Both candidates kowtowed to the disgraceful Kissinger. Only Obama cited him correctly.
How extraordinary to find that, for two straight days, the American media would preoccupy themselves with the question of who had the greater right—in a debate over foreign-policy "experience," of all things—to quote Henry Kissinger. And how even more extraordinary that it should be the allegedly anti-war Democratic candidate who cited Kissinger with the most deference and, it even seems, the greater accuracy.
It began with that increasingly embarrassing process that might be describable (but probably isn't) as the on-the-job education of Gov. Sarah Palin. On last Thursday's CBS Evening News, facing the mild-as-milk questioning of Katie Couric, the thriller from Wasilla should have been relieved when the topics stopped being about the Bush doctrine or the thorny matter of Russian-Alaskan propinquity and could be refocused instead on Sen. Barack Obama's weakness. But, having duly attacked him for being ready to meet with the dictators of Iran and Syria without "preconditions," she was reminded that her new friend and adviser Henry Kissinger, furnished to her only that very week by the McCain machine, endorses direct diplomacy with both countries. "Are you saying," Ms. Couric inquired with complete gravity, "that Henry Kissinger is naive?" The governor's lame response was to say that: "I've never heard Henry Kissinger say, 'Yeah, I'll meet with these leaders without preconditions being met.' "
This enabled CBS to tack on a post-interview fact-check moment, confirming that Henry Kissinger did indeed favor such talks with such regimes "without preconditions." This cannot have been hard to do, since only last week at a forum at George Washington University, consisting of himself and four other former secretaries of state, Kissinger had told his audience: "Well, I am in favor of negotiations with Iran. And one utility of negotiation is to put before Iran our vision of a Middle East, of a stable Middle East, and our notion on nuclear proliferation at a high enough level so that they have to study it." He then added something that can hardly have startled anyone who ever watched him usurping presidential prerogatives during the Nixon and Ford administrations: "I actually have preferred doing it at the secretary of state level" before, as the New York Times put it with uncharacteristic brusqueness, "he trailed off." Nonetheless, asked if such talks should be "at a very high level right out of the box," his response was to say, "Initially, yes," which is as much as to say "yes." He then said: "I do not believe we can make conditions for the opening of negotiations," which would appear to justify the use of the term unconditional in conjunction with "very high level."
"Trailed off" is too kind a phrase even so for the drivel spouted above. Apparently Kissinger believes that the Islamic Republic of Iran is unaware of what we think about its nuclear program, has not studied our position, has not learned anything from its protracted and dishonest negotiations with the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Authority, but might be induced to do so if favored by a sit-down with Condoleezza Rice. Apparently, he does not know that the envoys of the Iranian foreign ministry are only ciphers, easily overridden by the mullah-dominated "Guardian Council" that holds all real power in Tehran. Evidently, he also thinks that Iran is deeply concerned about the maintenance of stability in the region. But then, Kissinger's last memorable intervention in this area was to tell the readers of the Washington Post op-ed page that neighboring Iraq should be handled with care because it was a Sunni majority country. He has been to some trouble since to erase and rewrite this laughable ignorance on his part from the written record: For a trace of his evasiveness, please check
Finally, of course, there is Kissinger's habitual fondness for any form of dictatorship. To have been the friend of Pinochet, Videla, and Suharto, while almost simultaneously fawning on Brezhnev and especially on Mao, is to have been a secretary of state who was soft on fascism—and soft on communism, too! Unconditional talks with Ahmadinejad and Assad? Why not? They are the sort of people with whom he (and Kissinger Associates, the firm that introduces despots to corporations) prefers to do business.
Thus for McCain, a full day and night after the exposure of his shaky running mate to such ridicule, to make the same mistake himself in Oxford, Miss., was really something to see. It was even worse if you heard it on radio, as I initially did, than if you saw it on television. (You can hear that geezerish whistle in his pipes much more ominously than when you are looking at his elderly face.) Anyway, on the same question of "without preconditions," he walked into Obama's tersely phrased riposte, which was to quote Kissinger in precisely the same way as Couric had already done. McCain looked and perhaps felt a fool at this point, and may have been only slightly cheered up when Kissinger told the Weekly Standardafter the debate that he after all doesn't, at least not for this precise moment, "recommend presidential high-level talks with Iran." Which, when compared with his earlier remarks, makes it seem that he has no idea what he currently thinks and should either be apologized to by, or should apologize to, either Sarah Palin or Katie Couric, or conceivably both.
But the true farce and disgrace is that this increasingly glassy-eyed old blunderer and war criminal, who has been wrong on everything since he first authorized illicit wiretapping for the Nixon gang, should be cited as an authority by either nominee, let alone by both of them. Meanwhile, I repeat my question from two weeks ago: Does Sen. Obama appreciate, or do his peacenik fans and fundraisers realize, just how much war he is promising them if he is elected? Once again on Sept. 26 in Mississippi—at the end of a week when American and Pakistani forces had engaged in their first actual direct firefight—he repeated his intention of ignoring the Pakistani frontier when it came to hot pursuit of al-Qaida. Out-hawked on this point, as he was nearly out-doved on the Kissinger one, McCain was moderate by comparison. Obama went on to accuse Iran of having built more centrifuges than most people think it has. This allegation has a confrontational logic of its own, above and beyond the minor issues of preconditions and the "level" of diplomacy. I think Obama is to be praised for doing this—always assuming that he does in fact know what he is doing. But as we all press bravely on, the debate would look more intelligent, and be conducted on a higher plane, if it excluded a discredited pseudo-expert who has trampled on human rights, vandalized the U.S. Constitution, deceived Congress, left a trail of disaster and dictatorship behind him, and deserves to be called not a hawk or a dove but a vulture.
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 Eric Thayer/Getty Images.