Kissinger forever

A new book documents Henry Kissinger’s contributions to the current US policy of perpetual war.

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger [Getty]
A key aspect of Kissinger's own dominant role in contemporary history is his philosophy of history itself, writes Fernandez [Getty]

In 1950, Henry Kissinger – who would go on to serve as an inordinately powerful US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State – wrote that “life is suffering, birth involves death”.

As historian Greg Grandin documents in his just-released book “Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman”, the man’s “existentialism laid the foundation for how he would defend his later policies”. In Kissinger’s view, Grandin explains, life’s inherently tragic nature means that “there isn’t much any one individual can do to make things worse than they already are”.

Of course, the victims of Kissinger-sanctioned military escapades and other forms of inflicted suffering might beg to differ. Among the countless casualties are the dead and maimed of the Vietnam War – a disaster Kissinger fought to prolong despite recognising that it was unwinnable – and the secret US war that was launched on neutral Cambodia in 1969.

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‘Power for power’s sake’

A pet project of Kissinger and then-President Richard Nixon, the bombing of that country killed more than 100,000 civilians in four years, according to Ben Kiernan, the director of Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program.

To this day, the cluster bombs with which the US saturated sections of southeast Asia continue to wreak deadly havoc.

And from Chile to Panama to Iraq to Angola to East Timor, there’s no dearth of evidence linking increased earthly suffering to Kissingerian policy and tradition, which still exert a preponderant influence over the US political establishment. (Complaints could even be filed by impoverished victims of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Kissinger unofficially helped negotiate years after leaving office.)

As Grandin notes, Kissinger had an “outsized role… in creating the world we live in today, which accepts endless war as a matter of course”.

A key aspect of Kissinger's own dominant role in contemporary history is his philosophy of history itself...


Embracing the pursuit of “power for power’s sake”, Kissinger advocated for war in order to “show that action is possible”, Grandin writes, and to thus maintain American power – the purpose of which “is to create American purpose”. With such an approach to existence, it’s perhaps no wonder the former statesman found the whole phenomenon to be rather dismal.

Campaign against history

Grandin details Kissinger’s contributions to the “rehabilitation of the national security state” in the US around a “restored imperial presidency”, which, he contends, was based on “ever more spectacular displays of violence, more intense secrecy, and an increasing use of war and militarism to leverage domestic dissent and polarisation for political advantage”.

A key aspect of Kissinger’s own dominant role in contemporary history is his philosophy of history itself, which Grandin summarises as follows: “For Kissinger, the past was nothing but ‘a series of meaningless incidents'”. According to this mindset, under no circumstances must history be seen as a collection of causal relationships capable of guiding current policy choices.

The concept of blowback, for example, is conveniently disappeared – such that Kissinger, for one, is excused from having to acknowledge the reality that US military aggression against Cambodia in fact helped propel the Khmer Rouge to power. Instead, further US military aggression was deemed to be the proper antidote to the new state of affairs.

US President Richard Nixon with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger January 21, 1974 [Getty]
US President Richard Nixon with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger January 21, 1974 [Getty]

Two and two

The forcible severing of cause from effect has also come in handy in places like Afghanistan, a country whose history is often reduced to one date: September 11, 2001. But go a bit further back in time, as Grandin does, and you’ll find that the conversion of the country into a base for transnational jihad was in no small part an effect of policies put into place by – who else? – Kissinger.

These included facilitating destabilising behaviour vis-a-vis Afghanistan by the shah of Iran, Pakistani intelligence, and Saudi Arabia, and encouraging the flow of weapons to radical Islamists.

Naturally, none of this history prompted an internal questioning of US qualifications to spearhead the post-9/11 war on terror. Now, nearly 14 years and trillions of dollars later, it might be a good time to start putting two and two together – particularly given the expansion of the war to encompass the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an entity the US helped create in the first place.

Dark days

In an interview last year with radio host Todd Zwillich, Kissinger defended his infamous bombing of Cambodia on the following grounds: “The current administration is doing it in Pakistan, Somalia”. The “it” apparently refers to Barack Obama’s covert drone strikes on countries with which the US is not at war.

But as Grandin points out, this retroactive justification fails to account for the fact that “what [Kissinger] did nearly half a century ago created the conditions for today’s endless wars”. In Cambodia and elsewhere, he “institutionalised a self-fulfilling logic of intervention”, whereby US “action led to reaction [and] reaction demanded more action”.

Of course, if power depends on the constant proof that “action is possible”, this seems like a pretty logical – if sociopathic – arrangement.

As for Kissinger’s shadow, it doesn’t appear to be budging anytime soon – portending many a dark day ahead for humanity.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.