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Why Not Being Friends With A War Criminal Like Henry Kissinger Matters

In the midst of questioning the United States’ history of overthrowing and meddling in other countries’ governments, Bernie Sanders denounced Hillary Clinton for befriending and taking advice from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Numerous media commentators reacted by mocking the Sanders campaign, believing millennials could not possibly know anything about Kissinger. They suggested millennials did not care about what Kissinger did either.

It was typical of an establishment media class, which eschews serious reflection on the record of any current or former official’s role in war crimes or atrocities. But Kissinger is someone who Clinton has mentioned multiple times during debates and at campaign events. She said during the last debate in New Hampshire, “I was very flattered when Henry Kissinger said I ran the State Department better than anybody had run it in a long time.”

The condemnation from Sanders was also newsworthy because most of the elite international relations scholars in foreign policy research consider Kissinger to be the best secretary of state of the past 50 years. Plus, despite all the inflicted destruction he helped wreak, Kissinger is a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Assessing Clinton’s friendship with Kissinger not only forces her to defend her support for a war criminal, who helped fuel genocide and massive casualties in multiple countries, but it also forces her to justify support for decades of U.S. foreign policy, involving military intervention and a refusal to acknowledge systematic human rights violations.

During the debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on February 11, Sanders declared, “I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.”

Sanders continued, “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in, who then butchered some 3 million innocent people, one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.”

A feeble attempt was made by Clinton to turn this against Sanders. “Well, I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is,” Clinton replied. Sanders quickly retorted, “Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger. That’s for sure.” The audience laughed.

Clinton attempted to approach the issue of her support for Kissinger again. This time, she celebrated the role he played in “opening up China” and how “incredibly useful” his “ongoing relationships with the leaders of China are to the U.S. Then, she suggested Sanders was cherry-picking advisers, who she listens to on foreign policy, in order to mount an opportunistic attack.

“Yes, people we may disagree with on a number of things may have some insight, may have some relationships that are important for the president to understand in order to best protect the United States,” Clinton stated.

“You’re right, he opened up relations with China,” Sanders responded. But he also “pushed various type of trade agreements, resulting in American workers losing their jobs as corporations moved to China. The terrible, authoritarian, Communist dictatorship he warned us about, now he’s urging companies to shut down and move to China. Not my kind of guy.”

Sanders’ campaign had a memo prepared for U.S. media on Kissinger’s record, which they sent out to reporters immediately after this exchange occurred. Unfortunately, no U.S. media outlet chose to include the vast majority of the memo’s contents in their coverage. That is because pundits judged the attack on Kissinger as silly and believed it would play no factor in convincing voters to support either candidate. Plus, few in media would disagree with Clinton’s praise for Kissinger before and during the 2016 Election.

In the memo, the campaign notes, “Kissinger is known for direct involvement in secret coups against democratically elected presidents, support of notorious dictators, the expansion of the national security state, and various human rights violations.” The memo quoted Greg Grandin, author of “Kissinger’s Shadow,” who wrote in The Nation that Kissinger was responsible for the death of three, maybe 4 million people in Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries. The deaths of millions occurred as Kissinger colluded with “big corporations and wealthy bankers.”

This is a stark indictment of brutal American imperialism and the role war has played in expanding U.S. capitalism, whether Sanders would use those terms to describe his comments or not.

It is important to consider the criticism of Kissinger within the context in which it came up during the debate: when the U.S. government’s history of intervening and overthrowing governments was raised by Sanders.

“In Libya, for example, the United States, Secretary Clinton, as secretary of state, working with some other countries, did get rid of a terrible dictator named Gaddafi,” Sanders recounted. “But what happened is a political vacuum developed. ISIS came in, and now occupies significant territory in Libya, and is now prepared, unless we stop them, to have a terrorist foothold.”

He continued, “This is nothing new. This has gone on 50 or 60 years, where the United States has been involved in overthrowing governments. Mossadegh back in 1953. Nobody knows who Mossadegh was, democratically-elected prime minister of Iran. He was overthrown by British and American interests because he threatened oil interests of the British. And as a result of that, the shah of Iran came in, terrible dictator. The result of that, you had the Iranian Revolution coming in, and that is where we are today. Unintended consequences.”

As highlighted in the memo, Kissinger played a role in the coup by overriding “State Department and Pentagon objections to allow Iran broad access to military equipment.” He also “authorized the CIA training of the Shah’s torturous secret police. He exacerbated tensions with Tehran after the Revolution (resulting in the hostage crisis) by urging [President Jimmy] Carter to grant the Shah asylum in the United States.”

