn in as Secretary of State by Chief Justice Warren Burger, September 22, 1973. Kissinger's mother, Paula, holds the Bible as President Nixon looks on.

During a February 2016 debate against Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton invoked the authority of the now-late Henry Kissinger, who passed away on Wednesday. “I was very flattered when Henry Kissinger said I ran the State Department better than anybody had run it in a long time,” Clinton proudly proclaimed. Senator Sanders was not having any of it. He pledged not to take the advice of a man who Sanders described as “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.”

Bernie Sanders may have lost the battle in his two failed presidential bids, but ultimately he won the war. When Joe Biden issued a statement to mark Kissinger’s passing, it pointedly excluded any of the praise or adoration Hillary had sought to convey.

“Throughout our careers, we often disagreed. And often strongly,” the White House release reads, going on to recognize Kissinger’s “fierce intellect and profound strategic focus.” Instead of being a political asset, Kissinger had become an embarrassment, especially to a president who, despite presiding over the most left-wing administration in history, was unable to even attend the funeral of Rosalynn Carter without being assaulted by angry protestors accusing him of “genocide.”

Kissinger was no stranger to controversy or criticism; in fact, he actively courted it. To my parents’ generation, it seemed almost unbelievable that the film Dr. Strangelove predated Kissinger’s debut on the national stage, so closely did he seem to ape the mannerisms and image of the film’s title character.

Kissinger was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who fought in the Second World War and helped liberate concentration camps, but the charges that he was somehow a “Nazi,” while unfair and absurd, did not emerge from the ether. He actively cultivated his image as a villain, almost relishing in the scheming conversations with Richard Nixon in the leaked Watergate tapes.

Kissinger was a showman. Throughout his career, he was engaged in theater.

In his memoirs, even while pointing out that he was not responsible for humanitarian disasters in Bangladesh, East Timor, or Cambodia, much less a Chilean coup that was inevitable as the sun rising in the East, he took pains to express his indifference to these events. If he had been able to stop them, he still would not have done so – he was just that ruthless, he wanted people to know.

Ultimately, that ruthlessness was at the core of Kissinger’s realism – a realism that was in actuality more ruthless than realist. It tended to conflate the brilliance of decisions with their audacity and to identify virtue with the moral compromises involved.

Sometimes compromises are necessary in politics, especially when it comes to foreign policy. But Kissinger seems to have on occasion fallen victim to conflating the volume of moral criticism with the realism of his policies. How else to explain his active indifference to the plight of Soviet Jews, even to the extent of expressing the view to his contracted biographer that their emigration was not an American interest, and even their extermination in gas chambers might amount to a humanitarian concern, but not an American one?

Not only were such sentiments reprehensible, but they contradicted the grand strategy Kissinger purported to follow. Kissinger has framed the concessions to the Soviets through détente, especially the Helsinki Agreement, which recognized the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in exchange for commitments on paper to abide by international standards of human rights, as a deft move to subvert them from within.

He has further argued that the provisions of Helsinki relating to human rights paved the way for Solidarity and other movements to bring down the Soviet bloc from the inside.

How then to reconcile that with his openly expressed contempt for Soviet Jewish dissidents? The answer is that for Kissinger, the shock value was the point. Expressing contempt for the fate of Soviet Jews when it was a pressing moral cause for much of the foreign policy elite proved his moral superiority. Unlike them, he was unmoved by sentimentality, “the ultimate realist”.

It would be a mistake to describe this purely as a character flaw, as it was part of a highly successful branding strategy. Association with Kissinger became a way for aspiring statesman to prove their “seriousness.” Hence Hillary Clinton turned to association with Kissinger to sell her self-styled image as a prospective “Iron Lady.”

For an older generation of historians, who often aspired to play the role of protagonist in their chronicles, Kissinger’s life was aspirational. Here was a nerd, a glasses-wearing, plump, Jewish academic from Harvard, jet-sitting around the world, dating young socialites, and sitting at the top of the global elite.

In short, Kissinger’s decision to promote his brand of realism over moral concerns was key to his influence. The people who mattered did not avoid him because they believed he was indifferent to human life. They sought him out precisely for that reason.

If this was a boon for Kissinger, it has been a tragedy both for any real discussion of his record, and for the concept of “realism” in foreign policy. Views of Kissinger increasingly reflect the social and generational divides within both the left and the right. Kissinger’s decision to market himself as a mastermind has made a record that should be a model of how to wield maximum influence with the minimal expenditure of resources – a necessity when Ford faced a Congress with a two-thirds majority of Democrat “Watergate Babies” – into the symbol of interventionist neoconservatism for America First advocates.

Somehow, the man who reduced America’s presence in Vietnam from 600,000 to zero and ended Israeli-Arab conventional wars is now seen as a warmonger.

Kissingerian realism ultimately came down to cold calculations of self-interest, which manifested differently in public and private life. We have discussed above how a calculation that his earning potential and historical stature would be elevated by shocking critics with his indifference to morality led him to adopt the private persona which ultimately transformed him into an apologist for Xi Jinping. In office, however, the same calculations of American interest led him to ruthlessly cut losses.

People died, both during and after Kissinger’s tenure, but it is far from clear he could have saved them. Did critics wish for him to allow the Khmer Rouge to seize power in Cambodia earlier by blocking intervention (which he was in no position to do) or rather that he had invaded to depose Pol Pot even as they condemned his support for Vietnam? What card was he expected to play against Moscow other than that of Beijing when Congress denied him money for weapons?       

