Christopher Hitchens and David Rieff exchange frank views on politics, personalities and what constitutes a war criminalby Christopher Hitchens / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
28th June 2001
I hold no brief for Henry Kissinger, and had your recent attack on him been concerned-as you put it-with exposing his “depraved realpolitik,” I would not have been disposed to quarrel with you. There is much to loathe about what Kissinger believes, and much to despise about what he did when he applied his brand of amoral realism to the conduct of US foreign policy. But you insist that your goal is different. You claim that the book you have written is “concerned only with the Kissingerian offences that might or should form the basis of a legal prosecution for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offences against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap and torture.”
You claim that in your bill of indictment you have included only those acts of Kissinger’s which can be properly described as identifiable crimes rather than exercises of irresponsible power, or acts which, however repulsive they are to you, “might in outline have been followed under any US administration.” These include the secret bombing of Indochina; collusion with the Pakistani government’s campaign of slaughter in East Pakistan in 1971 and in the subsequent assassination of Bangladesh’s first president, Sheikh Mujib; collusion in the assassination of Rene Schneider, the chief of the Chilean general staff under Allende; involvement in the plan to assassinate President Makarios of Cyprus; guilt for the Indonesian genocide in East Timor; and personal involvement in a plot to kidnap and murder Elias Demetracopoulos, an exiled Greek journalist then living in Washington.
There are a number of flaws in your argument which would be apparent even to someone who shared both your politics and your presuppositions. Among them is the fact that, as you yourself admit, you don’t have a lot of direct evidence in a number of these cases. You blame Kissinger for withholding access to his papers and speculate, without evidence as far as I can see, that he has destroyed certain key documents. But the result, as you concede, is that you can often only bring what you call a prima facie case. In other words you want Kissinger in the dock, but you often don’t have enough evidence to warrant an indictment under the legal standards you yourself invoke and depend on.
Let me give one example of many. You demonstrate that Kissinger lied when he said that he had no advance warning of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. You go on to claim that Kissinger must have approved of it. If you were writing a political polemic, that would be acceptable. But you have imposed higher standards on yourself by claiming to have written a prosecutor’s brief. By those standards, you fail. Reading that section of your book, the old Scottish verdict “Not Proven” came to mind.
But let’s assume you’re right. It still seems to me that the Cyprus case is better understood as emblematic of the irresponsible exercise of US power during this period than of the particular whims of Kissinger. The same, I believe, can be said of the US government’s complicity in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. No fact adduced by you suggests that Kissinger’s views in these matters were at variance with that of the US policy establishment generally.
If I am right, then despite your claims you have not taken sufficiently into account the institutional nature of the policy Kissinger implemented and instead have fetishised the role of one celebrated official at the expense of seeing his role in its appropriate political, historical and moral context. The oddity in this debate is that it is you, not I, who is the self-proclaimed leftist. It seems to me, though, that by fixating on Kissinger you let the US policy elite, of which Kissinger is only one rather florid and over-rated product, off the hook. In your account, he is a kind of lone gunman, spreading destruction across the globe out of a demented, pathological need to do harm. There is little attempt in your book to grapple with the issue of how much difference any individual made to the conduct of US foreign policy during the cold war, or, to return to the concrete world of personalities, no real recognition of the implications of the fact that Kissinger spent most of his time in government serving Richard Nixon-a president who was hardly a passive bystander in all these events. In these important ways, your book is astonishingly, defiantly, and perplexingly anti-political.
You are not alone. The belief that evil deeds committed by people in power are best understood as criminal acts, violations of international law best addressed by courts of law, is one of the reigning bien pensant pieties of the age. In a recent widely-praised book, the journalist Bill Berkeley, claimed that many African tyrants, from Mobutu to Foday Sankoh, are best understood as mafia chieftains-Don Corleone wannabes.
Would that it were so. The truth is that all political violence, whether committed by Alexander the Great or Foday Sankoh, Napoleon or Saddam Hussein, could be described in this anti-political, ahistorical way. By the same token, to describe the cruelties of statesman in the language of the criminal statute books is to offer a chimerical vision of a world into which, if we only can get enough courts and enough prosecutors and policemen, we will usher that human rights utopia that you seem to believe is heralded by the formation of the International Criminal Court and the Pinochet indictment.
