Henry Kissinger Does Not Care for Your Unserious Questions

Henry Kissinger has a book to promote, and so he found himself appearing on The Takeaway -- a news magazine program that airs on the New York City public radio station WNYC.

In the book, World Order, Kissinger offers his thoughts on the present state of foreign policy, drawing on his long career observing and advising on same. But he bristled, to put it mildly, when that long career prompted a few pointed questions from interviewer Todd Zwillich. It seems the Nobel Peace Prize winner isn't accustomed to being asked to defend his role in some of the uglier episodes of the 1970s.

That Kissinger doesn't want to talk about such things is no surprise. It is surprising that he hasn't come up with a better way to deflect questions about, say, Allende or Vietnam by now. The grounds on which he objects to Zwillich's bringing up the past are pretty flimsy: first of all, it happened a long time ago, and therefore is not something contemporary audiences should be interested in or consider themselves able to assess; and second, it is unfair to the people who were involved in making the decisions that are now being questioned.

In response to this from Zwillich:

One passage in your book says that idealism is a critical part of American policy, but that the most sustainable course will involve a blend of realism and idealism, [which is] too often held out in the American debate as incompatible opposites. It made me think of your history in places like Chile. Was it the case that realism trumped democratic idealism there when you engineered the coup against Salvador Allende, was that an example of that?

Kissinger replies:

Ahem. You know one trouble with discussion of this...You’re referring to an event that happened 50 years ago, and so it’s very hard to reconstruct…

Zwillich presses on, correcting the timeline ("forty years") and noting that, despite Kissinger's disavowal of any involvement with the coup, "Many other people testified in front of the Church Commission in the Senate later on that in fact you were well informed of that operation even after officially turning it off in a memo –"

Once again, Kissinger falls back on his not-quite-an-argument about how it's all off-limits for discussion because it happened a long time ago.

Let me tell you something here—it’s an issue that your audience cannot possibly know much about. This happened over 40 years ago, it has been exhaustively discussed. It is a reflection of a period in which the divisions in America were so great that opponents seemed to take a perverse pleasure in charging the people with whom they disagreed on other points with sort of criminal activities.

To have a meaningful discussion, you have to begin with the premise that serious people are trying to do the best for their country. We have been trying to overthrow President Assad. We overthrew, in this administration, we supported and took military action in Libya for the purpose that America has an interest in bringing about democratic government. It’s a well-established fact.

What the details were in 1971, with all due respect to you, it’s not an appropriate subject here because it’s easy to fish out individual statements before committees. I think a national debate would be helped if we assumed that serious people were trying to achieve serious objectives and to ask what these objectives were. Not to see whether there is one act taken by some outlying CIA group.

Kissinger keeps repeating that word "serious," which I recalled when I read this blog post from Jonathan Chait today that explores "the use of the term 'serious' as a bludgeon." Citing several recent neocon references to the need for "seriousness" in foreign policy, Chait writes, "Its purpose is to present absolutism as a substitute for thought." In Kissinger's case, referring to "serious people" seems to be a way of dismissing his critics as unserious, impertinent people, bothering their betters with their petty concerns. Examining the outcome, let alone the origins, of decisions made decades ago is unserious. Why not just assume that government leaders had the best of motivations and leave it at that? (Of course, lack of seriousness is not what Kissinger has been accused of.)

Zwillich picks up on this bludgeon-like use of "serious," and turns it back on his interviewee:

There are very many serious journalists and analysts who have used descriptions of you, Dr. Kissinger I know you’re very well-aware, very serious ones including ‘war criminal’ that they’ve used. It’s appropriate in a context like this to bring those very serious issues to light and allow you to give your point of view and defend yourself against them.

But Kissinger is having none of it:

They’re not issues that have been brought up, no. They’re brought up by a tiny minority. There’s a vast majority that has a very different view. I think the time has come, if we want to bring America together in the crisis that we face that we leave plenty of good faith with people we disagree with, and maybe we can still trust in their practical judgment.

Why, again, should one want to read World Order? Because, as the press packet says, Kissinger wrote it "drawing on his experience as one of the foremost statesmen of the modern era—advising presidents, traveling the world, observing and shaping the central foreign policy events of recent decades..." and its observations are "grounded in Kissinger’s deep study of history and his experience as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State." So, it seems odd that he should object so strenuously to the very idea of having to discuss specific incidents from that long history and the details of the foreign policy events he shaped.

Zwillich didn't get very far with his questions about Chile and Cambodia. But Kissinger's angry reaction -- "Your knowledge doesn’t match your malice," he growls at one point -- makes for a fascinating interview, deeply revealing in its own way. He thinks people ought to simply trust in his good faith. It would be easier to do that if he weren't so quick to dodge any frank evaluation of his own years in power.

[Update: See this book review by James J. Sheehan for more on "Henry Kissin­ger’s approach to diplomacy, which always involved the intrusion of his own energy, emotions, intelligence, and, most of all, growing celebrity into the policy-making process."]

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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