From South America to South-East Asia and the Middle East, Henry Kissinger’s dark legacy still ripples.
Carnage in Vietnam and Cambodia
HENRY Kissinger’s decision to authorise the secret carpet bombing of Cambodia, his efforts to negotiate the United States exit from the Vietnam War, and his role in the US rapprochement with China have rippled through South-East Asia in the decades since, writes The New York Times’ Mike Ives.
Kissinger, who died Wednesday, shared the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the peace accords that ended US involvement in the Vietnam War. But some critics accused him of needlessly prolonging the war when a framework for peace had been available years earlier.
The fighting between North Vietnam and US-backed South Vietnam did not end until the North’s victory in 1975. Some observers have said that was the inevitable result of a cynical US policy intended to create space – “a decent interval,” as Kissinger put it – between the US withdrawal from the country in 1973 and the fall of Saigon two years later.
The bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1970, which Kissinger authorised in the hope that it would root out pro-Communist Viet Cong forces operating from bases across Vietnam’s western border, also fuelled years of debate about whether the United States had violated international law by expanding the conflict into an ostensibly neutral nation.
Kissinger defended his wartime decisions for years afterward.
“America should not torture itself on the view that it could have had a settlement earlier if their presidents had been more willing,” Kissinger said during a 2016 event at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum in Austin, Texas. “They could not have had a settlement, except for selling out and withdrawing unconditionally, which nobody would have supported.”
As for the bombing campaign, he wrote in his memoirs that it was a decision North Vietnam’s actions had forced upon then president Richard Nixon’s administration.
Within Vietnam, Kissinger’s role in the war was contentious well before the fighting ended. In 1973, Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator who was jointly awarded the Nobel with Kissinger, rejected the award, saying that the US-backed South had continued “acts of war” even after the agreement, and that he would be able to accept the prize only after peace had been established there. (He died in 1990, never having accepted the prize.)
Many Vietnamese also resent the role Kissinger played in establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and China, Vietnam’s powerful northern neighbour and former imperial occupier.
The normalisation of US-China ties in 1979 elevated China’s international standing and paved the way for its rise, said Duong Quoc Chinh, a Viet-namese architect and political commentator in Hanoi.
“Now people dislike him primarily because they see him as the person responsible for China’s prosperity.”
In postwar Cambodia, prime minister Hun Sen, who spent nearly four decades in power before transferring the premiership to his son this year, long argued that Kissinger and other former US officials should be charged with war crimes for their role in the bombing campaign.
Senior officials in Cambodia, a country still littered with unexploded ordnance, have long seen Kissinger as a “bête noire,” said Sophal Ear, an expert on Cambodia’s political economy and a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University in the United States. Even in recent years, he said, when diplomatic tensions flared with the United States, Cambodian officials would sometimes bring up the wartime bombing campaign in an effort to corner their American interlocutors.
Many analysts have said the US bombing of Cambodia led in part to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, which oversaw horrors that killed nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population in the late 1970s.
But Sophal Ear, who escaped the Khmer Rouge as a child, added that Kissinger was slowly fading from memory in a country where the median age is now only about 27.
“I surmise that they cannot blame someone whose name they do not know,” he said.
The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kissinger’s legacy. Pen Bona, a spokesperson for the Cambodian government, declined to comment.
“He was a US secretary of state, so he did everything for US interest and liberal ideology,” Sok Eysan, a spokesperson for the governing Cambodian People’s Party, said of Kissinger. “We couldn’t completely blame him since he followed US foreign policy.”
During his long premiership, Hun Sen’s backsliding on democracy caused friction with the United States, which frequently called on his government to respect human rights and restore fair elections. At the same time, Hun Sen brought Cambodia closer to China, calling it his country’s “most trustworthy friend”.
Vietnam, by contrast, has sought to offset a historically close but complicated relationship with China by pursuing warmer ties with the United States, its former enemy. Though a one-party state, Vietnam has found common ground with Washington in concerns over China’s mounting ambitions in South-East Asia.
When former US president Barack Obama visited Hanoi in 2016, he said the United States would rescind a decades-old ban on sales of lethal military equipment to Vietnam. And during President Joe Biden’s visit to Hanoi in September, Vietnam’s Communist Party leadership raised relations with the United States to the highest in Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy, putting them on par to those it has with Russia and China.
Turmoil still reigns in the Middle East
IT was the original shuttle diplomacy. Nearly 50 years ago, Kissinger was flying across the Middle East, seeking a new US-led order following war between Israel and Arab states.
Kissinger left a deeply controversial legacy in much of the world but, at least inside the United States, he won wide praise for transforming Middle East politics.
