Ramifications of Kissinger’s Back Channels

Photograph Source: White House Photo Office Collection – Public Domain

Henry Kissinger (1923-2023), architect of clandestine diplomacy, epitomized a life rich with profound lessons for humanity. As custodian of the United States’ archives, his influence extended beyond political realms, playing a pivotal role in orchestrating China’s rise in the Western economic landscape. Kissinger’s legacy is characterized by realist politics and an unwavering pursuit of a delicate balance of power. Unyielding in the face of criticism, Kissinger fearlessly wielded authority, leaving an indelible mark on global geopolitics. His passing creates a tapestry woven with both commendable and questionable actions, from reshaping the international order to navigating the complexities of realpolitik. 

Born Heinz Kissinger in 1923 in Fürth, Bavaria, his family’s escape from the looming threat of Kristallnacht led them to New York. Rechristened Henry, his early aptitude for strategic thinking clashed with his initial leanings towards accountancy. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, Kissinger’s formative years were shaped by German-American Fritz Kramer, whose mentorship warned against detached intellectualism.

In a 1958 interview, Kissinger unabashedly proclaimed, “A capitalist society, or, to me more interestingly, a free society, is a more revolutionary phenomenon than nineteenth-century socialism. I think we should go on the spiritual offensive.” This conviction, rooted in the unwavering belief in the American global mission, defines Kissinger’s controversial legacy. Among the immigrant influences shaping him, Hans Morgenthau, luminary of modern foreign policy realism, stood closest. Their professional rapport endured, but Morgenthau’s unwillingness to compromise realist principles for political gain became evident when dismissed from advising the Johnson administration over his opposition to the Vietnam War. Kissinger’s impact on global affairs, however, is marred by egregious actions—from the downfall of Chilean democracy to complicity in consolidating the Pinochet dictatorship, involvement in the Argentine military junta’s brutalities, betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds, and the extension of the Vietnam War to Laos and Cambodia—a portrait of a man entangled in a web of global suffering.

The epitaph of “war criminal” has been hurled at Kissinger, a label that gains credence in light of his involvement in heinous acts. Chef Anthony Bourdain’s visceral condemnation encapsulates the sentiment: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger barehanded… you’ll never understand why he’s not sitting in The Hague docks next to Milošević.” However, the distinction between political, moral, and historical responsibility for human suffering and strict legal culpability is a complex web. While it’s indisputable that Kissinger’s policies resulted in countless deaths, establishing legal responsibility is a nuanced challenge.

Consider the haunting case of East Timor, a canvas stained with the brushstrokes of Kissinger’s complicity. Post-Portuguese independence in 1975, Kissinger and President Ford granted Indonesian President Suharto a green light for invasion, a decision seemingly sealed during a Jakarta meeting. In this grim theatre of geopolitical maneuvering, Kissinger’s role as an architect of practical assistance becomes evident. The U.S., a ‘donor-client’ to Indonesia, supplied 90% of its military arsenal, reinforcing the umbilical tie between the two nations.

As the death toll in East Timor surged into the tens of thousands, Kissinger navigated legal loopholes with calculated finesse. Congressional constraints on weapons use against human rights violations became mere hurdles to sidestep. Kissinger’s actus reuswas the practical assistance that fueled Indonesian crimes—a support system with a significant effect. The final report of the Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor labeled U.S. “political and military support” as fundamental to the invasion.

Unlike the case in Pakistan, concrete evidence of Kissinger’s real-time knowledge of ongoing atrocities remains elusive, a requirement to meet the mens rea standard. The isolation of East Timor, predicted by the CIA, facilitated Indonesia’s information blackout, shielding Kissinger from immediate knowledge. Yet, reports of looting, killing, and staggering death tolls reached the ears of diplomats, with testimonies from Indonesians. Whether Kissinger turned a blind eye or was deliberately kept in the dark remains an open question.

In dissecting Kissinger’s role, we confront a moral abyss where political expediency collided with human suffering. The legal intricacies may entangle us, but the undeniable reality persists—Kissinger’s hands bear the stain of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity. The echoes of East Timor resonate as a damning testament to the geopolitical calculus that prioritized strategic interests over the sanctity of human life. The secret bombings of Laos, the controversial Operation Speedy Express in Vietnam, and the sinister orchestration of Operation Condor in South America all stand as potential cases that cry out for scrutiny. Yet, astonishingly, Kissinger has never faced the piercing questions of a court regarding these egregious actions. The question lingers: Was Kissinger a statesman or a silent accomplice to unspeakable atrocities? What similarities exist in the legal nature of Henry Kissinger’s actions and those of Adolf Eichmann from Nazi Germany, who was later prosecuted in Israel after being captured in Argentina?

