Hell is patient

Until recently my favourite T-shirt slogan was one I saw worn by a middle-aged man in Bristol a few years ago. No logo, no photo or cartoon, just a traumatized man’s determined statement set in red letters: “Still Hate Thatcher”.

In a city that has been a Labour stronghold for decades, in a country that pre-Boris Johnson used to be known for its subtle humour rather than slapstick politics, Margaret Thatcher’s divisive personality has left deep scars. Much of the pain is no longer remembered; in fact these days Maggie enjoys near Churchillian status, facilitated mostly by the abject quality of the puny Tory politicians that succeeded her.

My new favourite T-shirt slogan is of the Maggie genre but somewhat hard core: A photo of a dour Henry Kissinger in his thick rimmed glasses accompanied by the words ‘Hell is Patient”.

Nasty as it might seem to those who still believe in heaven and hell it could be argued that politicians of Henry’s public exposure are game, especially at a time when posthumous myth-making and our illiterate social media world are helping airbrush their appalling pasts. In the war against creeping ahistoricism any unsavory T-shirt slogan that reminds of Kissinger’s dark side is useful.

Kissinger is 97. Born just two years before Thatcher in 1923 (they got on splendidly, the photo above is from their first meeting in 1975)1 obituaries have been in draft form for decades. It has been 44 years since he left government yet he is the globe’s go-to master geopolitical strategist.

Despite serving under two republican presidents he also remains a pan-american icon. Yet when during the 2016 presidential campaign the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said that if elected she would consult with Kissinger on foreign policy Bernie Sanders famously said that he would never seek the counsel of “one of the most destructive Secretaries of State in the modern history of this country”.2

Clinton’s opportunistic position contrasted that of Barrack Obama. Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic, wrote that at various moments during a series of interviews he conducted with the former president, “I could feel the spectre of Kissinger hanging over the room.” Obama would, he said, talk openly and sorrowfully about American mistakes during the Cold War.

Kissinger became National Security Advisor in 1969 and Secretary of State in 1973. Thankfully never president though there was a period in 1974 when Nixon was wallowing in Watergate paranoia that Kissinger actually called all of the US’ foreign policy shots. Not least during the crisis that led to the Greek junta’s coup in Cyprus and the subsequent Turkish invasion.

According to Robert K Brigham, professor of History at Vassar College, Kissinger has spent much of his time out of office editing his time in office. No one, says Brigham, has cared more for their legacy than Kissinger. In the same way that he sought to protect US global interests through his policy of ‘Containment” he has sought to contain his own global brand.

It was Churchill who remarked that the past must be left to history “especially as I propose to write that history myself”3. Kissinger has done a great deal of writing. Seminal books, some brilliantly written but one-sided, Kissinger-sided, constructing narratives to suit the strategies he had sought never showing any remorse.

More ominously five years after the end of the Ford administration he put his experience – mostly his access to the US establishment – to full commercial use by setting up Kissinger Associates. The New York based geopolitical consulting firm advised clients on investment opportunities and on, what else, government relations.

Corporations sought to gain favour with the US establishment by having their interests represented by America’s top strategist. Many an American diplomat began or ended their careers at Kissinger Associates4.

Kissinger was no dictator. He did not have any authoritarian aspirations. He was however obsessively ambitious and self-centered and, most significantly, he preferred to act without public scrutiny.

Obituaries will no doubt highlight his euphemistically termed ‘real politic’, his controversial 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for the end of the war in Vietnam and will gloss over how he turned a blind eye to despicable crimes conducted by US autocratic proxies. They are likely to refrain from mentioning that he actually encouraged them. Christopher Hitchens was the most prominent journalist to go after Kissinger accusing him of war crimes in his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger5 and calling for a formal legal inquiry. With Hitchens’ premature death in 2011 the Kissinger bandwagon marched on with few intellectuals or journalists left to confront the whitewashing of his legacy.

Hitchens used to berate religions for not offering a convincing account of paradise instead scaring their flocks by vivid representations of hell. Yet he would enjoy quoting the Christian scholar Tertullian who, he said, had decided that among the delights of heaven would be the contemplation of the tortures of the damned.

The historical record is far more important than the silliness of the afterworld. Kissinger’s duplicity and ruthlessness must remain part of this world’s record. It must never be forgotten that the careless pursuit of his personal theories, often in violation of international law, saw thousands of people in Argentina, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus and Vietnam die needlessly and thousands more endure, for lack of a better term, a living hell.

  1. UPI, 18 September 1975.
  3. Speech House of Commons 23 January 1948
  4. With Henry Kissinger’s withdrawal in 2008 the company was headed by his former partner Thomas McLarty before it was renamed McLarty Associates.
    McLarty had served as Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff.

By Nicholas Karides

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