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The Munk Debates, Henry Kissinger and Polite Company

Crossposted at opencanada.org’s Disptach blog

For the past few years I have worked on the Munk Debates. Officially, I am the Research Director. Unofficially, I help out however I can and get to be a part of a unique and fun event.

The debate last week was on China and featured Henry Kissinger and Fareed Zakaria versus Nial Ferguson and David Li debating the resolution: be it resolved, the 21st century will belong to China.

While the debate was wonderful (one of the best yet, elevated by Ferguson’s Oxbridge cleverness, Zakaria’s polished showmanship, Li’s calm confidence and Kissinger’s very presence), from the moment I learned of the pairing several months ago, I have been uneasy about Kissinger’s participation. Leaving aside the irony that Christopher Hitchens (whose 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger argues that Kissinger should be prosecuted for war crimes) participated in the previous Munk debate, I have substantial misgivings about the man and the role he plays in society. I am not absolutist about this – I recognize that he is a mainstay in elite foreign policy and media circles – but I didn’t feel entirely right about his participation.

This apprehension stems from substantial work I have done on the US bombing in Cambodia. A number of years ago, when I was in Cambodia doing research for my thesis, I was given a database by a computer technician at a de-mining NGO. On the CD, was a GIS database of all US drop points in Cambodia during the Indochinese war.  More info on this story can be found in thisWalrus piece that emerged from the research, but the short version is that I have spent a number of years studying the data and its implications with the world’s principle Cambodia historian, a Professor at Yale named Ben Kiernan.

And this is where Kissinger comes back in. One of the things we did was compare every written statement Kissinger has made on the bombing, as well as the White House transcripts that have recently been declassified, with the new bombing data. The result is that we can point to a very wide range of lies told by both Kissinger and Nixon. Based on this work, I believe that the secret bombing of Cambodia was both against US law and constitutes a war crime. I do not say this in the slightest bit lightly. I will likely be testifying in front of the Cambodian Tribunal this year to this effect (bizarrely, I am being called by the defense, which is another blog post all together).

Given all of this, here is the point I would like to make. I understand that leaders often have to do things in the interest of the state that are illegal and/or immoral. I understand that war opens, stretches and contorts the bounds of both. But if one feels that these exceptions are necessarily made, in the direst of circumstances, then I think that in order to signal the gravity of such an action, they should be held to some sort of account. To do so is not necessarily to condemn the act absolutely (though it may be), but to show the seriousness with which such acts should be treated. Perhaps this is a legal accounting, or, perhaps it is as simple as being socially ostracized. What I find off-putting about Kissinger is that not only has he remained wholly unrepentant about Cambodia and a host of other questionable actions taken in the name of national security, but that he has been coddled and ingratiated by the US elite and has profited mightily from his role as a statesman.

An analogous situation is that of a torturer. Let’s grant those who support torture the questionable premise that a person may choose to torture believing that to torture is the best possible action given the circumstances.  Even exceptional decisions should be held to account, and any person who tortures should be made to defend the urgency of his or her actions in both the courts of law and public opinion. This point for me is critical in ensuring that very rare acts do not become normalized by their acceptance. So too should be the case for illegal acts done in the name of the state.

So in my mind, even if what Kissinger has done can be defended by some grand theory of realpolitik, as matters of state security, in my view he should still be forced to account for them  (for instance, the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian civilians slaughtered by carpet bombs). At the very least, perhaps Kissinger shouldn’t be embraced by polite company.

When I met him backstage last week, I was surprised by my reaction.  I have in the past sent him my work with Ben on Cambodia and have tried unsuccessfully to get an interview. When I saw him, though, the overwhelming sense I got was that this man is, thankfully, of another age. He speaks a language that feels distant, ancient and out of touch. His quips have seen too many cocktail parties.  His reflections on China emerge from past realities and encounters.  This was made even more poignant by the fact that I’d spent the day with David Li, the very embodiment of the 21st century China – confident, brilliant, and quietly dismissive of the very Western world that the Kissingers of 20th century America built. Ironically, by reaching out to Mao, and shepherding China into the modern world, Kissinger may have helped build the very bridge that has made his world obsolete.