Pushovers of the Press
The media elite are reviewing
Henry Kissinger's latest book "Does America Need a Foreign
Policy?" with their usual fawning gullibility.
by Todd Gitlin
If you're a college professor who tells
students that you saw combat in Vietnam when you were actually
teaching history at West Point, your lie will land on the front
page of the New York Times and provide debate fodder in the letters
columns, on National Public Radio and wherever else serious people
reason together. On the other hand, if you're a serial liar who
claims to have brought peace to Vietnam while presiding over pointless
deaths in the hundreds of thousands (more than 22,000 Americans,
the rest Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians), you'll never dine
alone or lack for honors; you'll be lionized by Ted Koppel and
your book of International Studies 101 pieties will be treated
as "an intellectual event ... that is also a tour de force"
(Walter Russell Mead in the Washington Post).
But then, Henry Kissinger has more lives
than any Laotian peasant or Chilean socialist who happened to
stand in the way of his designs during the years when he administered
American foreign policy with B-52s and coup plans. Having sequestered
his official papers at the Library of Congress for 50 -- that's
50 -- years and published well-received memoirs that cannot easily
be corrected precisely because that valuable evidence is locked
away in a vault, he now steps forward with an unsurprisingly self-serving
book, "Does America Need a Foreign Policy?" -- one with
the obviously intended answer: yes, and guess whose? Having supervised
an apparently badly needed foreign policy for Richard Nixon and
Gerald Ford, Kissinger now capitalizes on his self-perpetuating
repute to duck any question that might cast doubt upon the worthiness
of the tough-guy realism he not only fancies but personifies.
Mainly he gets away with it. He got away
with it in 1971 when refusing to say whether the Nixon administration
had made any estimates of Indochinese casualties (an episode related
in Tom Wells' new biography of Daniel Ellsberg, "Wild Man"),
and he still gets away with it. For more than 30 years now, when
the American press comes around Henry Kissinger -- that's Dr.
Kissinger to you -- a giant sucking sound can be heard. While
Robert S. McNamara was mauled (by this writer, among others) for
his disingenuous and insufficient Vietnam apology, Kissinger is
steadfastly unrepentant -- he sneers at apologies, in fact --
and weaves his way from talk show to talk show unscathed. He scorns
Clinton for making post-Cold War apologies and congratulates Nixon
for "negotiated extrication from Vietnam" while preserving
a reputation for straightforward talk. He chides our Vietnam-era
NATO allies for holding themselves "aloof" from America's
war, and no one ever tells him that this is hardly the right word
for the strong opposition that came forth from, among others,
Charles de Gaulle (the subject of some of McNamara's most interesting
From Kissinger, gravitas and a gravely
voice are mistaken for wisdom. His clichs, when issued in suitably
ex cathedra tones, strike journalists as profundities. The ostensible
literary critic Norman Podhoretz once raved about Kissinger's
prose style, and now even the liberal columnist Richard Cohen,
writing in the Washington Post, calls him a good writer. But in
the current book, barely a page passes without some inept, ungrammatical
or fatuous formulation -- a subliterary phenomenon unremarked
upon by any reviewer I've read. I open four of Kissinger's pages
at random and find these contortions, confusions and clichs:
The Cold War strategies sought to manage
the conflict of the nuclear superpowers by the policy of containment
of the Soviet Union.
In fact, India's conduct during the Cold
War was not so different from that of the United States in its
Or is the rush to Tehran an obstacle to
a rapprochement which is in itself not in dispute?
The West's relations with Russia have
always been laced with ambivalence.
If Kissinger passes over a subject, most
of his reviewers have no objection. About Angola, Kissinger's
single reference is as follows: "The civil war in Angola
has lasted for thirty-eight years." As if eight of those
years were not on his watch, when the U.S. backed the anti-Russian
side (which is still at war) strictly because it was anti-Russian.
By contrast, Warren Cohen of the University of Maryland at Baltimore
County, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, distinguishes
himself from other reviewers by noting that Kissinger's tendentious
account of Chile in the years between 1970 and 1973 omits mention
of the kidnap and murder of Chilean chief of staff Rene Schneider
in 1970, a move that opened the way for Pinochet's coup against
In his current, largely unreviewed book,
"The Trial of Henry Kissinger," Christopher Hitchens
is particularly convincing when he marshals evidence that Kissinger,
who chaired the top covert action committee in Washington, was
brain-deep in the planning of this grave offense to democratic
government. He cites (as Kissinger does not) Kissinger's declassified
memorandum of his 1976 conversation with Pinochet, in which, by
his own account, Kissinger said to the dictator: "My evaluation
is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world
and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government
that was going Communist."
