Henry Kissinger is dead but the newspapers' habit of making excuses for him lives on. Here's my review of the op-eds and obits.
Previously: Piers Morgan Promotions presents... News-o-Mania XXIV
TalkTV promoted Piers Morgan's encounter with Norman Finkelstein like a wrestling bout but allowed Douglas Murray to stick with shadowboxing.
In Inferno, Dante writes that the ninth circle of hell — reserved for traitors, betrayers and oathbreakers — the deepest level before the centre where the devil sits is not flaming hot but black ice frozen:
The treacheries of these souls were denials of love and of all human warmth. Only the remorseless dead centre of the ice will serve to express their natures.
I hope Henry Kissinger, dead at 100, had a frigid introduction to the afterlife. If there’s anyone for whom the glib ordinance against speaking ill of the dead shouldn’t apply, it’s Kissinger. But as soon as the news of his passing broke, the excuses for his deeds coupled with hand-wringing and chiding for critics began.
The Onion (‘Iconic Napalm Rights Advocate Dead at 100’) and Rolling Stone (‘Henry Kissinger, War Criminal Beloved by America’s Ruling Class Finally Dies’) hold the joint honour for best and most honest headline on the topic. The latter provoked a bout of (performative) conniptions in the MailOnline newsroom, where a headline howled…
Rolling Stone dances on Henry Kissinger's grave with brutal 'good riddance' headline
Spencer Ackerman, the author of the Rolling Stone obit, did strap on his rhetorical tap shoes and it was good:
Henry Kissinger, a national security adviser and former secretary of state under two presidents, has evaded accountability, even after death. On Wednesday, the notorious war criminal responsible for the deaths of millions, died at the age of 100…
… Not long before Kissinger died, [Yale University historian and author of Kissinger’s Shadow, Greg] Grandin predicted the media’s reaction to his death.
“The Cubans say there is no evil that lasts a hundred years, and Kissinger is making a run to prove them wrong,” Grandin previously told Rolling Stone. “There is no doubt he’ll be hailed as a geopolitical grand strategist, even though he bungled most crises, leading to escalation. He’ll get credit for opening China, but that was De Gaulle’s original idea and initiative. He’ll be praised for detente, and that was a success, but he undermined his own legacy by aligning with the neocons. And of course, he’ll get off scot-free from Watergate, even though his obsession with Daniel Ellsberg really drove the crime.”
One reason the Rolling Stone line cut through so powerfully was the equivocation and minimisation that marked most of the media’s coverage. BBC News reached for the headline diluting juice, calling Kissinger “[a] divisive diplomat who towered over world affairs”. Fox News continued to kiss the monster’s ass even as it rapidly cooled, calling him a pioneer of “the policy of détente with the Soviet Union” and conceding only that he was “both revered and controversial”.
The Daily Mail — appalled as it seemingly was by Ackerman’s angle — lavished praise on Kissinger as the “Nobel Prize winner who stared down the Soviets” and managed to describe the liver-spotted old ghoul like every other starlet in the Sidebar of Shame (“a VERY unlikely sex symbol”).
Elsewhere, the Mail republished a slobbering Dominic Sandbrook essay written to mark Kissinger’s 100th birthday in May 2023, simply changing the tenses and cutting a few references. The profile was filed before Britain’s most irritating historian made his big-money move to The Times in September and I’m sure that title’s editor Tony Gallagher was delighted to see his star signing’s byline back in a Rothermere rag.
After a tour through the man’s childhood, CV, and accomplishments, Sandbrook dismisses the charges against Kissinger as leftist obsessions and concludes — with the tense switched to past by a sub-editor — that:
… Kissinger was simply an extraordinary man: a shy, stammering refugee who became one of the most powerful men in the world, dated some of Hollywood’s most beautiful women and seemed to hold the fate of nations in the palm of his hand. For a short, round intellectual with thick glasses and an even thicker accent, that was not bad going at all.
