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Dhaka Tribune

The complicated world of Henry Kissinger

In Kissinger lived a man whose ruthlessness of behaviour overshadowed the intellectual brilliance

Update : 07 Dec 2023, 11:16 AM

Henry Kissinger, who has died at the age of 100, was always obsessed with himself. It was perennially the limelight he sought, a trait that manifested itself in the early 1960s when he wanted a place in the Kennedy administration. There was little question that he was a brilliant young scholar at Harvard, a German refugee who had made it good in America and who was proud of the fact that as a Jew fleeing the Nazis he could walk with his head high on American streets.

In Kissinger ambition was unbridled, a characteristic which went on developing despite his failure to find a place in the Kennedy White House. He wrote excellent treatises on Castlereagh and Metternich. Diligently into academic pursuits, he nevertheless needed an outlet to inform the world of his views of history, indeed of his plans to remould history. To that end, he joined Nelson Rockefeller, the governor of New York, in the expectation that Rockefeller would win the White House and he, Kissinger, would find the opportunity to have his talents flower into concrete implementation.

In the event, Rockefeller was unable to make much of a headway in national politics. And when President-elect Richard Nixon offered Kissinger the job of national security advisor in December 1968, Kissinger accepted the offer with alacrity. Once again, it was ambition that was paramount in him. Having earlier denigrated Nixon in more ways than one, he now saw hardly anything wrong in accepting a position in the incoming president’s administration. It was pragmatism which Kissinger brought into play. He would be a different kind of national security advisor and he did become one.

Kissinger was not the kind of man who would let anyone or anything come in the way of the goals he set for himself. Throughout the early phase of the Nixon administration, he made it a point to ingratiate himself with the president, to a point where the shaping of foreign policy slipped from the hands of William Rogers, the secretary of state, and into his hands. Rogers was reduced to being a figurehead, a reality which became a public affair when, without his knowledge and without the State Department aware of it, Kissinger flew off to China on his secret mission in July 1971. 

The China adventure was a boost to Kissinger’s public image and he loved it. His ambitions reached a pinnacle when in 1973 he took over as secretary of state in addition to keeping his job of national security advisor. The Yom Kippur War launched by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was the second test, after China, for Kissinger as a diplomat. He acquainted himself well in what would come to be known as shuttle diplomacy as he met Sadat, Syria’s Hafez Asad, Jordan’s King Hussein and Israel’s Golda Meir, prodding them into trying out deals that would restore peace in the Middle East. Add to that the ease with which Kissinger communicated with the Soviet Union’s Leonid Brezhnev, for such meetings paved the way for the policy that he would undertake in promoting détente between the world’s two superpowers.

So how does the world now regard Kissinger? There is little question that intellectual brilliance informed his diplomacy. That a powerful intellect worked in him was made evident through the numerous books he wrote -- White House Years, Diplomacy, On China, Leadership, World Order, A World Restored, to name a few -- is a reality that cannot be ignored. His analyses of statesmen were brilliant, for he was able to delve deep into their persona and come away with results that were rather different from those arrived at by other scholars before him. For his part, Kissinger considered himself a statesman, but that was an honour which he could not really come by, despite the assertions of many that statesmanship defined his character.

Statesmen are made of principled stuff, are able to see beyond time, are able to offer coherent philosophies about life and society to the world. Kissinger, for all his brilliance as an academic and as a diplomat, was unable to reach that summit of glory. And there was a reason for that. He suffered from the malady called pettiness throughout his public career. He saw nothing wrong with undermining the diplomat Archer Blood, who desperately needed Washington to condemn the Pakistan army’s atrocities in Bangladesh. It was thanks to Kissinger that Blood’s diplomatic career came to an abrupt end. Kissinger hardly felt the man’s pains. 