On one hand, confronting Clinton over her support for Kissinger makes it possible for Sanders to suggest she supports overthrowing governments to advance U.S. foreign policy, if officials deem regime change to be necessary. It also allows Sanders to distinguish himself from Clinton. Presumably, if citizens condemn Kissinger for his role in war crimes, it stands to reason that Sanders can plot a course forward for U.S. foreign policy, which rejects such a brutal foreign policy.

If Clinton has ever disagreed with Kissinger because of his past war crimes or support for horrendous policies, she has not made her disagreements well-known to the public. Instead, Clinton has expressed pride about being a member of a “fascinating club” of living former secretaries of state, which transcend “partisan differences.”

Another former secretary of state she celebrates is Madeleine Albright, and Albright once soberly answered a question about the impact of U.S. sanctions on Iraq, which resulted in the deaths of half of a million children, by saying the price was “worth it.”

Kissinger helped Clinton find her footing as a secretary of state by checking in with her regularly, “sharing astute observations about foreign leaders, and sending me written reports on his travels,” she wrote in her book, “Hard Choices.”

Clinton wrote a review of Kissinger’s “New World Order” book in 2014. She called Kissinger her “friend” and also highlighted how he had helped her when she was secretary of state.

“Though we have often seen the world and some of our challenges quite differently, and advocated different responses now and in the past, what comes through clearly in this new book is a conviction that we, and President Obama, share: a belief in the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order,” Clinton declared. (*Note: To the extent that disagreements exist, they have been kept fairly private.)

In 2009, Clinton and Kissinger were interviewed together by Jon Meacham for Newsweek. Aside from the moments in which she appeared to flatter Kissinger, what is more troublesome is how she approved of Kissinger’s view of war.

“I would say the special experience of American wartime policy in the last 40 years, from Vietnam on, is that the war itself became controversial in the country and that the most important thing we need in the current situation is, whatever disagreements there may be on tactics, that the legitimacy of the war itself does not become a subject of controversy. We have to start with the assumption, obviously, that whatever administration is conducting a war wants to end it,” Kissinger argued.

Clinton said, “Right.”

“Nobody has more at stake than the administration in office,” Kissinger continued. “But if you look at the debates we had on Vietnam, Iraq, and so forth, ending the war became defined as the withdrawal of forces and as the primary if not the exclusive exit strategy. But in fact the best exit strategy is victory. Another is diplomacy. Another is the war just dying out.”

“But if you identify exit with withdrawal of American forces, you neglect the political objective,” Kissinger maintained. “In such circumstances, you trap yourself in a position in which the administration in office gets assaulted for insufficient dedication to ending the war, [and] it has to do things that can be against its better judgment. We often found ourselves there.

Later, Kissinger stated, “The debate ought to be in that framework and not, do we want to end the war? How quickly can we end the war? I take it for granted that the administration wants to end it as quickly as is at all possible. Why would they not?”

What Kissinger argued is it is never reasonable or fair for there to be an antiwar backlash against the government for perpetuating war. The reason it is unfair is because every presidential administration wants to end wars. Even when those administrations start wars, if one believes Kissinger, part of the objective immediately becomes working to end the wars that were started. It’s a variation of the “peace through strength” mantra promoted by neoconservatives and a perfect rationale for someone like Kissinger, who has been revered instead of shunned for his role in atrocities.

Kissinger supports bombing ISIS with a disproportionate amount of U.S. military force because he believes that is what militants who murder Americans on television deserve. How much of this insight is wisdom, which would influence Clinton when deciding how to drag America deeper into war in Iraq? What sort of atrocities would she allow to occur?

Here is the exchange between Sanders and Clinton on Kissinger:


Below is the full list of “egregious acts” committed by Kissinger, which the Sanders campaign tried to convince the press to pay attention last night.

1. In White House tapes released in 2010, Kissinger is heard telling Nixon in 1973 that helping Soviet Jews emigrate, and escape oppression, was ‘not an objective of American foreign policy.’ He also said, “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Jewish leaders and organizations expressed outrage over this. (NYT)

2. Kissinger helped wage an illegal war in Cambodia between 1969 and 1973. The war wrecked the country through a huge bombing campaign that killed some 100,000 civilians, and set the stage for the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Kissinger hid the bombing from the public and U.S Congress by working with military officers to falsify records. (NYT, Politico)

3. Kissinger authorized the secret bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. There, U.S. forces conducted over 580,000 bombing missions over nine years. Laos’ accounting of its casualties cites more than 50,000 people killed and injured by accidents and unexploded ordinance, more than 20,000 of them after the end of the war (Washington Post).