In his own book, Kissinger takes time
from his general theory of foreign policy to congratulate Pinochet
for his economics and to commiserate with him on his long-delayed
arrest for human rights abuses in Britain in 1998. In an inadvertently
comic observation, Kissinger declares that he himself ought to
know what human rights agreements are for, having himself been
their virtual founding father when he worked up the Helsinki Accord
of 1975. So he knows that human rights initiatives were intended
as "primarily a diplomatic weapon to use against Soviet pressure
on their own and captive peoples, not as a legal weapon against
individual leaders before courts of countries not their own."
Beware the reckless gall, the soft-headedness of a Spanish judge
or a tribunal in The Hague taking literally a treaty's words about
human rights -- taking them at face value as a universal commitment!
Thus does Kissinger now oppose the trials
of torturers and war criminals outside their homelands, insisting
(in his book and in a Foreign Affairs article drawn from it) that
"we must not allow legal principles to be used as weapons
to settle political scores." The globe-roaming Kissinger
puffs himself up with a pose of high-mindedness in defense of
national sovereignty. His own self-interest in stopping such trials
fairly screams between the lines. On May 28, after all, he was
issued a subpoena by a French judge interested in his testimony
as to the disappearance of five French citizens in Chile under
Pinochet -- a subpoena on which he turned his back. As Barbara
Crossette recently wrote in the New York Times, "The arm
of the law is growing longer and the world smaller for national
leaders and others accused of atrocities." Indeed. Which
is precisely Kissinger's concern.
No surprise, Kissinger cavalierly identifies
his own safety with that of the state. Yet Mead, who ought to
know better, is so enamored of Kissinger's exercise in self-exculpation
that all he can say in objection to Kissinger's coverup on Chile
is that "the behavior of the Chilean military and U.S. complicity
with it during Pinochet's seizure of power marked one of the less
edifying moments in the long Cold War." Edifying! Other adjectives
come to mind -- defensible, honorable, decent and perhaps (as
Hitchens suggests) legal.
Mead lauds this Kissinger quote, "A
deliberate quest for hegemony is the surest way to destroy the
values that made the United States great," as "some
of the most eloquent and important words ever to issue from his
pen." Possibly Mead means this as a backhanded compliment,
though I doubt it. Political journalism is in desperate condition
when a sentence like this rings the eloquence gong.
In the New York Times Book Review, Thomas
Friedman a bit more judiciously credits Kissinger for, when considering
intervention, "emphasiz[ing] the long causal chains, and
what might happen at the end, rather than submit to any immediate
emotions," and chides him for underestimating the force of
economic globalization. But with vague allusions to the criticisms
of "others," Friedman also lets Kissinger off the hook.
In a June 21 puff piece for the Boston
Globe, a story in which Kissinger performs his avuncular act for
34 paragraphs, Mark Feeney finds room for four critical ones,
but the criticisms consist of the usual banalities about the "dark
side" of his career, his "role in the secret bombing
of Cambodia, the overthrow of the Socialist government of Chilean
President Salvador Allende, and the wiretapping of journalists
and subordinates." On none of these "events was he then
-- or is he now -- notably forthcoming," Feeney writes.
Any of Feeney's readers who is not familiar
with that "role" will surely learn no more about it
from this story. This is, after all, a gushing profile, like hundreds
of others Kissinger has garnered in his career, lazily skimming
the surface, alluding to "criticism" without citing
or evaluating it, presupposing that the reader should not be troubled
with messy fact. Even the Globe's sidebar on Hitchens' short book
offers phrases but no particulars. If you want truth, damn it,
reader, get thee to the library, but don't expect to find facts
in what is after all only a newspaper.
So it goes in the halls of journalism.
Kissinger has the herd cowed.
Todd Gitlin is a professor at New York
University and the author of "The Sixties," "The
Twilight of Common Dreams" and the novel "Sacrifice."
"Media Unlimited: The Torrent of Images and Sounds in Modern
Life" is slated for publication next March.
Henry Kissinger page