What could Sandbrook — a round intellectual with glasses — possibly see in the life and works of Kissinger?
Having quickly retooled the old Sandbrook piece to fill a gap, the Mail brought in Niall Ferguson, Kissinger’s official biographer, for some fresh slobbering the next day. The headline doesn’t just sprinkle superlatives around but fires them all over the place in the rhetorical equivalent of Homer Simpson’s makeup gun:
Henry Kissinger was a colossus who bestrode a century: He shaped politics like no other statesman and the world wouldn't be in such a perilous state if more followed his wise and ruthlessly pragmatic approach, says his acclaimed biographer NIALL FERGUSON
Ferguson suggests that critics of Kissinger are so vociferous because they are fuelled by antisemitism (“… we should pause to ask ourselves why for decades hack journalists on both the Left and the Right have used such odious and historically inaccurate language so frequently about [him] but never about other American diplomats.”) This hack journalist is happy to criticise pretty much every American diplomat, whatever their background, but few have been as long-lived, influential, and keen on publicity-chasing and myth-making as Kissinger.
As he did in the first volume of Kissinger's biography and during the publicity around it, Ferguson takes the chance to have a one-sided and rather cowardly argument with the ghost of Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011. Aware he was terminal, Hitchens told NPR that he regretted that he would not be able to write Kissinger’s obituary:
It does gash me to think that people like that would outlive me, I have to say.
In his 2001 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Hitchens turned prosecutorial, focusing on actions he believed could be presented as charges in an international criminal court — war casualties, massacres, and assassinations across the world.
Hitchens argued that Kissinger should be prosecuted “for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and for offences against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture”. Addressing Americans, Hitchens warned:
They can either persist in averting their gaze from the egregious impunity enjoyed by a notorious war criminal and lawbreaker, or they can become seized by the exalted standards to which they continually hold everyone else.
Hitchens, of course, went on to support the war in Iraq and another American war criminal who has been rehabilitated with age — George W. Bush. Ferguson doesn’t hit Hitchens with that, but instead sneers:
Christopher Hitchens's shoddy but very influential polemic, The Trial Of Henry Kissinger (2001), mentions the USSR precisely three times. If Hitchens were your only source, you would be forgiven for thinking the most important countries in the world in the 1970s were Bangladesh, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor (where Kissinger did not oppose a bloody invasion in 1975 by the Indonesian dictator Suharto).
This argument will be familiar to anyone who has read Ferguson’s Kissinger bio; in the introduction, he dismisses critics of his hero by saying:
Arguments that focus on loss of life in strategically marginal countries — and there is no other way of describing Argentina, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, and East Timor — must be tested against this question: “How, in each case, would an alternative decision have affected US relations with strategically important countries like the Soviet Union, China, and the major Western powers?”
You can see why Ferguson is such a fanboy in how easily he deploys that Kissinger-style realpolitik-splattered logic — those deaths matter less because the people who suffered them foolishly lived in “strategically marginal countries”. Just ignore the logical inconsistency of arguing that Cambodia and Bangladesh were “strategically marginal” but also needed to be destroyed to ensure US triumph in the Cold War.
Ferguson asks the reader to be impressed not only by Kissinger’s actions, his unwieldy autobiographies (three volumes, all over 1,000 pages long, covering only his time in office), and miles travelled (650,000 in his three years as US Secretary of State alone), but his “[contributions] to the vocabulary of international relations”. His examples? ‘Peace process’, ‘Shuttle diplomacy’, ‘World order’, and ‘Surgical strike’. The last one is the most thoroughly Kissingerian in its semantic deceit — there is no such thing as a ‘surgical’ strike but it makes the “tough decision” of bombing sound like one taken from a position of intellectual clarity rather than barbarity.
Reaching a crescendo of wasted sycophancy, Ferguson concludes by saying that “anyone tempted, in the wake of his death, to read another tedious tirade about the alleged ‘crimes’ of Kissinger…” — sorry! — “should read instead his brilliant 2018 essay, ‘How the Enlightenment Ends’.” He claims it proves that “Kissinger died as he lived: thinking at a level his critics could not remotely attain”.