4. In South Asia, Kissinger supported Pakistan’s military dictatorship and the bloody crackdown in 1971 on what is today Bangladesh. Conservative estimates say that roughly 200,000 were killed; the official Bangladeshi estimate is three million. Ten million Bengali refugees fled to India, where untold numbers died in refugee camps. Kissinger knowingly violated U.S. law in allowing secret arms transfers to Pakistan during the India-Pakistan war, despite warnings from White House staff and State Department and Pentagon lawyers. (Politico, New Yorker)

5. According to GWU’s National Security Archive, the Indonesian government’s invasion of Portuguese East Timor in December 1975 occurred with Kissinger’s blessing, and behind the backs of Congress. Some 200,000 Timorese died during the 25-year occupation. Kissinger was aware that Suharto planned to invade East Timor, but the invasion was legally problematic because of Indonesia’s use of U.S. military equipment that Congress had approved only for self-defense.

6. With billions of corporate investment at stake, Kissinger helped plan a CIA-led coup in Chile in 1973 that led to the assassination of democratically elected president Salvador Allende. Allende had pledged to lead his country “down the democratic road to socialism.” He was replaced by the notorious dictator, Augusto Pinochet, whose government killed at least 3,197 people and tortured about 29,000. Kissinger’s top deputy for Latin America advised him make human rights central to U.S.-Chilean relations; instead Kissinger told Pinochet that his regime was a victim of leftist propaganda. “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here…“You did a great service to the West in overthrowing Allende.”

7. In the late 1960s, Kissinger was involved in the secret wiretapping of National Security Council staff. He urged Nixon to go after Daniel Ellsberg for having released the Pentagon Papers, which resulted in government charges against The New York Times for violations against the Espionage Act (the charges did not hold). NYT

8. In the mid-70s, Kissinger began to urge apartheid South Africa, with which he was closely aligned, to secretly intervene in Angola’s civil war to prevent (Marxist) MPLA from taking power. The U.S. was directly involved in the civil war. In addition to training Angolan combat units, U.S. personnel carried out reconnaissance and supply missions, and the CIA spent over a million dollars on its mercenary program. The war took more than 300,000 lives.

9. Kissinger and Nixon’s orientation toward southern African states with white majority leadership was outlined in a secret NSC policy study called the “Tar Baby” report. Anthony Sampson noted in Black and Gold that “The Nixon-Kissinger policy effectively condoned Pretoria’s apartheid system, and left it to corporations and banks to try to liberalize it.” According to Grandin, such policies cost millions of lives. (The Nation)

10. The Shah of Iran was installed into power as a result of a joint British-U.S. coup. Kissinger engaged a policy of unconditional support for the Shah. He overrode State Department and Pentagon objections to allow Iran broad access to military equipment, and authorized the CIA training of the Shah’s torturous secret police. He exacerbated tensions with Tehran after the Revolution (resulting in the hostage crisis) by urging Carter to grant the Shah asylum in the United States. (Salon)

11. In 1975, Kissinger thought he had worked out a balance of power between Iran and Iraq, and thus withdrew support for the Kurds. Iraq attacked the Kurds, killing thousands, and implemented a program of ethnic cleansing, relocating Kurdish survivors and moving Arabs into their homes. (Salon)

12. In 1980, Saddam Hussein invaded Iran — a war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Reagan supported Iraq, but also illegally trafficked weapons to Iran (Iran-Contra scandal). Raymond Tanter of the NSC reported that at a foreign-policy briefing for nominee Reagan in 1980, Kissinger suggested “the continuation of fighting between Iran and Iraq was in the American interest.” The U.S., he said, “should capitalize on continuing hostilities.” (Salon)

13. Newly released documents have Kissinger mapping out secret contingency plans to launch airstrikes against Havana and “smash Cuba.” Mr. Kissinger worried that the U.S. would look weak if it did not respond. He had previously planned an underground effort to improve relations, but after Castro sent troops to Angola to help the newly independent nation fend off attacks from South Africa and right-wing guerrillas, Kissinger started to plan a U.S. airstrike. (NYT)

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."