Don’t bet the ranch on it. In reality, this is a specious, self-congratulatory logic which mistakes setting new legal norms for the transformation of reality, and mistakes trivial steps forward for seismic shifts in the political landscape. You should know better. When you write that “we now enter upon the age when the defence of sovereign immunity has been held to be void,” you sound, I’m sorry to say, almost as callow as Mary Robinson, the UN’s human rights commissioner, whose windy optimism has made her a laughing stock from Beijing to Havana.
Even your usually inspiring prose suffers as a result of such flights of fancy. Who is this “we”? And which defence against sovereign immunity, by whom, and against what charges? A real judge would laugh your prosecutor’s brief out of court. To me, you are in the process of falling into the same trap of human rights triumphalism, into which the mainstream human rights organisations slipped some time ago.
International justice, as it is grandiloquently called, is not the cure-all its advocates believe. To the contrary, in a world of gross oversimplifications, both benign and malign, it is among the grossest. Montesquieu writes somewhere that to every problem there is one, simple solution, and it is wrong. The idea that political wickedness can be usefully considered as a matter for the courts rather than political debate, resistance, or counter-violence is just the sort of wrongheaded prescription Montesquieu would have recognised and deplored.
Leave the practical difficulties of such human rights to one side. Leave aside the fact that, by your criteria, not only Kissinger but every French statesman since Colbert (including one of my heroes, General De Gaulle) and a plurality of British foreign secretaries could have been hauled before a tribunal. Assume, for the sake of argument that justice really should be humanity’s collective categorical imperative at the expense of other, often conflicting imperatives like, well, peace. Even after you have done so, you are left with the problem that the judicialisation of the world that your book calls for, which constitutes its moral and intellectual underpinnings, effectively means a great shift toward the depoliticisation of our understanding of politics and history. In your account, the bad guys are just criminals, and you can simply hunt them down.
In an age when the general public is obsessed with personalities, your strategy, though doubtless undertaken for the best of reasons, only panders to the world as distilled by Tina Brown and Rupert Murdoch. The point was not, is not, Kissinger; it was, it is, the American empire. You know this. That is why your emphasis on one personality, and your attempt to transform Henry Kissinger into human rights public enemy number one is, whether you will forgive or not for saying so, beneath you.
29th June 2001
On 28th May of this year Henry Kissinger was visited by the Paris police at the Ritz Hotel. The gendarmes bore a summons, still extant, from Judge Roger Le Loire. It asked that Kissinger attend the Palais de Justice on the following day, to answer questions about his knowledge of Operation Condor. Operation Condor, as you well know, was the international death squad which co-ordinated the secret police terror of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, Uruguay, Brazil and Ecuador in the decades of dictatorship. This atrocious system enjoyed the collusion of the US government, most warmly in the Nixon-Kissinger years. Five Frenchmen are “missing” from that period, which gives Judge Le Loire his jurisdiction. Kissinger left town in a rush. On his return to New York, he found similar summonses from Judge Garzon in Spain and Judge Rodolfo Corral in Argentina.
Earlier, I published a short book predicting that this and other forms of legal redress would be pursued against a man whose continued immunity and impunity astonishes us both. I wrote the book in that form because, in the post-Pinochet (and indeed the imminent post-Milosevic) context, I thought we might realistically promote the term “criminal” from metaphor to job description. And, as it happens, I was right and everybody else was either wrong or not paying attention.
You don’t flatter me all that much by saying that I could have written ten different books. Of course I could (though I wouldn’t have been so wedded to anachronism as to call for the trial of Richard Nixon). But this is the most stringent test yet of the principle that no one is above the law, whether local or international. I can’t think why so many people are in such a hurry to change such a fascinating subject. I’m naturally sorry to find you among them.
1st July 2001
At the end of your book, you tell the story of an American network television producer who tried to avoid responding to your arguments by asking if there was anything “new” in the claim that Henry Kissinger was a war criminal. “The shallow demand for novelty,” you write, “is… a favourite spin tactic of the powerful.” But you are fair-minded enough to add that there is a way of “asking such a question in good faith.” You go on: “The information is not ‘new’ to the people of East Timor and Cyprus and Bangladesh and Laos and Cambodia, whose societies were laid waste by a depraved statecraft.”
