The Return of Henry Kissinger
Will we never be free of the malign effect of this little gargoyle?
Bob Woodward's disclosure of the influence of Henry Kissinger on the Bush administration's Iraq policy both is and is not a surprise. After all, we have known for a long time that the bungling old war criminal has his admirers within the White House. Did not the president, almost but not quite incredibly, call on him as the first chairman of the 9/11 commission? Kissinger's initial acceptance of that honor was swiftly withdrawn after it was pointed out— first of all in this space, if I may say so—that he would have to make a full disclosure of the interests of Kissinger Associates in the Middle East. This condition was too much for him. (I added that, since he was wanted for questioning by magistrates in France, Chile, and Argentina, in connection with offenses of state terrorism, his appointment to a position of such high eminence at such a time might expose the United States to ridicule, not to say contempt.)
Then the Bush administration took the decision to appoint Paul Bremer, a former partner of Kissinger Associates, as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority. Our best friends in Iraq—the Kurds—were immediately alarmed by this fantastically tactless decision. They can never forget how in 1975, having ostensibly backed a Kurdish revolt against Saddam Hussein, Kissinger sold out the rebels in return for a secret deal with the shah of Iran and left them to die unaided on the mountainsides. The story is best told in the Pike committee's report on intelligence, which took a long while to be declassified. Upon arrival, Bremer did not inspire confidence: At an early meeting in northern Iraq, he pointed to a portrait of Gen. Barzani, the national hero of the Kurdish resistance, and asked, "Who's that?" There was a general feeling that he could have been better briefed.
So, the shadow of Richard Nixon's unindicted co-conspirator has continued to cast a pall over our foreign policy. Nonetheless, in the debate on whether to actually intervene in Iraq in the first place, it was noticeable that the proponents of "regime change" generally defined themselves as anti-Kissingerian. In the best book on this subject, James Mann's Rise of the Vulcans (which remains much more enlightening than any of Woodward's three improvised and contradictory efforts), there is a good discussion of the disagreement between many so-called neocons and the tradition of Kissinger's realism. This was especially strong in one case, as Mann phrases it:
More than any other single figure in the Republican foreign policy hierarchy, Wolfowitz viewed himself as Kissinger's opposite, his adversary in the realm of ideas.
Simply put, the Wolfowitz line was that, though instability was morally preferable to totalitarianism, the choice between the two did not really exist. Dictatorship, if tolerated or indulged by the United States, would also bring instability. The risks of change were great but not as great as the danger posed by the status quo.
The other two members of the Kissinger Associates triumvirate, Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, have stayed true to form and opposed regime change in Iraq more or less on principle. And Kissinger's own line was not so very different. In a long syndicated column published on Jan. 13, 2002, he did appear to argue that it was time to deal with Saddam Hussein, but only if certain conditions of "stability" were met. These included the usual shopping list (keeping Russia and China on-side, for example, which only an idealist could believe was possible), as well as "the support of Turkey and the acquiescence of Saudi Arabia." This last point weighed with him heavily, since he feared both Kurdish destabilization of Turkey, via the Kurdish population of that country, and the unwelcome effect that a successful rebellion by "the Shiite minority in the south" might have on the Saudi oil fields. "The Shiite minority"? Yes, that's right. Most fascinating of all, Kissinger made a point of saying that we had to "enlist the Sunni majority, which now dominates Iraq."
So, there you have it: Not only does a former secretary of state and national security adviser with a record of failure and betrayal in Iraq in the 1970s argue that the government of Iraq can be overthrown as long as none of its conservative neighbors really notice, but he also believes that the country has a Sunni majority. Even by Kissinger's usual standard of depraved politics and world-class disaster-mongering, this must rank pretty high.
It might also help explain a lot. During the Bremer period of governance in Baghdad, both the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis and the calling of elections were fatally postponed (perhaps when it was hastily discovered that a combined Kurdish and Shiite list could win a vote). It has proved difficult, if not impossible, to regain the political ground that was lost in that time. Shall we never be free of the malign effect of this little gargoyle and his ideas?
Of course, Woodward's book has handed a free gift to those who cannot engage their minds on any foreign-policy question without using the word "Vietnam." I have written all that I can on the ahistorical falsity of this analogy, but if Kissinger really does have anything to do with the conduct of Iraq policy, then what we should fear is not just another attempt at moral blackmail of those who call for withdrawal. For the analogy to hold, we should have to find that while this militant rhetoric was being deployed in public, a sellout and a scuttle was being prepared behind the scenes. We are not fighting the Viet Cong in Iraq but the Khmer Rouge. A bungled withdrawal would lead to another Cambodia, not another Vietnam. It would be too horrible for Kissinger to live to see two such triumphs.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Henry Kissinger by Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images.