I read that article when it was published and recall being not just underwhelmed but hardly whelmed at all. But I dragged it out again while writing this to see if I was just distracted by all the blood on the keyboard from those unfortunate denizens of places deemed “strategically marginal” by the old bastard or the fact he was one of the many ‘luminaries’ bamboozled by Elizabeth Holmes into joining the board of Theranos, the fraudulent blood-testing startup into which he also sunk $6 million.
Recounting a talk by one of the developers of AlphaGo that prompted his interest in AI, Kissinger wrote:
As I listened to the speaker celebrate this technical progress, my experience as a historian and occasional practicing statesman gave me pause. What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines—machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them? Were we at the edge of a new phase of human history?
These are not stunningly original questions; you don’t need to have spent decades in the company of ‘high-level’ people to ask them. It’s nominally impressive that a man in his tenth decade was asking them but Kissinger ended up parroting the same scare stories that so many others have been hooked on. In October 2023, he argued that AI could “replace human beings within five years”. Well, we know now, at least, that an AI is required to replace Henry Kissinger.
The New York Times’ news desk identified a fence for it to sit on…
Henry Kissinger Is Dead at 100; Shaped the Nation’s Cold War History
The most powerful secretary of state of the postwar era, he was both celebrated and reviled. His complicated legacy still resonates in relations with China, Russia and the Middle East.
… with the word “complicated” acting as a load-bearing adjective, but their colleagues over in Opinion chose violence (a very Kissingerian option) by leading with a piece from Ben Rhodes — who served as Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications (essentially a speechwriter with an over-inflated job title and a focus on lying about foreign policy) — headlined Henry Kissinger, the Hypocrite. He writes:
In the White House, you’re atop an establishment that includes the world’s most powerful military and economy while holding the rights to a radical story: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” But I was constantly confronted by the contradictions embedded in American leadership, the knowledge that our government arms autocrats while its rhetoric appeals to the dissidents trying to overthrow them or that our nation enforces rules — for the conduct of war, the resolution of disputes and the flow of commerce — while insisting that America be excused from following them when they become inconvenient.
Mr. Kissinger was not uncomfortable with that dynamic. For him, credibility was rooted in what you did more than what you stood for, even when those actions rendered American concepts of human rights and international law void. He helped extend the war in Vietnam and expand it to Cambodia and Laos, where the United States rained down more bombs than it dropped on Germany and Japan in World War II. That bombing — often indiscriminately massacring civilians — did nothing to improve the terms on which the Vietnam War ended; if anything, it just indicated the lengths to which the United States would go to express its displeasure at losing.
It is ironic that this brand of realism reached its apex at the height of the Cold War, a conflict that was ostensibly about ideology. From the side of the free world, Mr. Kissinger backed genocidal campaigns — by Pakistan against Bengalis and by Indonesia against the East Timorese. In Chile he has been accused of helping to lay the groundwork for a military coup that led to the death of Salvador Allende, the elected leftist president, while ushering in a terrible period of autocratic rule. The generous defense is that Mr. Kissinger represented an ethos that saw the ends (the defeat of the Soviet Union and revolutionary Communism) as justifying the means. But for huge swaths of the world, this mind-set carried a brutal message that America has often conveyed to its own marginalized populations: We care about democracy for us, not for them. Shortly before Mr. Allende’s victory, Mr. Kissinger said, “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
This is an example of what I think of as Alastair Campbell Syndrome — correct (and often brutal) points being made by precisely the kind of person with no standing to credibly make them. Rhodes, who’s now rebranded himself as a commentator and podcaster, was astoundingly cynical in office.
I’m sure he would hate the idea that he was standing on the shoulder of a giant Kissinger. But can’t you hear old Henry chuckling in the 2013 New York Times profile (The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru) in which Rhodes boasted about “[creating] an echo chamber” in which reporters spread a false narrative he helped construct suggesting negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal only began with ‘moderates’ in power rather than with the hardliners who were approached first?