In 2004, however, a U.S. federal court dismissed a civil suit against Kissinger, filed by the family of Chilean Army Chief General René Schneider, killed in an alleged failed kidnapping attempt involving Kissinger. Subsequent attempts to hold him accountable were thwarted by political machinations and evasive maneuvers. Judges in Argentina, Chile, France, and Spain sought his testimony on crimes committed by U.S. client regimes in South America, but Kissinger, till his death, was able remains an elusive figure, evading the specter of justice. Even in London, his temporary refuge in 2002, British activist Peter Tatchell’s attempt to arrest him for charges related to the Vietnam War proved unsuccessful.

The most damning chapter unfolds in 1971 during the massacres in what is now Bangladesh, then the eastern part of Pakistan. Kissinger staunchly supported Pakistan’s military dictatorship, turning a blind eye to one of the Cold War’s worst atrocities. In the face of a “reign of terror,” Kissinger failed to intervene, neglecting to pressure Pakistani generals against shooting their own citizens or to advocate for power-sharing agreements. As Bengali nationalists won democratic elections and faced brutal repression, Kissinger chose not to employ U.S. influence to prevent the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe.

Ambassador Kenneth Keating’s warning of “almost entirely genocide” against Hindus fell on deaf ears, as Kissinger callously referred to the dying Bengalis with dismissive apathy in White House tapes. The genocide, a term he conveniently sidestepped, became an inconsequential detail in the grand theater of geopolitical maneuvering. His allegiance to Pakistani General Yahya Khan, manifested in jest about Hindu pogroms, laid bare the moral vacuum at the heart of Kissinger’s political calculus.

The scars of his decisions lingered as at least 200,000 lives were lost, and millions of Bengali refugees sought shelter in India, where disease ran rampant in overcrowded camps. As Pakistan attacked India in December 1971, the short but fierce war resulted in a humiliating defeat for Pakistan and the birth of an independent Bangladesh. The colossal failure of U.S. policy in the region during the Cold War was unmistakable.

Throughout the crisis, Kissinger’s disdain for the Indian people reached egregious heights. Condemning them as “trashy people” and blaming them for the refugee crisis, he wove a narrative of contempt that tainted his perception of an entire nation. His derogatory remarks on Indians, dripping with scorn, painted a picture of racial bias that contradicted the principles of diplomacy and international statesmanship.

Even as Kissinger berated Indians, his condescension extended to Pakistanis, branding them as “primitive” in their mental makeup. This sweeping judgment betrayed a deep-seated prejudice that transcended national boundaries, exposing a toxic mindset that permeated his decision-making.

In a disquieting psychological scrutiny, the looming specter of Hitler’s influence on Kissinger’s psyche surfaces. Without reducing his perspectives to mere trauma, stark parallels materialize in the Machiavellian stratagems employed by both titans, wielding power to subdue adversaries and sculpt political landscapes. Kissinger’s brazen proclamation, “the illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a bit longer,” stands as a chilling witness to the modus operandi that echoes the unrelenting ruthlessness of history’s darkest epochs.

In the twilight of his existence, however, Kissinger extensively delved into leadership strategies, compelling us to grapple with his “undeclared confessions” regarding his role in the missteps of his century. Reverberating the wisdom of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus in his 2022 treatise on leadership, Kissinger reaffirmed, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” The mantle of leadership is to steer that choice, to kindle a collective response resonating with the indomitable spirit of a society poised to confront its challenges and carve its destiny.

Henry Kissinger, a figure both praised and critiqued, emerges from the annals of history as a complex architect of U.S. foreign policy. His legacy, sculpted in the crucible of geopolitical expediency, bears witness to a leader adept at navigating the intricate landscapes of power. The stark duality of Kissinger’s character is laid bare in his Machiavellian approach, where realpolitik trumped moral considerations. From his instrumental role in shaping China’s rise to his controversial stance during the South Asian crisis, Kissinger’s decisions, often veiled in secrecy, carried profound consequences. In grappling with allegations of war crimes and ethical lapses, Kissinger’s legacy invites scrutiny, a cautionary tale of leadership that challenges the balance between strategic pragmatism and ethical responsibility. The echoes of his decisions reverberate as a nuanced portrait, forcing us to confront the moral complexities of a statesman whose actions unfolded in the shadows of history’s defining moments.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a Sri Lankan born author. He was the-editor of Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily newspaper. He was also the editor of the Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives, bi-monthly print magazine, co-published by the Danish Institute Against Torture ( DIGNITY) based in Copenhagen, Denmark.