Kissinger’s insight was to understand that prestige itself is a resource. Because the United States could not afford to act everywhere at the same time, the important point of leverage was the perception that the United States could influence events anywhere. This meant that maximizing the perception of American influence was as important as getting the desired outcomes, especially in conflicts where the United States had no strong preferences.

A big part of Kissinger’s realism was to figure out where the U.S. was in no position to stop events, and then to ensure that the U.S. either took credit or profited from what was going to happen anyway. Pakistan’s leaders were never going to allow Bangladesh to secede peacefully, nor was India going to tolerate an influx of millions of refugees. But Kissinger, by feigning support for Pakistan while doing nothing, made America a factor in South Asian politics at no cost. Indonesia’s Suharto was going to invade East Timor regardless of what America did, but by winking, Kissinger convinced both Suharto and the wider world that Indonesia was an American puppet.

America could not have saved Chile’s Democracy from a dictatorship of left or right, but by taking credit for an inevitable coup, Kissinger created a myth of an omnipresent CIA able to topple governments. As a result, foreign leaders were far more apt to watch their backs when they clashed with Washington.

Finally, Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was a fact, but in Helsinki, he forced the Soviet Union to imply that it relied on American consent.

This was the key to his distinction between “humanitarian concerns,” which were desirable outcomes, and “American interests,” which could not be compromised. On matters of fundamental interest, where developments would directly threaten the United States, Washington could not budge. But where the question was less of a matter of national survival  – such as when it came to support for domestic opposition in Eastern Europe or conflicts in the developing world– Kissinger could bank prestige by backing the winning side.

Critics are correct to note that Kissinger’s “victories” were exaggerated, but that is not where his “greatness” lay. His victories were modest, but they were cheap, often  almost free. Most importantly, they built up a reserve of prestige which was immensely useful when Ronald Reagan went on the offensive in a more favorable climate. 

Even Kissinger’s late-life appeasement of the Chinese Communist Party should be viewed in this light. By this point, Kissinger was calculating not from the position of a governmental official, but from that of a private businessman. He was in no position to overthrow the CCP, while the party was strongly placed to harm him.

His strongest supporters, both within academia and the private sector, were those most ideologically invested in the inevitability of China’s rise. He therefore adopted the most advantageous position toward a situation he could not change and took credit for it, the most Kisingerian realist approach imaginable. His critics failed to understand that his realism had always been about Henry Kissinger, not great economic or social forces.

While Kissinger marketed his record, he was remarkably honest about his worldview. His heroes were the great statesmen of the 19th century such as the Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich, the French Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, and Otto Von Bismarck. All were contemptuous of principles, ideas, and wider social forces, and perceived those who held them as fanatics who posed a threat to the state precisely because they lacked a proper gasp of cost/benefit analysis. All wielded their legend as a tool of diplomacy. Bismarck’s reputation as an indispensable genius contributed directly to his success.

Ironically, the modern-day heir to Kissinger’s mastery of the theater of world politics is Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton or the WEF-funded academics who cite his name with reverence.

Like Kissinger, Trump understood that perceptions have real value in foreign policy, even if less than hard power. Trump was attacked for meeting with Kim Jong Un, but his critics, like Kissinger’s, failed to propose alternative policies (did they favor an invasion?) or explain what the photo-ops cost other than a vague loss of “moral stature.”

If losing some “moral stature” with critics who already called Trump a fascist saved the cost of half a dozen carrier deployments to the Western Pacific to deter North Korean saber rattling, Trump converted something of amorphous value into hard savings. If an ambiguous public policy prevented Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine by keeping alive the prospect of concessions while allowing time to arm Kyiv, then it deterred Russia only at the cost of increasing MSNBC’s Russiagate-fueled ratings.

By contrast, neoconservatives of the right and left missed the point. Kissinger may have talked loudly, but he was consistently aware of the limited size of the stick he carried, and the need to make strategic choices. That recognition drove his policy.

The Clinton/Obama team threw themselves into destabilizing Libya, Syria, and much of the former Soviet bloc, deliberately pursuing policy goals (the overthrow of Putin/Assad) that they lacked the resources to achieve.

Kissinger never would have backed efforts to overthrow Assad. He would have made a public show of declaring Assad the best option possible and not supporting them, thereby taking credit for Assad’s victory with the implication that it was the result of a ruthless American calculation rather than merely an acknowledgment of practical limitations.

He would have likewise made a show of ending support for the Russian opposition once it became clear their efforts were futile, thereby leaving Putin with the impression that their efforts were futile only because Washington had cut off assistance.

In his obituaries, Henry Kissinger has been an anachronism, a throwback to the 19th century. The truth is more complex. The only period in which he was out of touch was that in which his legend was strongest; the years between 1993 and 2017. His cultivation of the image of an elitist 19th-century statesman prefigured the importance of mass media narratives to politics in the current age.

Walter Samuel is the pseudonym of a prolific international affairs writer and academic. He has worked in Washington as well as in London and Asia, and holds a Doctorate in International History.

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RobC
RobC
2 months ago

This is perhaps the most articulate and succinct history and assessment of a political figure (read elite) that I have ever had the pleasure of reading! Absolutely wonderful! Thank you, ‘Walter Samuel.’

Bill Lee
Bill Lee
2 months ago

Brilliant assessment & article!

Crane game of death
Crane game of death
2 months ago

Death: took 100 years but I finally got the prize.lets see if that old soggy mema Virginia fox is in this thing next.

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