I agree. But I would suggest that your apt phrase, “depraved statecraft,” radically undermines the force of a polemic which singles out Kissinger for opprobrium in each of these episodes.
It seems to me that none of the episodes in which you describe US power being used to malign ends would have played out very differently if someone other than Kissinger had been US secretary of state. Kissinger himself wrote recently that US victory in the cold war was the result of bipartisan efforts over nine US administrations. The same can be said about cold war crimes.
If I am right, then for all its merits as reportage or polemic you have written a perversely anti-political book. I don’t think that by saying this I am trying to change the subject; what I’m saying is that you’ve got the context wrong. The judicialisation of the world that you support implies the rejection of a political understanding grounded in history, and institutions in favour of the criminal code. Such a choice has been the catastrophic error of the contemporary human rights movement, and I am sorry to find you joining them.
2nd July 2001
Of the four men who concocted the wicked plan set out in the first chapter of my book-the plan to subvert the Paris peace talks on Vietnam and undermine the 1968 presidential election-Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and John Mitchell were eventually brought within the ambit of the law. Mitchell went to jail; the first attorney-general to do so. The fourth man, Henry Kissinger, has escaped judgment even though his crimes extended well into Washington DC during the Watergate nightmare.
Of the international despots who were his favoured clients-Augusto Pinochet, Suharto, Brigadier Ioannides, the coup-mongers in Bangladesh-all are in jail or awaiting (or evading) trial. I fail to see the objection to making this due process more thorough and consistent.
Of course you are right to say that there were systemic deformities in the US apparat, some of them produced by cold war exigency. However, would you not agree that by the middle of 1968 a strategic majority of the establishment had decided that the Indochina war had lost any semblance of imperial rationality? This was even Kissinger’s view until Nixon made him a secret job offer. The decision to prolong and extend that war, by covert means and with an eye to domestic political manipulation, created a presidency under which the US was in the real sense of the term a “rogue state.” I take it that you do not believe that the ruling class, or whatever you wish to call it, wanted or needed the bugs, the bagmen and the “madman theory of war.”
Kissinger was a crucial enabler of all this-he even urged Nixon to burn the tapes rather than submit to subpoena. Because of the Nixon regime’s implosion, he became for some time the president, at least for foreign policy. He is the only surviving unpunished co-conspirator of that period. The truth and justice commissions of neighbouring nations, pursuing their inquiries into the same epoch, have reached a point where they have to apply by legal means to open some hidden archives in Washington, and for a deposition of Kissinger himself. I think they deserve support in this. Don’t you? Or are such commissions just a part of the skein of inky parchment bonds which you see festooning the globe?
As you know, I have produced a history of the Cyprus question which examines the continuity of American foreign policy through several administrations. I take your point about power. Who could not. However, even the most hardened student of realpolitik has to whistle a bit when examining Kissinger’s volatile, high-risk dependence on criminal elements, and on fascist-minded forces. And how did the precipitation of a war within Nato-between Greece and Turkey-aid the west in its contest with the Warsaw pact? Did the mass murder of the Timorese help demolish the Berlin wall? Did the asphyxiation of democracy by death-squads in South America cost Brezhnev any sleep?
This is partly a battle to open the archives; the weapons of subpoena are already being aptly employed against Kissinger in DC as a consequence of the Letelier trial, and I predict there will be further legal initiatives.
You have to begin somewhere: the British Special Branch was not ordered to go round to a clinic and democratise Chile; it was told to pick up a wanted war-criminal. At the time of that arrest, you were among those who thought it would retard the opening of Chile’s politics; it has, of course, greatly assisted that process. The open trial of Milosevic has every chance of beginning the rehabilitation of Serbia. But you and I would be the first, I hope, to say that laws and precedents and principles of this kind should not be used only to discipline small fry.
The summons served on Kissinger in Paris on 28th May is the highest the finger of justice has ever reached; it touches a senior offender who is a citizen of an undefeated nation. I said this would and should happen, and I designed my book as part of the new argument needed for the new context of international law. Progress here is (like my book) uneven and inconsistent, but it is measurable. Universal jurisdiction is in; “sovereign immunity” is out. As Pinochet’s prison-visitor once said: “Rejoice! Rejoice!”