Kissinger’s petty nature prevented him from offering apologies to all the people --- in Bangladesh, in Cambodia, in Chile, in Timor-Leste --- his policies had pushed into dire straits. Salvador Allende’s election as Chile’s president in 1970 enraged him and Nixon, so much so that the two men went overboard in ensuring that a military dictatorship seized the state in Santiago. Kissinger was angry that Chileans had elected Allende to power. Three years later, Allende was dead. And dead too were thousands of Chileans at the hands of their army. In July 1971, as he prepared to fly to Beijing from Rawalpindi, Kissinger was not worried that Yahya Khan’s army was busy murdering Bengalis in that dark season in Bangladesh.

And so, in Kissinger lived a man whose ruthlessness of behaviour overshadowed the intellectual brilliance he was forever ready to demonstrate before the world. Yes, he had a sense of humour he displayed at times, but when he used expletives about Indira Gandhi, feelings shared by his president, it was once again pettiness on display in full form. He was willing to let half a million Cambodians perish in American secret bombing in his mission of destroying communist supply lines and felt no qualms of conscience about the act. He and President Gerald Ford knew, when they met Indonesia’s dictator Suharto in December 1975, that Jakarta was planning a full-scale invasion of East Timor. Neither man discouraged Suharto. The consequence was death and destruction in Dili.

To what extent Kissinger knew of Bangabandhu’s assassination before the tragedy occurred remains a subject for thorough research. On his very brief visit to Dhaka in October 1974, only days after the departure of Tajuddin Ahmad from the cabinet, he spent a few moments speaking to Khondokar Moshtaq separately outside the banquet hall where he was being hosted by the Bangladesh government. What did they talk about? In 1976, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto brandished in public what was purportedly a letter from Kissinger, warning him that unless he called a halt to Islamabad’s nuclear plans he would be made a horrible example of. At a number of public inquiry sessions requiring his attendance, Kissinger over the years was confronted by protestors loudly denouncing him as a war criminal.

Out of earshot of President Nixon, he often termed the latter as a man in whom reason did not work. But such an attitude notwithstanding, he paid a fulsome tribute to his erstwhile chief when Nixon died in 1994. A man with an outsize ego, Kissinger was deeply disappointed when President Ford lost the White House to Jimmy Carter in 1976. To him, much remained to be done about correcting the ills of the world, in line with his policies, but the Carter victory put a brake on his ambitions.

The policies pursued by Kissinger in terms of diplomacy in the Nixon-Ford years were binned by President Carter, who made it clear that his administration would conduct foreign policy on the basis of human rights with nations it had ties with. Kissinger’s worldview was predictably opposed to the new formulation. He was unhappy with the Carter doctrine and patiently waited for a Republican return to the presidency. When Ronald Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 election, Kissinger expected to be called back to government, indeed to the State Department by the new president. That expectation came to naught, for Reagan, who had already begun to see the Soviet Union as an evil empire, would not have the détente exponent which Kissinger was in his administration.

Henry Kissinger lived a long life. All the global figures he interacted with in his career, both as an academic and as a diplomat, went to their graves even as he continued to disperse wisdom on world affairs through his books, articles and interviews. He advised a number of presidents in the White House, maintained his links with China, where President Xi Jinping welcomed him a few months ago. Kissinger has been the subject of innumerable books written in the West, and not just in the United States, in which his policies as also his character was dissected surgically. 

Always craving attention, Kissinger was happy in the company of women, who were drawn to him like bees to a spring flower. When the belly dancer Nadia Parsa gyrated her way into his lap in a Tehran night club, in the days of the Shah, he felt little embarrassment and seemed to enjoy it all. He was, after all, the brightest global star at that point. In power, he was looked upon with awe by many among his staff. And yet there were others who, unable to take his regular tirades, chose to leave him.

Warts and all, Henry Kissinger will be remembered as the foremost American diplomat of the second half of the 20th century. George Kennan, Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles, Averell Harriman, Dean Rusk, Cyrus Vance -- he outshone them all. His sins will not be forgotten. Neither will his sweeping vision of a world resting on strategic diplomacy be overlooked by students of history.


Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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