"I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my back than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in." (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)
Could these lines, lashed out at sweet Ophelia by Hamlet, be attributed to Henry (Heinz) Alfred Kissinger, for a list of atrocities he is accused of?
Kissinger served as the National Security Advisor (1969-75) and the Secretary of State (1973-77) to the two American Presidents – Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford – the two positions uniquely held simultaneously. His death on 29th November 2023, at the age of 100, invited a mixed response from the world, particularly from his homeland, the USA.
On 30th November 2023, The Washington Post captioned an article, "Henry Kissinger’s central role in the U.S. carpet bombing of Cambodia." This recounts Kissinger’s legacy in the Vietnam War, which claimed 2.5-3 million lives, and the subsequent carpet bombing in Cambodia that killed nearly 500,000 people. Even after five decades, farmers in Cambodia continue to lose their lives and parts of their bodies as they encounter landmines hidden in the soil. After the war, the Nixon-Kissinger duo supported the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia in an atrocious way, raising eyebrows about the US support for an undemocratic regime. The title of another article published in The Washington Post on the same day article reads, "Anthony Bourdain always wanted to punch Henry Kissinger over Cambodia.
According to this piece, Bourdain, an American filmmaker (died 2018), while filming an episode of "Parts Unknown" in Indonesia, ruled by Kissinger-supported Suharto at that time, was so disgusted that he wanted to walk up to Kissinger and punch him in the face, asking if "Would you feel that justice is, in some small way, served?"
CNN bade farewell to Kissinger by calling him "Celebrated and Controversial" in its report on his death, and quoted him saying, "sometimes statesmen have to choose among evils, make moral compromises in messy conflicts."
What made things look worse in this context was the Nobel Prize for Peace awarded to Kissinger for successfully negotiating a ceasefire in Vietnam in 1973. However, in an interview recorded after his 100th birthday, Kissinger got an opportunity to elaborate the reasons for his decisions. The interviewer asked him which political decision would he take differently today – ostensibly reminding him of the Vietnam-Cambodia episodes. He said, "I’m often asked this question. Strategically (long pause), this sounds arrogant, I have studied this subject (International Politics) from my youth. I think the directions I wouldn't change. But there are tactical decisions along the way that proved wrong, like my proclamation of the year of Europe was premature. And therefore, all in the Vietnam war that is always mentioned, my overriding conviction was not to throw the government that had fought with us to the absoluteness, and we thought we had to preserve this government that we had created and that turned out to be incompatible with our domestic politics. But if we had acted otherwise – and by 'we' I don’t mean me alone, or me primarily – but if America had acted otherwise, and had thrown south Vietnam to the wolves, in any administration, it would have undermined the credibility of our alliances. So, should we have gotten out earlier, it’s hard to say because our opponents would permit us to get out earlier only on conditions that would have looked like the absolute weakness of the United States of America. Its inability to protect them."
CNN bade farewell to Kissinger by calling him "Celebrated and Controversial" in its report on his death, and quoted him saying, "sometimes statesmen have to choose among evils, make moral compromises in messy conflicts." This was Kissinger’s idea of realism and pragmatism in diplomacy and politics, which he also dilates upon in his book Diplomacy, published in 1994. Edward Said examines Kissinger’s idea of realism in foreign affairs in his book Orientalism, published in 1978. Said notes that – the difference and divide between the West and the so-called Third World, the East or the Occident – "Kissinger's proof for this is the Newtonian revolution, which has not taken place in the developing world: “Cultures which escaped the early impact of Newtonian thinking have retained the essentially pre-Newtonian view that the real world is almost completely internal to the observer.” Hence, the world view and consequently the foreign policies of the countries not close to this experience, have remained based on prophecies rather than a pragmatic approach to the way the world actually operates.
This perhaps also explains why East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971.
Despite Kissinger’s support as the National Security Advisor during the events of 1971 in East Pakistan, and despite his unhidden dislike for the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, whom he even called names, Bangladesh came into existence. The events that followed this episode provide a possible, rather realistic, explanation for why it happened. According to the Kissinger design of world politics, Pakistan was envisaged to play a role on its western front, rather than in the East. Therefore, East Pakistan, that was situated on the Pacific side on the subcontinent, had to be separated so that West Pakistan become fully focused and committed to the western front, as it did after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 – two years after Kissinger left office.
Kissinger’s Pakistan project started to unfold right after the separation of East Pakistan when he made Islamabad the gateway for China. Using Pakistan’s closer ties with China, Kissinger made his secret visit to meet Mao Zedong, Chairman, Politburo, Chinese Communist Party, and Chou En-lai, Premier of the State Council in 1972.
Moreover, there is little room for any doubt that Kissinger wanted Pakistan to stop thinking India once and for all. He made it clear in one of his talks in 2011, “The problem of Pakistan seems to me a much more long-term issue than how can they find a national identity not based on primarily the fear of India.” One can decipher from this notion that it was part of Kissinger's project to lean Pakistan westward, disregard an identity that both India and Pakistan inherited from their collective history before the Partition – which left the Indians feeling dismayed and detested about Pakistan, as I have written in one of my previous articles.
Kissinger’s Pakistan project started to unfold right after the separation of East Pakistan when he made Islamabad the gateway for China. Using Pakistan’s closer ties with China, Kissinger made his secret visit to meet Mao Zedong, Chairman, Politburo, Chinese Communist Party, and Chou En-lai, Premier of the State Council in 1972. A year later, the Wilson Centre of the United States published the details of this meeting.
A year later, Kissinger introduced his “Shuttle Diplomacy” in the Middle East after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, through which he won the trust of all players involved in the conflict to de-escalate the situation and introduce a balance of power. The great achievement of this exercise was forging a peace accord between Egypt and Israel and thereby winning Egypt on the American side, by providing it military and economic assistance. It was an important achievement at the peak of the Cold War, where erstwhile Egypt had a leaning towards the USSR.
Kissinger’s achievements look even more astounding from the point of view of his personal life story. He landed on US soil as a teenager after his family fled the Nazi persecution. But fate had him back in Germany as a US soldier fighting the Nazis. Later, he joined Harvard University, studying political science, where he earned his doctorate. He became a professor there. His scholarship in political science and his philosophy of realism has left deep marks both in the world of diplomacy and academia, as it is evident from scores of writings he has left behind along with a diplomatic legacy – making it hard to determine whether he was a luminaire or an errant knave.