What the world needs now

Kissinger promotes

Let's get one thing cleared up right away: Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger answers his own question, "Does America need a foreign policy?" with a resounding "yes."

This slender volume might be described as Kissinger-lite, or maybe "Around the Globe in 300 Pages," far fewer than the usual bulk of a tome by Dr. K. He surveys Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, giving the historical context, raising the issues in each region, and then sketching out some ideas on what "a wise American policy would do" about them.

One of the most interesting and hopeful sections is the discussion of Latin America and its ripeness for the kind of economic integration that Europe has been working on since World War II.

But perhaps most salient in the whole book is his insistence that it is not only acceptable but desirable that American foreign policy promote its "national interest."

That sounds awfully politically incorrect nowadays - even imperialistic. Kissinger argues, though, that policymakers striving for only the high-ground goals of "human rights" and "democracy" may simply confuse other countries.

"Ironically, [the Clinton administration's] claim to unselfishness was interpreted as a special kind of unpredictability, even unreliability, by nations that have historically treated diplomacy as a reconciliation of interests."

One manifestation of idealistic foreign policy that troubles Kissinger: the concept of "universal jurisdiction" trumping state sovereignty, specifically in the case of Spanish efforts to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from Britain to stand trial in Spain for crimes against Spaniards in Chile.

Christopher Hitchens's "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" picks up just about literally where Kissinger's own book leaves off: with the Pinochet case. Kissinger isn't the only one to have doubts whether undertakings like the Pinochet extradition make for good international jurisprudence. But according to Hitchens, Kissinger has a very specific interest in the Pinochet case: If the Chilean can be put on trial, so could Kissinger. Hitchens's book makes the case for Kissinger as war criminal. Among the items on his bill of particulars:

* Kissinger's failure to stop Indonesia's 1974-75 invasion of East Timor - effected largely with US-supplied M-16 rifles - makes him complicit in the deaths of 200,000 Timorese.

* Kissinger's failure to act as Pakistan committed genocide against Bangladesh in the early 1970s (he didn't want to disrupt his opening to China via a Pakistani back channel) makes him complicit in the deaths of between half a million and 3 million people.

And so it goes. Many of these charges are not "new," which makes them neither true nor false, but which does make it hard to get serious, real-time public attention paid to them.

Kissinger is the kind of establishment figure a certain kind of intellectual loves to hate. His passion for secrecy and micromanagement draw to him personally attention that in a different kind of administration would have been diffused among a number of players; one might then posit a "fog of statecraft," analogous to Clausewitz's "fog of war." This might have blurred the lines which, in Hitchens's account, lead so clearly and sharply to Kissinger.

Hitchens provides careful documentation and cites authoritative sources. He connects the dots carefully and is amazingly able to parse the opaque prose of official government meeting transcripts. But Hitchens's tone does not always serve him well: It's one thing for him to acknowledge himself straightforwardly as a political opponent of his subject. It's another thing to weaken the substance of his case by stooping to ad hominem attacks, as he does with snide comments about Kissinger's "manners" and the like. Ironically, the fury of Hitchens's assault risks consigning his argument to the radical fringe.

Ruth Walker is the Monitor's correspondent in Toronto.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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