There has almost been too much to read since Henry Kissinger, the former national security adviser and secretary of state who served under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, died on Wednesday. But I think the best obituaries and retrospectives on Kissinger have emphasized his paramount role in the spread of human misery across the globe, in the name of realpolitik and what he determined were America’s “national interests.”
Let’s start with Kissinger’s full participation, as Nixon’s national security adviser, in the decision to authorize the secret carpet bombing of Cambodia, during which the United States dropped more than 500,000 tons of explosives on the country, killing as many as 150,000 civilians. These bombings, which destabilized the country, played a role in the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who went on to kill approximately 2 million people during his four-year stint in power.
Kissinger was also an architect of the U.S. effort to undermine the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile. In the wake of the 1973 coup d’état that installed Gen. Augusto Pinochet at the head of a military dictatorship, Kissinger also pushed the United States to back the new regime, which killed, tortured or imprisoned tens of thousands of Chileans.
“I think we should understand our policy — that however unpleasant they act, this government is better for us than Allende was,” Kissinger said to his deputies, according to declassified transcripts, in the weeks after the coup. A few years later, in 1976, Kissinger would tell Pinochet, “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 which was going Communist.”
Kissinger’s dirty work went far beyond Southeast Asia and South America. Along with Nixon, he backed the brutal effort of the military government of the former West Pakistan to suppress Bengali nationalists in the former East Pakistan, in what is now Bangladesh. A recent study estimated the death toll in that conflict at 269,000 people, with millions of refugees pushed into neighboring India. Kissinger also gave the green light to the Indonesian dictator Suharto’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, sparking a conflict that would, between 1976 and 1980, go on to kill at least 100,000 people out of a total population of approximately 650,000.
This is just a sampling of Kissinger’s activities, which would continue in the decades after he left government, when he worked as a private consultant and guru, of sorts, for a wide variety of political and business leaders. “No former national security adviser or secretary of state has ever wielded as much as influence after leaving office as Kissinger,” the historian Greg Grandin notes in his obituary for The Nation. That influence explains why, as Spencer Ackerman observes in Rolling Stone, Kissinger “died a celebrity,” a valued and feted member of the American establishment.
Kissinger’s death comes at a time of mounting anxiety over the future of American democracy. There is real fear that Donald Trump, if granted a second term in the White House, will dismantle our system of constitutional self-government in favor of some kind of autocracy. It is worthwhile, then, to think not just about Kissinger’s influence on American foreign policy but his influence on American democracy. This you can sum up in the contempt he expressed for Chilean democracy when he remarked that there was no reason for the United States to “stand by and let Chile go Communist merely due to the stupidity of its own people.”
Kissinger, like his patron Nixon, showed nothing but contempt for accountability, public opinion or the rule of law. Writing for The Atlantic, the historian Gary J. Bass notes that Kissinger ignored outright a congressional prohibition against sending arms to Pakistan.
He brushed aside warnings from White House aides and lawyers at the State Department and the Pentagon that it would be illegal to transfer weapons to Pakistan. In 1971, with Attorney General John Mitchell present, Nixon asked Kissinger, “Is it really so much against our law?” Kissinger admitted that it was. Not bothering to concoct a legal theory about executive power, Nixon and Kissinger simply went ahead and did it anyway. “Hell,” Nixon said, “we’ve done worse.”
Kissinger’s unrepentant dishonesty and duplicity — his apparent belief that the public simply had no right to know about the conduct of its government abroad — would reverberate throughout American politics in the decades after he left the White House. It is hard to look at the actions of the Reagan White House in Iran-contra, for example, and not see a Kissinger-esque attempt to circumvent the public and its representatives in order to exercise power unencumbered by democratic accountability.
The same goes for the illegal torture program pursued under President George W. Bush. The Kissinger ethos, as it were, is a belief that the president can act unilaterally, anywhere in the world, without democratic deliberation or public accountability. It’s a view that treats democracy as either window-dressing or, more often, an irritation and inconvenience to be avoided whenever possible.
Henry Kissinger thought nothing of the democratic aspirations of most people on this planet, Americans more or less included.