Yet the region has still not found peace, with Kissinger’s death duelling for headline space with tales of carnage in the war between Israel and Hamas in Palestine.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on the Jewish holiday, came as Kissinger was at the pinnacle of influence, with Nixon embroiled by the Watergate scandal and believed to be drinking heavily.
Kissinger found that Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, who would later be assassinated, was eager to shift his focus from Israel to boosting the troubled economy of the Arab world’s most populous country.
“He quickly grasped the strategic opening that president Sadat and his actions offered,” Gordon Gray, a veteran former US diplomat in the Arab world, told AFP.
Mourning Kissinger as he met the current secretary of state, Antony Blinken, Israeli President Isaac Herzog credited the late diplomat for having “laid the cornerstone of the peace agreement” between Israel and Egypt.
However, Kissinger, the archrealist who believed all countries would ruthlessly pursue self-interest, himself did not speak of peace accords but rather simply of agreements not to go to war.
A key goal for Kissinger was to weaken the rival Soviet Union, which lost Egypt as an ally.
Salim Yaqub, a historian of US foreign policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the Kissinger strategy was at once “brilliant” and “destructive”.
Kissinger, reading Sadat’s intentions, paid lip service to addressing other regional issues but knew Egypt would agree its own deal.
“What Kissinger realised was that once Egypt was taken out of confrontation with Israel, once Egyptian power was subtracted from the Arab-Israeli military equation, then the ability of other Arab actors who had claims against Israel – Syria, Jordan, the Palestine Liberation Organisation – would be significantly diminished,” Yaqub said.
Kissinger believed Israel then could more easily keep territories seized in 1967 – the West Bank and Golan Heights, which Israel still holds, and the Gaza Strip, now run by Hamas.
The late diplomat, whose family fled Nazi Germany, was the first Jewish US secretary of state. But he was careful not to stress his Jewish identity – especially around Nixon, notorious for his anti-Semitic remarks.
Coldly cynical, Kissinger faced accounts, which he denied, that he sought to delay airlifting weapons to Israel in 1973, hoping Arab countries would negotiate better if they enjoyed some battleground victories.
In one Oval Office conversation, Kissinger scoffed at Israeli appeals for Washington to press Moscow to let Jews emigrate, quipping that it would not be a US concern even if the Soviet Union “put Jews in the gas chambers”.
But after leaving office, he gave a speech calling Israel’s security a “moral imperative for all free people”.
Former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said the late diplomat believed states would inevitably clash and so it was best not to pursue peace compromises but to establish an order, much as Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich did in Europe after the Napoleonic wars.
But by rushing peace instead of incremental steps, “in the end it blew up in our faces”, said Indyk.
Yaqub, the historian, said Kissinger’s refusal to take up the Palestinian issue proved “quite catastrophic”.
“It’s not all Kissinger’s fault. There are many missteps by people who came after him,” he said.
“But the essential policy of refusing to take on board the Israel-Palestine issue, I think, has helped us get to the point where we are today.”
‘Profound moral wretchedness’ in Latin America
KISSINGER'S death has brought out some bitter epitaphs from Latin America where the legacy of US intervention helped saddle the region with some of the most brutal military regimes of the 20th century, The Guardian newspaper reports.
Nowhere has the reaction been more damning than in Chile, where Kissinger was instrumental in the 1973 coup that led to the death of a democratically elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, and the installation of a dictator, Gen Augusto Pinochet, and his military junta.
Kissinger was a man “whose historical brilliance was never able to conceal his profound moral wretchedness”, wrote Juan Gabriel Valdés, Chile’s ambassador in the US, on X (formerly Twitter).
The coup marked the start of 17 years of autocracy in Chile.
“Henry Kissinger was an incredibly important figure in the breakdown of Chile’s Constitutional order,” said the historian Gabriel Salazar. “He provoked the downfall of [Allende’s] developmental policies, and then the installation of the neoliberal economic model which is still in place today – that’s why we associate Kissinger with Pinochet here in Chile.”
According to The Guardian, Kissinger’s influence in Latin America spread far beyond Chile. He played a role in Operation Condor, which linked the military regimes in an intelligence- sharing network to hunt down leftwing dissidents.
“Henry Kissinger did not believe in the sanctity of self-determination. He didn’t believe in the sanctity of sovereignty for Latin American nations or the smaller nations of the Third World. He believed in ‘superpower might makes right’ – realpolitik,” said Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington DC, which pressured the US government into declassifying Kissinger’s voluminous records. Kissinger had not wanted them made public until five years after his death.
“Latin America was – for the arrogant policymakers of whom Kissinger was the top dog – our backyard. If we did not have control of what happened in our sphere of influence, Kissinger’s argument went, the rest of the world would not take our exercise of power seriously further away,” he told The Guardian. – AFP/© 2023 The New York Times Company