Back across the Atlantic, The Times — which Americans insist on calling “The Times of London” — concocted an unappetising sandwich at the top of its obituary, sticking “was accused of war crimes” between “giant of world affairs who won a Nobel peace prize” and “believed that power was the greatest aphrodisiac”.
Confining a discussion of his crimes to two paragraphs in the middle…
However, Kissinger was infamous too. He and Nixon bombed neutral Cambodia and helped to propel that country into a singularly awful civil war. They encouraged General Augusto Pinochet’s overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected left-wing government in Chile — “I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible,” Kissinger said. They abandoned the Kurds of Iraq, and connived in acts of violent repression by allies such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Iran. Kissinger’s many critics called him a war criminal.
Like Nixon, he was vain, furtive, manipulative, duplicitous and paranoid. He shamelessly sidelined the State Department, Pentagon and Congress in his quest for total control of US foreign policy. He threw tantrums, feuded with other top officials and had journalists and members of his own staff wiretapped to counter leaks. Although he emerged largely unscathed from the Watergate scandal that destroyed Nixon, he helped to foster the mindset and methods that caused it.
… the Times obituarist opens the remembrance with the young Kissinger banned by the Nazi state “from watching the local football team” (among many other things) and ends it with a call back — the ageing Kissinger making a triumphant return:
In 2012 he returned to Fürth to watch SpVgg Greuther Fürth, the football club he worshipped as a child, play one of its first matches after being promoted to the Bundesliga. This time he was welcomed as a local hero, not banned as a Jew.
It’s a neat bit of writing but those who died or suffered unimaginable loss as a result of Kissinger’s commitment to denying others the democracy he was prevented from experiencing as a child deserve far more than nine lukewarm sentences in the middle of a very long obituary.
Unsurprisingly, The Daily Telegraph didn’t even bother with the pinch of nuance that The Times included. Headlined Henry Kissinger, refugee from the Nazis who swept to power serving Nixon as US Secretary of State – obituary and with an intro that reads…
Unlike Nixon he was gregarious, had abundant charm, and could mesmerise journalists even while taking the greatest care to hoodwink them
… the Telegraph obit is a slobbering tribute in which the phrase “war criminal” does not appear even as a line from critics and the bombing and invasion of Cambodia is covered with a quote from Kissinger regretting that the Nixon administration didn’t “[bomb] the hell out of them the moment we took office”. An estimated 700,000 Cambodians died as a result of the secret bombing campaign and the US dropped approximately 2.8 million tonnes of ordnance on 113,716 targets. That is the very definition of bombing the hell out of a country.
The Guardian produced a pathetic offering. It also deploys the load-bearing “controversial” and refers to Kissinger being “seen as a similar villain on the international stage” (my italics). It’s clear that being present at “one of the occasional deep-background ‘non-lunches’ which Kissinger gave for representatives of European newspapers,” led the writer, the paper’s former Moscow correspondent Jonathan Steele, to be taken in by “his charm and brilliance”.
Besides the excoriating piece from Rolling Stone and The Onion’s acid contribution, the best obituary I read came from Le Monde. It damns Kissinger (and Nixon) with their own words and includes far more colour than the English and American writers put into their obits and op-eds. It also includes an excellent one-sentence summary of the man:
Between cynicism and seduction, brutality and skill, this architect of American Realpolitik and of the policy of "détente" with the USSR favored global stability over democracy and human rights.
Henri Pierre is one of two authors bylined on Le Monde’s obit. After co-founding the paper in 1944, he served as its Washington correspondent from 1953 to 1959 and then from 1973 to 1982. Pierre died in 1994 — 29 years before Kissinger — but, unlike Hitchens, he took the precaution of writing down his conclusions in advance.
If you’ve got any enemies you want to be sure of skewering, take notes now.
Thanks for reading.
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