3rd July 2001
As you know perfectly well, Nixon, Agnew, and Mitchell were not punished for their complicity in the secret bombing of Cambodia or any other part of the Vietnamese catastrophe, but for violations of domestic US law connected to Watergate, or personal corruption. What has this got to do with the question of whether Henry Kissinger is or is not guilty of war crimes? Surely, such conflating of historical and legal issues is no advance on the past and no further step toward what you describe-far too credulously in my view-as the “new context” of international law.
More important, I think your claim that Kissinger was acting in defiance of an American elite consensus by continuing to prosecute the war in Vietnam, even if it is true (and I am not convinced that it is), does not answer the question of why you hold him particularly responsible for US actions at key times in Cyprus, Bangladesh, East Timor, and Chile-policies that, at least in the case of Cyprus, you yourself concede had considerable continuity across US administrations.
You ask, as if this demonstrated anything about Kissinger’s guilt or innocence, whether such policies were necessary for the US to win the cold war-something I don’t believe any more than you do. But the salient question is whether most of the American elite believed such acts to be necessary, however regrettable some may have found them. I believe that, demonstrably, they did. The whole sorry record of cold war excess, from the overthrow of Arbenz and Mossadeq in the 1950s, through Vietnam and the slaughter in Indonesia in the 1960s, to the support for the Turkish repression of the Kurds that persists to this day-more than ten years after the defeat and disappearance of the Soviet Union-supports such a view.
But my deepest anxiety is about the position you now espouse, and, more generally, about the current direction of the human rights movement. It is that by fetishising the guilt of a few individuals, you give considerable support to the consoling fiction that the cruelty with which powerful states and those who administer them apply to the destinies and dreams of weaker states and vulnerable peoples, are the exceptional acts of a few criminals.
There is little in the argument you advance in your book, and still less in the declarations of groups such as Human Rights Watch, which could rebut a person who said, “oh, Bangladesh (or Laos, or East Timor, or some fresh horror still in store for us), that’s not the fault of the system-it’s that wicked war criminal Kissinger (or Pinochet, or Suharto, or, yes, Milosevic).” As the writer, Nuruddin Farah, likes to say: “a thief cannot live among honest people.”
So “Rejoice! Rejoice!” eh? Painful as it may be to disagree with the Iron Lady, I should have thought a more appropriate response would have been: be careful what you wish for.
5th July 2001
You are verging upon error in your memory of the Nixon gang. Not only was Mitchell convicted for illegally using the CIA as a domestic politicised police force, but the first article drawn up by the House in the impeachment of the president explicitly cited the unlawful blitzing of Cambodia. It’s a great shame that these grave issues were never put to proof. I suppose if Nixon had been brought to book-and he would hardly have stood in the dock alone on the Cambodia arraignment-you would be grumbling that this left Abraham Lincoln unpunished for his suspension of habeas corpus.
I realise that I simply don’t know, and can’t tell, from your arguments, whether or not you approve the detention and trial of men like Pinochet and Milosevic. You seem to prefer saying that such things don’t go far enough, or that mere trials are surrogates for deep societal reforms. I dare say you might be right about that. But you are not entitled to the corollary, which is your assertion that supporters of universal jurisdiction propose it as a universal panacea. And it’s simple casuistry on your part to suggest that we blame everything on malign or deviant individuals.
It does sometimes happen, however, that such persons come to power. Blame “the system” all you like; the fact remains that Kissinger twice provoked-over Bangladesh and Cambodia-mass protests and mass resignations from his own state department. And the disclosures about him in the Pike Committee report had to be extracted by congressional subpoena. My point is disarmingly simple-do you think that men like this should be above the verdict of law? In saying that they should not, I don’t thereby discard or disdain other verdicts, such as those of history or political theory.
My closing point is more intuitive than forensic. If you consult the current issue of Foreign Affairs, you will find an article by Henry Kissinger on the grave dangers of universal jurisdiction. (It is an extract from his latest dreadful book.) There is no doubt that he is extremely rattled by the advances made in this direction. So are the ex-caudillos of many unhappy countries. We cannot prove that the future caudillos have been depressed as well, but that is Kissinger’s explicitly-stated fear. I don’t mean to cite Kissinger as an authority on anything, but his express misgivings surely make nonsense of your insinuation that justice for war criminals is a feelgood trip for the bien pensant.
David Rieff is completing a book about the dilemmas of humanitarian aid
Christopher Hitchens is the author of “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (Verso)