Kissinger, Circular man

Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, Greg Grandin, 2015

Spengler

Grandin spends some time examining the influence of Oswald Spengler on Kissinger’s metaphysical beliefs:

Spengler wrote as if decline was inevitable, as if the cycle he described – in which each civilization experiences its spring, summer, autumn, winter – were as unavoidable as the spinning of the earth. Once societies pass their great creative stage and the logicians, rationalists, and bureaucrats arrive on the scene, there is no turning back. Having lost a sense of purpose, civilization lurch outward to find meaning. They get caught up in a series of disastrous wars, propelled forward to doom by history’s cosmic beat, power for power’s sake, blood for blood’s. Imperialism is the inevitable product, Kissinger wrote summing up The Decline of the West‘s argument, an outward thrust to hide the inner void. Kissinger acceped Spengler’s critique of past civilizations but rejects his determinism.

The lesson of the Korean War for Kissinger was that the threat of nuclear annihilation had rendered America powerless. Kissinger believed that Moscow had to be convinced that a major war with the United States which he called the only real deterring threat was a significant possibility. To make the threat credible Kissinger developed his mad man president notion which he deployed for both Nixon and Ford to demonstrate (with Cambodia as the victim) that the president was just crazy enough to launch such a major war. Reagan followed this example by invading tiny Granada after assuming office to establish his credentials as a legitimate mad man.

In order to “test” power – that is, in order to create one’s consciousness of power – one needed to be willing to act. And the best way to produce that willingness was to act..”inaction” has to be avoided so as to show that action is possible. Only action could overcome the systemic “incentive for inaction”. Only action could overcome the paralyzing fear (that is, nuclear escalation) that might result from such “action”. Only through “action” – including small wars in marginal areas like Vietnam – could America become vital again, could it produce the awareness by which it understands its power, breaks the impasse caused by an over reliance on nuclear technology, instills cohesion among allies, and reminds an increasingly ossified foreign policy bureaucracy of the purpose of American power.

“Power” is history’s starting and ending point, history’s “manifestation” and its “exclusive objective”. He had built his own perpetual motion machine; the purpose of American power was to create an awareness of American purpose. And since Kissinger held to an extremely plastic notion of reality, other concepts he was associated with, such as “interests”, were also pulled into the whirlpool of his reasoning; we can’t defend our interests until we know what our interests are and we can’t know our interests are until we defend them.


I know, Let’s Secretly Bomb Cambodia!
kissinger nixon

Into this crazy circular metaphysics, American foreign policy was sucked starting in 1969. With Obama’s endless war in more than a hundred countries we see the evidence of the ever growing whirlpool. Interestingly Kissinger uses Obama’s drone strikes as justification for his 1969-1973 secret bombing of Cambodia which was the start of this whirlpool and is the central theme of this book.

Vietnam, he said in 2010, was America’s first experience with limits in foreign policy, and it was something painful to accept. This is a disingenuous interpretation… Rather, the critics that most rankled Kissinger were those – protesters, Congress and former Harvard colleagues like Thomas Schelling – who told him that there were limits to what he could do to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam…”I don’t see how it is possible to conduct foreign policy when there’s a systematic attempt to destroy both your threats and your incentives”.

Kissinger didn’t use his time in office to “instruct” citizens in political realism, as he had earlier define the responsibilities of statesmen. Rather, he helped adapt the imperial presidency to new times, based on an increasingly mobilized and polarized citizenry, more spectacular displays of power, more secrecy, and ever more widening justifications for ever more war.

Kissinger and Mao with much admired Zhou Enlai kissinger mao chou

With the autocratic Mao (Tse-tung) he could fantasize about what it would be like to conduct foreign policy and not be tormented by the press and Congress.

Mao and Kissinger shared a mutual appreciation of German metaphysics. Mao: Do you pay attention or not to one of the subjects of Hegel’s philosophy, that is the unity of opposites? Kissinger: Very much. I was much influenced by Hegel in my philosophical thinking…Mao: If it were not for Hegel and Feuerbach, there would not be Marxism,

kissinger bomb cambodia bomb map

But, as Nixon and Kissinger themselves put it, they used foreign policy to “break the back” of domestic opponents and “destroy the confidence of the American people in the American establishment. They had mixed results with the former but succeeded stunningly, with the latter. By the end of Kissinger’s tenure, all of the institutional pillars of society that previous administrations could rely on to uphold government legitimacy – the press, universities, the movie and music industries, churches, courts, and Congress – seemed to be pushing against it, creating that entrenched adversary culture that so worried conservative.

From the New Yorker in 1973:

There was the Kissinger who “established relations with China, improved our relations with Russia, and successfully completed the first phase of SALT – and for these achievements, most Americans are grateful.”…But then there was the Kissinger, who with Nixon, “planned the undisclosed bombing of Cambodia…initiated the unauthorized wiretapping of members of Kissinger’s staff and of newsmen in 1969…planned the invasion of Cambodia in 1970…planned the use of American air power to support the invasion of Laos in 1971…planned the mining and blockading of North Vietnamese harbors…planned the ‘Christmas bombing’ of North Vietnam – all this done in secrecy and without Congressional consent. While the President and the men of Watergate were, it now appears, undermining our democratic system of government in domestic affairs, the President and Henry Kissinger were undermining the system in foreign affairs.

In the years following the end of the Vietnam War, Kissinger, in one region after another, executed policies that helped doom his own grand strategy. Then, once he was out of office, he threw in with America’s new militarists, who were intent on tearing down D├ętente…By 1980, he was with them, sanctioning their jump-starting of the Cold War and their drive to retake the Third World…In a way, Kissinger did to the larger Third World what he did to Cambodia: he institutionalized a self-fulfilling logic of intervention.

What is certain is that individually, each of Kissinger’s Middle East initiatives – banking on deposits, inflating the shah, providing massive amounts of aid to security forces that tortured and terrorized citizens, pumping up the US defense industry with recycled petrodollars, which in turn spurred a Middle East arms race financed by high gas prices, emboldened Pakistan’s intelligence service, nurturing embryonic Islamic fundamentalism, playing Iran and the Kurds off Iraq, and then Iraq and Iran off the Kurds and committing Washington to defending Israel’s occupation of Arab lands – has been disastrous in the long run.

On a personal note: this blogger had a college friend who was a conscientious objector, a varsity wrestler, and a violinist with the University orchestra. He was assigned to teach English in Laos as his alternate service. In 1969-1970, he witnessed the B52’s and bombings as he sat on his porch playing his violin. When things got too dangerous, he left Laos, stopping briefly to visit us in Honolulu where we first learned of the secret bombing. He was later convicted of draft avoidance and sent to prison in Walla Walla.

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