President Richard Nixon's notoriously ruthless secretary of state Henry Kissinger—who, among other things, has been accused of being war criminal for his leading role in the covert bombing of Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War and the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile in 1973—became a heated subject of contrast in Thursday night's Democratic debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
The former secretary of state has worn Kissinger's approval of her as a badge of honor while arguing she is unrivaled among the candidates in terms of her foreign policy experience and repeatedly showcased the support of many former military and State Department officials as evidence of her bona fides. Sanders, however, pointed out that many people, himself included, have a very dim view of Kissinger's historical role in world affairs.
"I find it rather amazing," Sanders said, "because I happen to believe that Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And, in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia—when the United States bombed that country, overthrew Prince Sihanouk—created the instability that allowed Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in and then butcher some 3 million innocent people—one of the worst genocides in the history of the world. So count me in as someone who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger."
Clinton responded to the charge by saying that many people have been curious to know who Sanders does count among his foreign policy advisors, but said to him "you have yet to answer that." To which Sanders retorted, "Well, it ain't Henry Kissinger."
Though Kissinger's legacy may not be as well known among the younger generation of voters who have been streaming to Sanders campaign over Clinton's, historian Greg Grandin—author of Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman—has argued that during the decades he served as a central player in U.S. foreign wars and political interventions, policies and actions supported by and executed by Kissinger have had a destructive impact across the globe. As Grandin wrote last fall in a post for TomDispatch:
Over the last decade, an avalanche of documents -- transcripts of conversations and phone calls, declassified memos, and embassy cables -- have implicated Henry Kissinger in crimes in Bangladesh, Cambodia, southern Africa, Laos, the Middle East, and Latin America. He’s tried to defend himself by arguing for context. “Just to take a sentence out of a telephone conversation when you have 50 other conversations, it’s just not the way to analyze it,” Kissinger said recently, after yet another damning tranche of documents was declassified. “I’ve been telling people to read a month’s worth of conversations, so you know what else went on.”
But a month’s worth of conversations, or eight years for that matter, reads like one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest plays. Perhaps Macbeth, with its description of what we today call blowback: "That we but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague the inventor."
We are still reaping the bloody returns of Kissinger’s inventions.
On Twitter, following Sanders' criticism, many people chimed in to let it be known just how disastrous they believe Kissinger has been throughout history, and—because of the way contemporary power-brokers and politicians like Clinton shower him with reverence—still is today. As journalist Dan Froomkin indicates, the contrast between Sanders and Clinton on this issue are stark, but alignment with Kissinger on foreign policy matters makes the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party look very bad:
Hillary Clinton defending Henry Kissinger has got to be one of the lowest points in Democratic Party history. #DemDebate
— Dan Froomkin (@froomkin) February 12, 2016
Froomkin's colleague at The Intercept, Murtaza Hussein, agreed, saying it proves how out of touch Clinton is when it comes to how many view Kissinger as a historical figure:
Clinton on the other hand is so out of touch she doesn't even know Henry Kissinger and Goldman Sachs are actually not popular in America.
— Murtaza Hussain (@MazMHussain) February 12, 2016
Meanwhile, it was an article posted early this week at Gawker by columnist Alex Pareene which articulated why the "issue of Kissinger" is actually crucial for people trying to distinguish between how Sanders and Clinton view history and the role of U.S. power. According to Pareene, even though Kissinger "is a bad man, who waged a terrible and illegal war in Cambodia, supported a horrific right-wing strongman in Chile, and generally ran America’s foreign policy apparatus in the most amoral way possible," the real problem is how "the bubble of elite American society, the bipartisan consensus, shared by politicians and members of the media alike, is that he’s simply a respected elder statesman."
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With that in mind, the real issue, he goes on to explain, is that:
Hillary Clinton exists in a world where “Henry Kissinger is a war criminal” is a silly opinion held by unserious people. Her problem? Lots of those silly and unserious people want to wrest control of the Democratic Party away from its current leadership, which is exemplified by people like Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders’ critique of Clinton is not that she’s cartoonishly corrupt in the Tammany Hall style, capable of being fully bought with a couple well-compensated speeches, but that she’s a creature of a fundamentally corrupt system, who comfortably operates within that system and accepts it as legitimate. Clinton has had trouble countering that critique because, well, it’s true. It’s not that she’s been bought, it’s that she bought in.
In his column on the subject (which he also described as a "primer on Kissinger") posted on The Intercept later on Friday, Froomkin invokes a similar idea, arguing that the division over Kissinger's legeacy should be "central" to those assessing Clinton and Sanders. According to Froomkin:
The difference between the two views of Kissinger is not simply of academic or historical interest. How a presidential candidate feels about him is a clear sign of her or his worldview and indicates the kind of decisions she or he will make in office – and, perhaps even more importantly, suggests the kind of staffers she or he will appoint to key positions of authority in areas of diplomacy, defense, national security, and intelligence.
Henry Kissinger is thus a litmus test for foreign policy. But don’t count on the mainstream media to help you understand that.
Imagine two types of people: Those who would schmooze with Kissinger at a cocktail party, and those who would spit in his eye. The elite Washington media is almost without exception in that first category. In fact, they’d probably have anyone who spit in Kissinger’s eye arrested.
Since they only see one side, they don’t want to get into it. And there was a little indicator at Thursday night’s debate, hosted by PBS, of just how eagerly the elite political media welcomes an honest exploration of the subject.
But, as the historian Grandin writing just last week in The Nation, said, "Clintonism is largely an extension of Kissingerism, so Clinton’s cozy relationship to Kissinger shouldn’t come as a surprise."
And Grandin used the example of the 2011 U.S/NATO-backed overthrow of Muhammar Gaddafi in Libya, where Clinton played a central role, to express his point, concluding:
Last year, Kissinger, reacting to a question about his role in overthrowing Salvador Allende—the democratically elected president of Chile in 1973—and his illegal, covert bombing of Cambodia—which started in 1969 and continued to 1973—pointed to the Clinton’s bombing in Libya and proposed bombing in Syria.
What’s the difference? he asked.
To which Grandin answered the question, "None, apparently."